Editor’s Note: In the Facebook Group, we are treated to fantastic articles by the only purveyor we allow to advertise to the group, James Taylor of Waterhollow Tweed.
He recently gave us permission to reprint two such pieces.
Let’s have a smidge of retail history–the “Abercrombie & Fitch” that exists today is NOT the original company that bore this name.
The original A&F was founded in 1892 as “David T. Abercrombie Co.” after its founder, who sold expensive sporting goods. It became “Abercrombie & Fitch” by 1904 when a prominent lawyer, Ezra Fitch, bought into a partnership with Abercrombie in 1900. Fitch was less conservative than Abercrombie–who disliked innovation–and became whole owner of the company in 1907, retaining both names.
He retired in 1928, but the company continued on the path he had set: high-end sporting goods, and innovations in fabric and equipment. So successful was this mix that A&F became THE sporting store, selling not just clothing for domestic field sports, but safari gear, Heuer watches for flying, yachting, and exploring–and an extensive selection of guns for every conceivable use.
Naturally, such a company had an impressive clientele. They supplied Amelia Earhart with her flight jacket. Ernest Hemingway had an account with them, although he was only happy when buying guns… although the pigeon gun (a W C Scott Monte Carlo B) with which he killed himself in 1961 was bought in Udine, Italy–although A&F did some work on it. (Thanks to Theo. Nittis’ for help here, citing Silvio Calabi in “Hemingway’s Guns”). And JFK made their khakis famous.
But nothing lasts forever, and with the slow swing of fashion and opinion against field sports and gun use the company went bankrupt in 1976. The name was then bought and resurrected by Oshman’s Sporting Goods in 1978, who sold it on to The Limited in 1988…. and you know the grim results!
So, how to tell a REAL Abercrombie & Fitch item? Fairly easily, as the store had a distinctive label: Abercrombie & Fitch in green script on either a white or a black background. (There were, of course, variants of this, but this was their standard.) That’s the REAL Abercrombie….. Long gone as a purveyor of wonderful, functional clothing–but some of the clothing is still around…..
Editor’s Second Note: I am looking at the images of these women camping and I note that I had to drive my daughter down her school driveway this morning, maybe two blocks long, because it was cold out, but she refused to wear a jacket.
Again from Mr. Taylor:
Founded in Philadelphia in 1914, Jacob Siegel Company specialized in making classic overcoats for sale at places such as Rogers Peet, Brooks Brothers, and B. Altman.
In 1930 they developed a cloth made from alpaca, mohair and wool bonded to a cotton backing. This coat was designed for warmth and longevity, and was–like all of Siegel’s coats–extremely stylish. Siegel called these coats the “Alpacuna”, and they retailed for around $40 (roughly $650 in 2022 dollars.)
This name got them in trouble.
In 1944 the Federal Trade Commission found that the name “Alpacuna” was misleading and deceptive as it implied that the coats were made from in part from vicuna… a far more costly fibre than any of those that were actually used. Siegel’s was ordered to cease using the name immediately.
Siegel’s appealed in 1945. They cited a wealth of evidence that no-one really believes that their coats contained vicuna, including surveys conducted in stores that sold Alpacuna coats, testimony from tailors’ unions, testimony from people in the trade, and a letter from the only US manufacturer of vicuna coats noting that they had no objection to the name. (They also noted that their vicuna coats were $900, and not $40!)
But this was all to no avail–the FTC had their own evidence that showed that people were confused by the name.
However, Siegel did win a compromise. They were allowed to keep the name Alpacuna–which by then was well-recognized and valuable–but had to include under it on their labels the disclaimer “Contains No Vicuna”.But while the Alpacuna coats might have given the impression that they were more luxurious than they actually were, Siegel’s “flagship line of coats were nothing less than their tagline advertised–“The Luxury Coat”.
Siegel’s flagship line was the “Regis Rex” line of coats. Introduced in 1934, these were “The Luxury Coat”. Beautifully cut from pure fabrics these coats featured pick stitching throughout, and occasionally came with striking linings–scarlet, gold, and paisley. Their elegance and quality made them a favourite in the 1950s and 1960s with the Ivy set, who purchased them from Brooks Brothers, Rogers Peet, and B. Altman. But the large stores weren’t the only ones to carry these coats–smaller, upscale local stores did too. These catered to the local Ivy set, but also–in places such as Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx–to the jazz musicians and Italians who also adored these coats for their style and swagger.
Unfortunately, despite their success in the 1950s and 1960s–success which continued into the 1970s and 1980s through contracts to supply coats to Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom–by the early 1990s Siegel was in trouble. After a last-minute refinancing the company shifted all of its production off-shore in 1992. They also negotiated with Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom to produce… less espensive coats for the new trend towards more disposable fashion. These moves saved Siegel as a company… But the expense of it as a clothier.
It still continues, but, like Talbott and Banks before it, as merely a shadow of its former self.
Alpacuna is an example of false advertising.
Vicuña is an expensive, luxury wool because vicuñas are wild and they have to killed to obtain their fleece.
Whether we choose to worship, revere, or venerate Prof. Boyer, we recognize him as being the paragon of style in his writing and in his sartorial choices.
It’s interesting that Banana Republic, which was originally “inspired” by A&F, ended up in a similar place in the retail universe, though I don’t think the original brand faced bankruptcy when it was assimilated by the Borg. I suspect that few of today’s customers of either brand have any idea of the history. They’re in too big a hurry to buy the latest crap, after all. But at least there’s Orvis.
“…with the slow swing of fashion and opinion against field sports and gun use the company went bankrupt in 1976.”
Orvis was thriving around that time, no? Orvis persevere, as do smaller outposts like Kevin’s.
A bit of Kevin’s:
I’ve noticed Banana Republic has recently been incorporating some of its old safari and travelwear aesthetic into its newer offerings. It’s newer marketing materials even rework and reference its old catalogue designs. It’s a far cry from its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s still nice to see.
This was a great post, well-researched, informative, and enjoyable to read.
Re: “the latest crap”.
That certainly sums things up nicely.
“the latest crap”
Yep. So true.
We march on nonetheless, “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!”
Or, as Nick Carraway put it:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Mr. Taylor – Thank you for a very interesting post, including the terrific pictures. That polo coat looks just as gorgeous today as it did in the 50s or whenever it was made.
I knew the “real” Abercrombie & Fitch only from their ads in magazines like The New Yorker. By the time I visited the Madison Avenue shop of that name in the late 1980s or 90s, the damage had already been done. Thank you for the history lesson.
Whiskeydent and Nevada – Thanks for the reminder. I recall that in the late 70s or early 80s Banana Republic specialized in military surplus/safari clothing from around the world (or clothing inspired thereby), and one could buy rugged boots, safari jackets, olive drab socks, khakis and the like through their catalog. I can’t recall buying anything, but I enjoyed the illustrations which, like those in Brooks Brothers’ ads and those for many other menswear companies including A&F, were hand drawn.
Selling two c. early-70’s A&F art deco ties (all silk, made in USA) if anyone’s interested!
My favorite jacket is a 70″s brown houndstooth by Norman Hilton for AF. I can remember somtime in the late 70’s buying their “basic” OCBD in blue, yellow and blue and red university stripe in lieu of going to BB for the same at almost twice the price, as well as some excellent ties.
A&F did not show up in my neck ‘o’ the woods until the early 1980s, after two legendary stand-alone department stores folded. Even at my at-the-time young age, I detested shopping malls. I walked in there once, and my impression was that it was somewhat of a Burberry/RL meritage. It then quickly decended into soft-porn marketing of high mark-up teenage trash to suburban moms. That was forty years ago, and I have since been to a mall oh, I don’t kow, maybe ten times?
I never knew the real A&F, but I do recall the original Banana Republic. One thing that sticks in memory is the surplus Swedish Army overcoat they carried: bulletproof wool, really a bit much for NC.
To see the two, and Eddie Bauer, morph into typical mallcrap was a real downer.
BR also made an excellent Indiana Jones bomber jacket, and I still have a 1985 model that was a birthday present from the one who got away.
We had a terrific A&F store in Seattle in the Four Season’s Olympic Hotel in the late ’80’s to early ’90s. Along with them was our hometown Nordstrom, a great Polo Shop, Brooks Brothers, J. Peterman, plus a ton of independent local shops – Littler, Albert Ltd. LeRoux, Butch Blum, The Country Gentleman, and The Yankee Peddler; all gone. In each location, close to 90% of the merchandise was made in USA, UK, and Italy and anything “offshore” was typically British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Great brands like Norman Hilton; H. Freeman, Corbin, JB Britches, Talbot, R&O Hawick and Threadtex TTX. If someone had the courage to stock a store like those I’m confident there would be a market willing to pay for the quality.
My absolute favorite original Banana Republic item was the Ghurka shorts. I purchased two pairs in the early ‘80s from their store in Houston and wore the heck out of them until I simply couldn’t get the straps to reach the buckles. I also remember the stores themselves being just about as cool as the catalogs! And I still have an early Oshman’s era A&F wool-lined canvas field coat I also bought in the early ‘80s at their store in New Orleans that was incredibly well made and still in use (by my kids) today!
Teddy Roosevelt was an early customer of A&F. They supplied all of his safari goods.
Absolutely loved the old A&F. A real toy store for sportsmen (and women) and wannabes too. My father introduced me to it in the late fifties. First time I’d ever seen Madras. Bought a Madras jacket (they were inexpensive). When I got to Lawrenceville found everyone wore them and wore them well into the fall.
I recall one trip to the original A&F. I still have a beautiful, thick silk red polka dot bow tie. When I heard one was coming to my hometown I was sooo excited. Needless to say the excitement died about 2 minutes after I visited…