World’s Strangest

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The Quick 10: What 10 Major Retailers Once Sold

If David Abercrombie had known what his store was going to become when he founded it in 1892, I’m sure he would have been stunned. It’s amazing what years of evolution and buyouts can do to a company’s original vision – here’s what Abercrombie and Fitch and nine other clothing retailers sold when their doors first opened.

1. When Abercrombie Co. opened in Manhattan in 1892, it sold excursion goods. In fact, it sold adventurer-type items to no less than Teddy Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. As it became more popular (and after Fitch came on), the flagship store on Madison Avenue housed a shooting range, a golf school with a resident pro, a kennel for cats and dogs, and a small pool for fly-fishing lessons.

2. Although Banana Republic also originally had a similar adventure-safari-type theme, the difference is that they sold clothes that looked the part whereas Abercrombie & Fitch sold functional items. The original BR got most of its sales through a hand-illustrated catalog that included mostly fictional accounts about trips to exotic locations (think that’s where Elaine got her writing inspiration for J. Peterman?). When stores were added, they carried out the safari theme wholeheartedly with real Jeeps, exotic plants and fog.

3. Perhaps a sign of the times, the first Gap store sold nothing but Levi’s and LPs. It was located in San Francisco and the year was 1969, so go figure.

4. In 1920, at the ripe old age of 21, Eddie Bauer opened “Eddie Bauer’s Tennis Shop” in Seattle. It was only open during the tennis season, but was successful enough to allow him to expand the store to handmade golf clubs and fishing tackle. That’s when he changed the store name to “Eddie Bauer’s Sport Shop.”

5. A relative newcomer to the group, Forever 21 was only founded in 1984. The couple who owned Forever 21 imported clothing from their native South Korea to sell specifically to Los Angeles Korean Americans at their store, then named Fashion 21. To their surprise, their audience ended up being much broader than they originally thought; people of all ethnicities loved the fashions and they expanded to what they are today (that would be Forever 21, XXI Forever, Heritage 1981, Gadzooks21, Reference, For Love21, Twelve by Twelve, Faith21, Love21, Forever 21 Twist, HTG81 and 21Men. Whew.).

6. Prior to Kohl’s Department Store, Max Kohl opened Kohl’s supermarket which eventually became Kohl’s Food Stores. Unlike our other stores, instead of abandoning his original concept entirely, Kohl expanded into department stores and kept both. Kohl’s Food Stores were sold to A&P in 1983 and were known as Kohl’s II, but those are now defunct.

7. Talk about a specific market: when Bloomingdale’s opened in 1861, the brothers were selling hoop-skirts.
8. I’ve acquired quite the Gymboree habit. If it had never developed beyond its original purpose, I’d have much more of a paycheck than I do now. In 1976, Joan Barnes created Gymboree Play and Music Program because she thought there was no good safe spot for kids and parents to play and exercise together. They didn’t add clothes into the mix until 1986.

9. John Nordstrom struck gold during the Yukon gold rush period and used his money to start a shoe store called Wallin & Nordstrom in 1901. Carl Wallin was the owner of the shoe repair shop next door to Nordstrom’s shoe store. Although the company had expanded to eight stores by 1958, they were still selling nothing but shoes. It wasn’t until the Nordstrom sons acquired Best Apparel of Seattle in 1963 that they branched out.

10. The JCP Store is what James Cash Penney’s first big business venture was called – it was a dry goods store.

An extra, just for fun: Bergdorf Goodman was originally just a couple of guys running a tailoring business – Herman Bergdorf and Edwin Goodman.

Do you know of any others? Abercrombie & Fitch really threw me for a loop.


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