NEW ALBANY, Ohio — With his scruffy beard, beanie and propensity to accentuate his thoughts with the word, “dude,” Aaron Levine doesn’t fit into the typical mold of an Abercrombie & Fitch executive.
But there are high hopes — and major pressure — resting on his shoulders as he sets out to revamp the design ethos of the specialty store retailer, which has been struggling to reinvent itself for several years now.
The senior vice president of design for Abercrombie & Fitch, who joined the retailer from Club Monaco just less than two years ago to revamp its men’s collection, was given responsibility for the women’s line as well when Kristina Szasz exited the brand in December.
And while the fall collection to be revealed today marks his official debut into the competitive women’s arena, Levine said he drew heavily on the experience of the team at the Ohio-based company to help pave his way.
“It’s stressful,” he admitted, “but it’s also rewarding.”
At first glance, Levine may seem out of his element, giving an exclusive preview at the company’s sprawling campus in this leafy suburb outside of Columbus, surrounded by hoards of clean-cut young employees who either trot on foot or hop a golf cart to move quickly between the buildings.
But the Virginia native, who spent the bulk of his career in New York working at Hickey Freeman, Rogues Gallery and Jack Spade before joining Club Monaco in 2011 for a four-year stint, has settled in admirably. He and his family relocated to a small town about 25 minutes from the corporate headquarters, where he can drive through farmland rather than the interstate — and also pick up a mean taco — as he ponders the direction of the venerable chain, which traces its history back 125 years.
His first collections for men were well received, but until now, he’d never designed women’s wear. So when he was charged with adding women’s to his design duties, he quickly set out to “recalibrate the women’s team.” He sought people “who understood the heritage of the brand and how to evolve it.” He checked that box by hiring staff who had previously worked at A&F but had moved on to other companies.
“We reached out to them and they were excited to return,” he said.
So while the company is experiencing the same hefty challenges as the rest of the retail industry, Levine believes that by “surrounding yourself with smart, talented people with experience under their belt,” it’s possible to overcome the tough times.
They have indeed been tough. Although the brand was founded in 1892 as an expedition outfitter, for more than two decades it was run by Michael Jeffries, whose vision of the brand was unwavering. Shirtless male models were stationed at the entrance to the stores, which were dark, filled with loud music and the overpowering odor of the company’s trademark scent. But the magic wore off with the fickle teens and sales began to dive.
Jeffries exited at the end of 2014, a new chief executive officer and brand presidents were appointed, the sexualized marketing images were revamped to have a more all-American feel and the stores are seeking to attract a slightly older customer rather than teens.
The makeover at A&F is an ongoing process as the company continues to try to turn itself around. In January, the retailer said it would eliminate 150 corporate positions as it works to right-size the business. In the fourth quarter, the corporation, which also includes the Hollister chain, reported net income fell 15.5 percent to $44.8 million on sales of $1.04 billion. Comparable-store sales for the A&F brand were down 13 percent.
With new group president Stacia Andersen on board to focus on the business end, Levine and his team set out to reinvigorate the merchandise offering.
“When challenges arise, we make decisions thoughtfully with a cool head, not flippantly,” Levine said, adding that the team often “hits pause” as it ponders the right path forward to a “thoughtful solution.”
“We started with clarifying our reference points and what we stand for as a brand,” he added. That translated into elements of repurposed vintage, military, preppy and Old School varsity. And layered on top of that is “the gravy,” some pieces that speak to the trends of the season, or “savory elements that feel special,” he said.
He said the conversation included asking what made A&F’s denim, sweaters, dresses, trousers, fleece and other key pieces distinct. “They need to show our handwriting and follow the moral compass of the brand,” he said.
The men’s and women’s collections hang together seamlessly, but for the girls, there is an added “pretty and feminine element.” Price points have remained moderate except for some of the more exclusive product that serves as a halo for the brand.
“But there’s also a tension — pretty off of something gritty,” he said.
Logos are also making a comeback this season, and Levine added a few graphic elements where it makes sense. “We’re using logos as an accent where they support the clothes. We’re not making clothes that support the logo,” he said.
“Abercrombie” in a velvet appliqué across a sweatshirt, for instance, “feels collegiate and straightforward,” not gimmicky.
Among Levine’s favorite pieces for men are a down-filled exhibition parka, a water-resistant military-surplus pant and a striped oxford varsity shirt that “feels intrinsically American.” Duffel coats in double-faced wool, a cashmere rugby shirt, flight pants and a wool topcoat are also highlights, he believes.
For women, a glen plaid topcoat, a sherpa jacket, a cotton trenchcoat, a broken twill “dad” coat, lace dresses with cutwork, beat-up boyfriend jeans and lightweight dresses with micro patterns are hallmarks, he believes. Soft beefy hand-knit merino sweaters are “the top of the pyramid” product, although the retail price is still only $140.
With 281 stores in the fleet, many of them large flagships, Levine and the team designed several hundred sku’s in women’s and a couple hundred in men’s. “There’s a lot of floor space to fill,” he said, “both tactile and virtual.”
There are four primary deliveries every year, but those are complemented by monthly and even weekly additions, requiring a constant flow of newness.
The first of the fall goods starts hitting stores in July, which is why Levine included some lightweight — and light-colored pieces — in the assortment. “They keep the stores light and optimistic,” he said, “and keep the levity.”
A few of those stores are getting a major overhaul as the retailer rolls out a new concept that made its debut in the Polaris Fashion Mall in Columbus in mid-February. The store is lighter, brighter, smaller at 4,860 square feet, quieter — and the sexual imagery that had defined the brand for decades is nearly nonexistent.
Another six stores with the new design are on tap for this year and other units will get components of the look.
Although business remains challenging, A&F’s ceo Fran Horowitz said the company will “continue our investments in strategies to provide our customers with compelling new experiences through a clearly defined brand voice, to position our business for sustainable growth.”
And establishing a new fashion direction is another important step in that journey.