Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce will likely haunt your childhood memories if you grew up in the U.S. during the ’90s or ’00s. The scent was all over the place after its release in 2002. It was found at every mall, school locker room, house party, and fraternity. Fierce has been a considerable success for millennials, both commercially and emotionally, in the 20 years following its launch.
Originally intended to be a fragrance for men, Fierce was initially an accessory product sold by a clothing shop that catered to preppy teens. The fact that its 2002 launch coincided with a period in which Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the most popular and coveted brands among young people made the scent even more attractive — and more widespread. Fierce, now remembered for its subtlety and sexiness, was a small project that most perfumers would not touch because of its alleged low earning potential. Even its creators did not expect that it would dominate this decade.
Carlos Benaim is one of the master perfumers at International Flavors & Fragrances who created Fierce. However, he needs help remembering its exact origins. He tells Tudum that the inspiration for Fierce came from a formula he was working on. I had been experimenting with a masculine accord that combined IFF’s woody, ambery molecules, such as Grisalva and ISO E Super, with a beautiful quality sage oil. An agreement incorporates particular scent notes that create a unique perfume, like musical notes played together. Benaim spent over two years perfecting this accord before passing it on to other IFF perfumers: Christophe Laudamiel and Bruno Jovanovic. Laudamiel first encountered the brand in a Boston shopping mall and knew of its reputation as a preppy brand. He explained that although A&F wanted Fierce “to be something cool,” he knew it needed to be conservative and “not radical” — that is, it needed to be wearable.
Laudamiel envisioned a masculine scent that appealed to youths in the 2000s. He simplified the accord he had received from Benaim by removing ambery, resinous tones that reminded him of classic colognes in the 1970s and 1980s. He dismissed any powdery floral or sweet notes and anything that could suggest a barbershop. After removing these notes, the team created a few fragrances that Laudamiel called the “Indecent Series.” These were sent to the client alphabetically labeled through G.
A&F took months to get back to IFF about the Indecent Series. Laudamiel recalls his surprise when he learned that A&F’s favorite sample was G. Did you send them base? A fragrance’s base can often be the starting point of a finished scent, but the revised base Laudamiel created was included in the offering and was chosen. Laudamiel wanted to add more complexity to Fierce, so she said pinoacetaldehyde, a fresh scent like an ocean breeze. This final note is layered on clary sage, cucumbers, lemons, mosses, tankas, molecular musks, white musks, and cashmeran. Laudamiel is contesting the Analysis of Fierce by Fragrantica.
Fierce has taken over the country from that simple beginning. Benaim: “I knew ‘essence masculinity’ would be well received for what it is.” “However, I was surprised at the extent of its success. Fierce was a strong scent in the streets just two blocks from the A&F shop. It was a hit with young men in America, and Europeans were asking their friends who traveled to the U.S. to bring back the fragrance to them… The brand equity is inextricably linked to the scent. The smell created Abercrombie & Fitch’s distinctive, memorable brand identity.
Fierce’s widespread distribution did an excellent job of ensuring that the brand was in the minds of everyone who caught a whiff. And anyone who entered a shopping mall got one. A&F made sure to inundate everyone with the scent, even those working in the stores. Alex, a Westfield Topanga employee between 2007 and 2014, recalls that the instructions were “insanely precise.” They included doing “three to five spritzes per mannequin [and] one to two spritzes in each room” every hour. Alex, an employee at the Westfield Topanga store between 2007 and 2014, tells Tudum that this Fierce overkill was different. “Honestly, if you work there long enough, you become immune to it.”
Julie, a South Street Seaport employee in the early 2000s, vividly recalls the smell. She says, “We had to spray all the mannequins with the smell and the atmosphere throughout our shifts.” “Especially when greeting people or putting back the folded clothes on the floor. “We also had to wear it.”
A&F’s flagship stores eventually installed automatic scent sprayers programmed to release Fierce according to a schedule. The process effectively spread the scent far beyond the shuttered store windows. It could have been more flawless. Alex recalls that the room spritzers “were expensive and also faulty.” One at my store was constantly spritzing. Laudamiel’s task was to modify Fierce to be more palatable for staff and, more importantly, for parents, who had to wait in the store as their teenagers spent their money. Laudamiel states, “The moss in the air was too heavy… too suffocating.” The moss was no longer merely attractive but rather oppressive.
Fierce was one of many brands with branding issues. White Hot: The Fall & Rise of Abercrombie & Fitch documents how the brand was failing not only because the post-Y2K era e-commerce brands and direct-to-consumer hype brands were taking over mall culture but also due to allegations of discrimination. A&F was no longer a brand of exclusivity and discrimination.
Fran Horowitz, Abercrombie & Fitch’s new CEO in 2017, relieved Fierce’s chokehold by exploring other olfactory possibilities to bring A&F’s into its new reality. While the brand tried a few less-intense and gender-neutral fragrances (I liked the Ellwood White Bergamot scent), none captured the attention of shoppers like Fierce. It returned. Laudamiel told Tudum that he had visited an Abercrombie & Fitch just a few weeks ago and was greeted with the smell of his creation at the store’s entrance.
Fierce’s relevance has diminished despite its longevity. The market is flooded with fragrances that redefine masculinity more fluidly. Like all icons, intuition is only as powerful as its ability to be recontextualized successfully. Fierce’s updated packaging now features its masculine musk signature in a modernized, unassuming design. The packaging now features a minimal, elegant typeface that displays the product’s name instead of a close-up photo of a male torso. No matter how it is branded, the scent will always remind you of fake tans and collars. It also smells like Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. – the tentpoles for millennials’ teenage years.
Benaim believes that Fierce captured the spirit and energy of a whole generation. Benaim says, “I believe Fierce captured the spirit of a generation.” It captures that spirit by incorporating a variety of scents to match different moods. According to Business Insider, when A&F released the fragrance in 2019, it intended to explore the modern notion of “what it means to feel fierce through a diverse, inclusive, and sensitive lens.”
The scents are a mixture of chemical compounds that have no meaning. They gain sense when viewed in the context of memories and emotional resonance. For millennials who couldn’t escape Abercrombie & Fitch, Fierce will likely always be a nostalgic cornerstone. It’s a reminder, for better or worse, of the power of their youth.