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Abercrombie & fitch has used marketing to transform itself from a stuffy purveyor of English-style clothing and hunting apparatus into one of the hottest chains in the U.S.

Unlike other mall-based retailers attempting to draw a broader range of consumers, Abercrombie narrowed its target to one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population: the 18-to-22-year-old children of the baby boom generation, the so-called "echo boomers" now entering college.

For even younger children, age 7 to 14, the marketer is testing a new store, abercrombie.


Although a relatively small chain with just 162 stores, Abercrombie & Fitch is positioned at price points between the Gap and its higher-priced sibling, Banana Republic. And it's going head-on against Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren.

The chain was started in 1892 by supplying outdoor gear to Teddy Roosevelt and other sophisticated New York outdoorsmen, and was purchased by the Limited in 1988. The brand took off under chief executive Michael S. Jeffries and went public in 1996.

In stores decorated with wood-trimmed, lodge-like interiors, contemporary music is blasted at corporate-specified decibel levels designed to discourage conversation. Service is proffered by "brand representatives" the company believes embody the brand's aspirational Greek fraternity/sorority lifestyle and attitude.

Instead of advertising on TV, outdoor or fashion's traditional magazine venues, Abercrombie's only media messages are found in an eclectic mix of just three magazines -- Out, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

Its main marketing functions are carried out by Sam N. Shahid, president-creative director of agency Shahid & Co., New York, who said the brand might be moving to TV or radio "if we can do it in a clever way somehow or another."


Mr. Shahid has focused the company's marketing face on b&w photographs of frolicking college students, his version of updated Norman Rockwell depictions of Americana. Various executions, sprinkled with sexual undertones, are intended to appeal to both heterosexuals and homosexuals.

The shots are displayed in oversized posters in-store and circulated through a "magalog," which now has a circulation of 1 million from a collection of mailing lists and with about 100,000 paid subscriptions.

Far from a simple selling of merchandise, Abercrombie & Fitch this spring "celebrated" streaking with a photo revealing a distinct "shadow" of pubic hair. This fall, the publication offered students directions for drinking games. After a complaint from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the company agreed to send postcards to students urging responsible drinking.

"We believe the controversy likely created more brand awareness among A&F's target customer," said Kindra J. Hix, analyst with NationsBanc Montgomery Securities, San Francisco.

`They've read Calvin's book," said one observer, referring to designer Calvin Klein's controversial ads over the years. Mr. Shahid was VP-creative director at that designer's in-house CRK Advertising from 1981 to '92.

Even if Abercrombie & Fitch is taking a marketing page from CK, that hasn't stopped it from fiercely protecting what it considers the essentials of its own practices and its brand. The chain this year filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, against American Eagle Outfitters, charging the retail rival with knocking off Abercrombie's color combinations and marketing. The suit is pending.

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