I can still smell it. On my 13th birthday I got the train into the city with some friends from school. Our only mission was to get into the Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) London flagship store and get a Polaroid with the guys by the door. Annie and I patiently waited in the queue of teenage girls until it was our turn to walk over and nervously wrap our arms around a man towering over us. He was wearing a coat over his bare abs. I smiled so much, my eyebrows leaped into my forehead. Looking back, it all feels a bit ridiculous really, but it smells of white bergamot: sweet and slightly woody.
Back then, this felt like the ultimate teenage experience. We spent what felt like hours trying to feel our way through the tightly packed store. It was dark, with the only light shining down (as if from heaven) on the piles of clothes stacked neatly on tables and against tall walls. We sprayed the iconic 'Fierce' in the scent section, looked at the T-shirts – the cheapest items, which were still out of our budget – and tried them on in the changing rooms. Even if you couldn’t afford to buy anything, just being there was aspirational – the topic of many sleepovers to come.
Though Abercrombie was distinctly American, focusing on the laid-back rich rich California style, it became a hit with the youth in the UK, paving the way for a new era of British prep in the form of its slightly cheaper relation Hollister and the competing Jack Wills. Before we knew it, the bird logos were everywhere. Teens sported Hollister’s seagull and Jack Wills’ pheasant on their chests as a point of pride. In the south of England, where I lived, it was the uniform to wear to every birthday party or the park, where GCSE students would gather to drink blue WKD or Smirnoff Ice. These clothes weren’t cheap and made regular appearances on Christmas wish lists.
Yet there was a dark side. These brands were intimidating, becoming mainstream gatekeepers of what was 'cool' to an impressionable audience through their raunchy fashion campaigns and the people they hired to work in the shops. Overwhelmingly the campaigns would feature slim, white and athletic models pictured engaging in activities often associated with the middle and upper classes such as frolicking in manor houses, skiing and polo. With Hollister’s parent company, A&F, repeatedly criticised for its lack of diversity and Jack Wills' "fabulously British" strapline, these preppy brands aimed at UK teenagers set a specific beauty standard that was often unreflective of the country’s wider and diverse society.
There have been many detailed explorations of American prep and A&F’s grip on the States, with the recent Netflix documentary White Hot analysing how the brand in its prime was discriminatory and exclusionary. Who can forget CEO Mike Jeffries’ infamous words? "A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong," he said in a 2006 interview. "Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." It’s not surprising that a few years later it was discovered that the company burned unsold clothes rather than donating them to charity. In response, an A&F manager said: "[They don’t] want to create the image that just anybody, poor people, can wear their clothing. Only people of a certain stature are able to purchase and wear the company name."
With enough distance, it feels crucial to analyse what happened when preppy brands popped up in the UK. After all, the fashion craze lasted nearly a decade and undoubtedly left an imprint on many of our lives. How did British prep become so popular, what did it symbolise and why did it fall off the face of the Earth?
I got a personal look into Hollister when I was hired to work there as an 'impact' in 2012. Impacts worked in the stockroom and occasionally on the shop floor during busy periods. At the time I was excited to get a job there — it was common knowledge that recruitment was largely based on looks and as any 17-year-old with low self-esteem would have done, I took it as a huge compliment. Yet looking back there were weird hierarchies among staff and the shop was not size-inclusive: women’s sizes went up to a large, which was a UK size 14.
I joined at a time when there was a real diversity push because many lawsuits – too many to list here – had been filed against the company. Some of the worst ones included a British woman suing Abercrombie in 2009 for forcing her to work in a stockroom because the cardigan she wore to cover her prosthetic arm didn’t fit with Abercrombie’s 'look policy'. Then, in 2012, Hollister lost a legal battle against disabled shoppers because the storefronts weren’t wheelchair-friendly. In 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of Samatha Elauf, who was turned away from a job at an A&F store in Oklahoma in 2008 because her hijab once again violated the 'look policy'.
Despite straplines like Jack Wills' 'fabulously British', these preppy brands aimed at UK teenagers set a specific beauty standard that was often unreflective of the country's wider and diverse society.
What I remember most is the implicit messaging around 'hotness'. Staff were divided into three categories: 'models' who worked at the front of the store, 'impacts' who worked at the back and dealt with more manual tasks like stock checks and refilling the shop floor, and overnight staff who were never seen by customers and were largely made up of an immigrant workforce. These hierarchies felt rigid, especially because you could tell who was a model and who was an impact depending on the shoes they wore. Flip-flops were for models only; impacts had to wear trainers. I remember wearing flip-flops to one of my first shifts out of confusion and being told off. Being a model was considered a top job, with regular castings across stores for the opportunity to be in the next season’s fashion campaign.
In the early noughties it was revealed that some staff of colour in the US felt they weren’t being scheduled because their managers were racist or that they were often hired in roles that kept them in the back of the store. These staff sued the brand. Though Abercrombie settled the case and vowed to hire 25 diversity recruiters, a vice president for diversity and to pursue benchmarks when hiring, I wonder if these measures were enough. When I worked at Hollister, there were also strict rules about looks, with staff sent home if they didn’t have the 'natural' look. As everyone except the managers was on a zero-hour contract, people’s shifts could get cut if they weren’t liked – although it’s impossible to quantify, a decision like that is very much dependent on a system which allows existing racial and class biases to have an impact.
Elena is in her mid 20s now. She worked at a Hollister while she was at university and agrees that there were strange working practices. She got scouted in a club, one of the places where Hollister managers would recruit good-looking people to work in their stores. She too was hired as an impact and recalls the weird embarrassment surrounding the position. "I remember someone I didn’t even know that well teasing me about it and how frowned upon it was for impacts to wear flip-flops," she says. "You were like the offcuts, you were allowed to wear the uniform and were still visible when you brought the stock down but you weren’t hot enough to be there all the time."
Elena remembers how staff genuinely believed they could be real models during the scouting days for the campaigns. "If you were an impact, you would just see all your colleagues get sent to auditioning-type things while you were just looking on and thinking, Oh my god." Elena was later rehired as a model and insists it wasn’t all that. "They put me on the tills and that was the first time I admitted I wasn’t a model before. I was scared they would [move me] back downstairs [to the stockroom]." She recalls that some impacts would get moved up to being a model, like her friend Caroline, who developed anorexia after going travelling. "She came back really skinny and then they made her a model." Elena also worked with twins, the slimmer one of whom was hired as a model. "It’s messed up when you actually look back," she says.
While the Hollister environment was toxic for staff in both mine and Elena's experience, Jack Wills was steeped in classist undertones. The "fabulously British" brand ran campaigns featuring mostly white and slim models partying in summer and winter, reading The Sunday Times in countryside estates and attending sporting events. It held annual varsity polo events and one year sponsored the Oxford and Cambridge rugby varsity. "It was popular during the Made In Chelsea era, there were a lot of Union Jacks everywhere – poshness was the British 'identity' they wanted to sell," says Elena, who had the unique experience of working at Jack Wills when she wasn’t working at Hollister. As the two were competing brands, staff often couldn’t work at both at the same time. The ex-employee reckons that in the new era of Facebook, Jack Wills came up through small pockets of elite society, like boarding school kids, spreading like wildfire through tagged photos.
There was also the desired position of being a Jack Wills seasonnaire – a brand ambassador who would run around university campuses and do PR for the company. "They all used to go off to do retreats or a season and Jack [Wills] used to have parties at ski resorts or Salcombe. They’d do content for YouTube videos and they got paid extra for doing it," Elena explains. "It was definitely coveted and a cool thing to be, seasonnaires would get to go on retreats, get drunk and party loads."
Benny, 29, worked at the Jack Wills store in Edinburgh between 2012 and 2014. "In comparison to other work experiences, it was very cliquey," he says, remembering a group of people who hung out together as if "their lifestyle was the brand" and feeling like he didn’t belong in the group. "If you look back at lookbooks it was all about people in rowing clubs or playing polo and other private school sports. Then there were campaigns with Skins-esque parties but in fancy schools. It was clearly pertaining to a certain aesthetic."
According to Benny, the "vibe was very preppy and public school" and staff were very blonde and tanned. "People came in imagining what 'British culture' was like based on these preppy clothes, blazers, chinos – it was all bright colours and makes me cringe looking back," he reflects.
What made this mass celebration of the rich so sellable in the UK? I spoke to Ellie Mae O’Hagan from CLASS thinktank to get a sense of the rise and fall of British prep within the socioeconomic context of the time. "It was an era where there was no mainstream discussion about class. Tony Blair’s speech in 1996 stated that there were no more workers against the boss and that we were all on the same side, and John Prescott said that 'we’re all middle class now' in 1997," she explains. "We were living in a time when [the awareness of] the sort of class conflict of the 1970s and perhaps of the modern day didn’t really exist." O’Hagan reflects on how being super rich was acceptable and even desirable because those people were seen as a force of good in society. The argument went that they paid a lot of tax (even if they didn’t).
The aspiration was so superficial because it was a minimum wage job projecting the idea of something very exclusive while immigrant labour was being invisibilised.
Ellie Mae O’HagaN
Jack Wills and Hollister also reflected the era in which they thrived because there was tangible, stable economic growth and people’s lives did get better. "There are statistics which show that the middle class did get bigger during that time and some people were generally more well off. So there was an idea that everyone can be a winner if they bought something from one of these fancy shops," O’Hagan continues. It was a time when holidays abroad became more accessible as easyJet and Ryanair rose in popularity and the high street saw an expansion of restaurant chains like Pizza Express and Wagamama.
O’Hagan cites writing on this era which depicted the idealised British citizen as a white, middle-class person. "There was a lot of emphasis on social mobility, which usually meant a handful of talented, working-class kids becoming middle-class and that sort of therefore justifying the whole system," she says. "If you weren’t part of this middle-class success story, it was because you as an individual were a lazy, feckless criminal."
How did the popularity of British prep contribute to these narratives? "Brands like this were selling aspiration to people who couldn’t afford to be part of the elite of society but they did it through selling the elite experience. I suppose it makes sense that within the shop, they would try and reproduce the elite experience by surrounding you with incredibly hot people." O’Hagan makes the point that rich people have more resources to manage their health: gym memberships, expensive food, cosmetic treatments, possibly surgery. And the way these brands treated their staff is hardly surprising to her. "The aspiration was so superficial because it was a minimum wage job projecting the idea of something very exclusive while immigrant labour was being invisibilised. It’s a replication of what happened [and still happens] in society at large."
Today it’s difficult to identify the primary factor in British prep’s downfall. The aesthetic was so specific that perhaps with ever-moving fashion trends, it failed to capture younger teenage audiences. "They cashed in on the fad for a bit but it was always going to fall apart because they didn’t have longevity," Benny reflects.
Yet it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that they lost relevance during the austerity years, especially as the products they carried weren’t cheap. Whether British prep reinforced narratives of the aspirational working class or simply reflected them back at society and reinforced them, the fact is that the expensive clothes eventually stopped selling.
"Their downfall almost certainly has to do with austerity and that’s reflected elsewhere in the economy; other brands like Lidl and Aldi were doing better and fast fashion became a thing," says O’Hagan. She emphasises the nuances of the general public’s relationship to wealth, however. "People have quite a complicated attitude towards the rich and the wealthy. On the one hand, people are very emotionally attached to the idea that people who are rich worked hard and deserve it. But then people can come down quite hard on people they perceive as being rich but not deserving of it and I think generational wealth can play a small part there."
Jack Wills went into administration in 2019, losing many of its physical stores, and was bought by Sports Direct. In 2017 Hollister’s parent company, Abercrombie, announced a new CEO, Fran Horowitz, after the company haemorrhaged sales and profit. Today, both brands seem to have pivoted to athleisure, swearing that the exclusionary image is a thing of the past.
For British prep, the exclusivity on which brands built their empires was ultimately their downfall.