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A rap star may have just revived Abercrombie via Instagram

Is Lil Uzi Vert in A&F the 2016 version of Snoop Dogg in Tommy Hilfiger?

We’ve all seen rappers flex on Instagram when scrolling our feeds. As such, many may have found themselves unmoved a couple of weeks ago when thumbing past an image of budding Philadelphian rap star Lil Uzi Vert sprawled across a plush hotel bed covered in hundred dollar bills. Another day, another arm muscle emoji. But if they’d paused to scroll back up, they might have noticed something different about the image. Though attention may have been diverted by the sheen from the holographic Pokemon cards strewn about the scene, the real eye-catcher is the rapper’s ensemble, a departure from his past Vetements and VLONE looks: full look Abercrombie & Fitch.

Let’s rewind, back to the simpler, pre-recession days of the mid-00s, a time of George Bush, Laguna Beach, and Von Dutch trucker hats. Remember Abercrombie, the brand that proudly built its identity on exclusivity, on the stereotype of the preppy jock that used to bully you? With former CEO Mike Jeffries insisting that their clothes were only meant for “cool kids – the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends”, A&F was an institution in the time when now-shrivelling malls were the control centres of youth culture. They sold graphic logo t-shirts, put nearly-nude frat boys and sorority girls in their campaigns and actually hired ripped topless men to stand outside their stores (even if their customers were the kind of people to use the phrase ‘no homo’). For a good while, Abercrombie & Fitch was ubiquitous, a signifier of rich parents, sporting extracurriculars and a propensity for wearing flip flops in all weather conditions.

That was then. This year, Abercrombie won the accolade of being the most hated brand in America. Once boasting over 270 stores, the company now has plans to close the doors of up to 60 of those before the end of 2017. In August, it posted losses which saw its stocks take a tumble of 20 per cent, and this week, it announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong entirely. Abercrombie’s difficulties are due in part to declining foot traffic in its major flagship stores, as well as within the hundreds of malls across the nation that the retailer has called home.

“Abercrombie’s ‘exclusive’ image became a joke rather than something to aspire to – like when they tried to pay Jersey Shore cast members not to wear their garments because the association may be ‘distressing’ to fans”

But really, it’s failed to adapt to the shifting tastes and consumption habits of young people – while some teens are still hooked, A&F has continuously fallen short of capturing the interest of 20-somethings who have seemingly decided to leave the brand as a relic of their past. Its “exclusive” image became a joke rather than something to aspire to – a case in point being when they tried to pay Jersey Shore cast members not to wear their garments because the association may be “distressing” to fans. What’s more, in the age of Tumblr and identity politics, many young people may simply be too woke for a company whose CEO delivered such soundbites as: “A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes), and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” Young guys these days are more interested in Palace’s tongue-in-cheek humour than A&F’s snobbery.

In response to their financial straits, the company has focused recently on reforming their image and reputation, abandoning the shirtless bros and seeking to re-incorporate their history as a sporting outfitter, as well as including more models of colour as exemplified in one of their more recent denim campaigns. But it doesn’t seem likely that this shift from exclusion to inclusion is the reason that a colourful-dread-crowned, septum-pierced rap artist is copping their clothing.

As disjointed as it appears to see Uzi in A&F, the marriage between traditionally preppy brands and hip-hop has been longstanding. In the late 80s and early 90s, Polo Ralph Lauren was adopted by the hip-hop community en masse, becoming the unofficial uniform for renegade street gangs like New York’s Lo-Lifes, despite their very different roots to the country club crowd the brand had built its reputation on. Then there’s Tommy Hilfiger – who, as the story goes, saw a yearly profit rise of $90m after Snoop Dogg wore one of its shirts for a 1994 performance on SNL. Such appropriation by these groups has only added to these brands cultural caché. So could Uzi help Abercrombie bounce back?

Unless this is some genius #sponsored marketing on behalf of A&F, there’s a good chance the young musician’s IG post was an act of sartorial satire, the likes of which have become increasingly popular in fashion as of late. Take Vetements’ version of the Juicy Couture velour, or the high fashion Crocs that Christopher Kane debuted at LFW. Or how rapper Lil Yachty, who has seemingly endorsed a boating brand long-abandoned by the hip hop community in Nautica; a move that ultimately landed him a gig as the star of their new campaign with Urban Outfitters. In Uzi’s case, for a young rapper to wear what was once the uniform of homogenous white suburban America is tongue-in-cheek, and undeniably subversive.

There’s a good chance that the rapper would have been seen as one of the undesirables former CEO Jeffries didn’t want associated with the brand – but consider the tastes of the very target audience Abercrombie are trying to reach. Many of the young adults that are currently gravitating away from the brand have grown up with hip hop’s presence being far greater in the mainstream – many of these people will have had hip hop videos flashing across their TV screens and spewing from their sound systems for years. Where a hip hop show might have had very few traditionally “preppy” faces in the crowd before, you will now be hard-pressed to find yourself at a concert without a sea of amped blondes and brunettes shouting every word to songs in sync with their favourite rap star.

So what’s next? Is this the heralding of an ironic prep renaissance? It will be interesting to see whether there’s a ripple effect through Uzi’s fans – maybe there’ll be a few Abercrombie hoodies in the crowd at his next show (only paired with the new SF Air Force One Highs, rather than some brown leather flip flops). Perhaps Abercrombie’s days aren’t over, and like those all-American brands before it, it will find a new audience amongst rap fans. Will stealing the style of past it Young Republicans become a defining trend of post-Trump USA? You heard it here first.