Sunday, June 26, 2022 Jun 26, 2022
86° F Dallas, TX

THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE OF ABERCROMBIE & FITCH

The sporting goods store where presidents shop, adventurers suit up and tradition lives on
By Robert Murphy |

My father never took me camping.

But I managed to grow up with less than my quota of insecurities because he did the next best thing: He took me to Abercrombie & Fitch.

When other 10-year-olds were swatting flies, carving their initials in trees and carrying on with the elements in some crowded campsite, I was wandering through the most memorable adventure emporium in the world. In fact, as I get older, all of my autumnal visits to A & F tend to blend together: pastel colors, fly rods, tents, tailgates, fireplaces and overstuffed leather chairs, bloody marys and exercise equipment, and always a remembrance of the most unique shopping experiences I have ever had. No wood-chucks and walleyes for me. My dad let me fantasize about African safaris and deep-sea fishing at that great palace of dreams, Abercrombie & Fitch.

All of the history of A & F was unfamiliar to me then, but I was sorry each time I had to leave New York City and return home. In 1980, therefore, when the first A & F in Dallas opened in Caruth Plaza, I was delighted. With the opening of a second A & F in Valley View last month, I am thrilled. Farewell Ice Age. Dinosaurs. So long plastic raincoats, Herbert Philbrick, arrowheads and dropsy. Welcome to Dallas, A&F.

But once upon a time, long ago, before Don McNeil marched around the breakfast table. . . and long before Ron Chapman had become a tragedian, there was a place called Manhattan. In 1892, David T. Abercrombie and his partner, a sporting city slicker named Ezra Fitch, opened a small hunting-gear shop. They soon moved their small shop to its legendary location at Madison and 45th Street Where the Blazed Trail Crosses the Boulevard.

“How nice,” Fitch opined, “if I could stop being a lawyer and spend my life in the great outdoors.” He insisted on a new kind of store. Tents were pitched on the floor, a campfire was built in the corner. An experienced guide, always in attendance, informed interested customers of the most efficient ways to bank a fire and make it give heat without smoke, and of the esoteric fact that a bed of spruce boughs (Sonny Bryan hadn’t invented mesquite yet) was a warmer resting place that a bed of balsam.

The clerks were not professional salesmen; they were outdoorsmen, experts in their fields, and dedicted to the education of the public. Talking was their pleasure. Selling was an incidental chore, performed only at the customer’s insistence.

The company’s first catalog invited visitors to the store with Kipling’s questions:

Have you smelled wood smoke at twilight? Have you smelled the birch log burning?

The second catalog, issued in 1905, offered these erudite qualifications:

The best, when one considers that in the exigencies of the adventerous life, quality may be of vital importance.”

The New York store was a model in bucolic razzle-dazzle. Teddy Roosevelt outfitted his first big-game African safari there. Peary was set up by the two partners for his trip to the North Pole. Admiral Byrd, Ernest Hemingway and Amelia Earhart all turned to A & F for proper outfitting. Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Clark Gable regularly shopped there. Presidents Taft and Harding bought their golf clubs. Hoover and Eisenhower purchased fishing tackle. Wilson shopped for riding gear. Even silent Calvin Coolidge bought an electric horse.

By the Forties and Fifties, it was, quite simply, the finest gun store in the world. Today, there may be a store with more guns on the rack, but I’ll wager that there’s no store, nor will there ever be, that sold guns-great guns-the way Abercrombie’s did. On the seventh floor of that New York store, the gun was sacred. . discussed in somber tones, admired from a distance, handled lovingly. The seventh floor was a sanctuary for arms.

One day, former President Hoover came onto the eighth floor requesting assistance from the store manager. “I’m going fishing with President Eisenhower in the Black Hills, and I want you to pick out some flies for me so that I can catch more fish than he does.”

The manager did, and two weeks later he got a phone call from President Eisenhower. “I understand that President Hoover has been by to see you and that you have selected for him a certain number of flies for our fishing trip. Well, sir, I would like you to do the same for me, and I would like you to make sure that the flies you pick for me will ensure that I catch more fish than he does.”

History hasn’t recorded who was the top man on the trip, but when Ike got out of office he made a special trip, secret servicemen in tow, to thank the manager for his help.

By the Sixties, the A & F had expanded to nine branches and sales were booming. The store even had its first “sale” in 1968. The older clients trembled as the store tried to straddle the fence between fine sporting goods and an upscale department store.

Things deteriorated in the Seventies and by 1976, A & F had sunk into bankruptcy. “Well, Ezra, all good things must come to an end” read the ad for the closeout sale; in November 1977, Abercrombie & Fitch closed its doors.

But the legend didn’t die.

Oshman’s Inc. bought the name and goodwill, and in 1979 opened the first of the new A & F stores in Beverly Hills. A year later, the Dallas store opened. The next year, the Houston store followed. With the opening of the second Dallas store in Valley View, and the San Diego store in November, the total number is 16.

The new stores and catalog combine the best of old and new, recapturing the glory years and merging them with sound, contemporary merchandising and marketing philosophy. Actually, Abercrombie now has two kinds of stores in Dallas: the complete department store of sporting goods in Caruth Plaza and the “Best of A & F” (an edited version of the complete emporium) in Valley View. The latter features a large gift department, sportswear and active-wear for men and women, and selected equipment for exercise and outdoor activities. Guns, fishing, tennis and golf items can be found in the Caruth store.

The merchandising in both stores, as well as in the catalog, is traditional A & F: classic, familiar, of unimpeachable integrity. There is, for example, the tale of a man who bought a relatively inexpensive barometer. When it arrived at his Southhampton, Long Island, home on a particularly beautiful afternoon, the needle firmly registered “hurricane.” This was not, the buyer indignantly concluded, in the A & F tradition of quality products. So the man wrote a scathing letter of complaint and went directly into town to mail it. When he returned, his house had blown away, and the barometer with it.

An examination of the current Aber-crombie inventory could fill these pages and prove nothing more than that the store exists for people of a sporting persuasion who are able to pay for what they want, and apparently want a great deal.

A & F has built a reputation for pro-viding state-of-the-art merchandise in every department. As Americans moved into the Seventies and Eighties with a focus on physical fitness, Aber-crombie has remained ahead of the market, providing the best to shape and tone the body.

Amerec’s 610 Precision Rowing Machine has set the standard for exercise equipment, providing the ultimate in aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. The 610 Precision Rowing Machine gives the body a total workout in one continuous movement. The unique rhythmic rowing action strengthens heart and circulatory systems (aerobic). All the major and minor muscle groups in the back, stomach, arms, shoulders and legs are also worked. Because of the total body workout, the 610 Precision Rowing Machine is the perfect supplement to other conditioning programs.

Heavy Hands introduces an exercise product that is aerobic in principle, and includes more kinds of fitness than other forms of exercise,” according to Dr. Leonard Schwartz. His book Heavy Hands, The Ultimate Exercise, describes movements that involve virtually every muscle in the body at the same time. His concept is called “panaerobic exercise.” The Heavy Hands aerobic weights are lighter than conventional dumb bells and are moved or pumped through a high number of repetitions with combined arm, leg and trunk movememts.

The Abercrombie patron is outfitted not only with equipment, but also with a total “fashion look.” “Abercrombie & Fitch was the first store to introduce the Catcher line to the Texas market,” according to designer Nancy Bentsen. Bentsen (Lloyd Bentsen’s niece) always designs with the texas Woman in mind. Abercrombie & Fitch typifies our customer’s look.. .a look of casual elegance.” Originally just an active sportswear line, Catcher has expanded to offer a total wardrobe. All are 100% natural fiber.

Sawyer of Napa’s shearling coat provides a statement of classic taste and inimitable style. Sawyer of napa uses only the finest furs and old world craftsmanship to produce handmade garments of exceptional quality. The Sawyer of Napa collection, for men and women, is made from the richest, softest lamb’s fleece.

Two world-famous design specialists united to develop an entire collection of extraordinary sunglasses: Carrer Porshe Design. Each design includes European precision-ground, optically perfect wide-vision lenses. Carrera Porshe Design offers matte black interchangeable to 18K gold frames. All the sunglasses are numbered, registered and come with a custom-fitted case.

The least expensive item in the catalog-an $8.50 pair of shorts-can be worn while exercising on the most expensive item-a $4,500 Aerobic Stairmaster. The $275 hassocks in a rich, gleaming handsewn leather, have graced every A & F window since WWI. The bright-eyed teddy bear ($225 for the grizzly cub) is so big that when one man bought one in Dallas for his daughter, the airlines made him buy a ticket for his furry friend.

Tournament croquet sets are from $225 to $1200. The $225 set comes with a hunter-green travel bag for easy transport from yard to yard; the other sets are packaged in a light-weight wooden box. The croquet sets are English imports from the oldest and original manufacturer of this equipment in the world. The Olde English wicker picnic basket has been a standard at A & F since 1892. Recently, when a customer complained to a store executive that the golf balls were overpriced and probably no better than his usual 75-cent balls, the executive gave him three sample balls and told him to play with them at Preston Trails that afternoon. The next day, the customer called and said he not only had a hole-in-one, but also had bettered his previous best score by two strokes. Twelve of these balls, in a brass-hinged box, cost $16.

Abercrombie & Fitch is still run for people who want to have fun. Both the new Dallas stores capture the romance of the outdoors, presenting hunting, fishing, and exercise as right and honorable things to do. And as Abercrombie & Fitch says, “The adventure goes on.”