You have to give Abercrombie and Fitch credit for sheer audacity. Launching a London flagship store of what is essentially an American mall shop between Bond Street and Saville Row takes steely nerve. With neighbours representing the history of bespoke British tailoring on one side (Kilgour, Henry Poole, Gieves and Hawkes), and international designer power-brands on the other (Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Gucci and friends), A&F had a lot to prove.
For those of you lucky enough not to know about A&F, it is one of the great American retail success stories of the 1990s and early 2000s. (That is, if you call peddling distressed, faux-vintage t-shirts and cargo shorts to the middle-classes a success.) In its previous incarnation, Abercrombie, founded in 1892, was a brand that sold high-quality outdoor gear to the well-to-do. I can just remember the last gasp of its Georgetown store, where you could still find a decent loden wool crewneck, before it finally died out completely in the 1980s. The name was then purchased and the brand reinvented as the travesty of tradition it is today. A&F now sells banal clothing for mall rats – a kind of upstart Gap with delusions of grandeur. But its aggressive marketing of carefree masculinity has approached genius.
Let’s not beat around the bush: we hate Abercrombie and Fitch here at Gentrystyle, and the fact that the London store has already far exceeded its targets since opening a few months ago is deeply annoying. A&F rejects almost everything we believe in – history, style, discretion, charm, distinction, individualism, quality. We think A&F is a sinister brand.
We admit that Abercrombie is not the first retailer to repackage a queasy vision of a mythical, mostly New England American past. Indeed, Ralph Lauren built his brand on creating Kennedy-esque fantasies, before doing the same with the rugged Wild West. But Ralph Lauren is a good designer – he makes nice suits and uses fine materials, in addition to shifting millions of polo shirts and selling bad cologne. And of course, fashion frequently trades in nostalgia and it relies on reinventing itself for renewal.
A&F has built its empire on a sure-fire marketing truth these days: buff middle-class white boys with their shirts off sell. But it is the perniciousness of its selling ‘whiteness’ that is so troubling. Anyone who is at all familiar with the company’s eye-catching marketing strategies knows that they rely heavily on a particular kind of sculpted, smooth-bodied male beauty to lure their customers. In the American mall, this is almost amusing, since muscle-boy gay men try on tight t-shirts alongside (presumably) straight and red-blooded American boys. They make strange bedfellows in the changing room, but the homoeroticism is so outrageous – and so obvious – as to make it all appear almost acceptably kitsch, even camp.
In the London flagship store, however, they have taken their worship of a very particular white male masculinity to new extremes, and have created one of the most unpleasant retail experiences imaginable in the doing. This is event shopping with the aesthetic precision of a Nuremberg rally.
You enter their grand old Grade II-listed building on Burlington Gardens by going up a few stairs and passing two cute, middle-class white boys dressed in A&F casual gear (distressed cargo shorts, flip flops, t-shirt and zip-up hoodie), who occupy the spot at the entrance usually reserved for matching bay trees, or for the hounds of hell, depending on where you’re entering. Alas, abandon hope all ye who enter here!
Once inside, you’re greeted yet again, this time by a shirtless pseudo-model boy-man with heaving hairless pecs (men don’t have hair on their chests in A&F fantasy land), under a spotlight. You’re also thrown into a chaos of sensory confusion, of disorienting darkness and thumping dance music. All of the windows are blacked out, preventing any glimpse of the outside world to disturb the vision of A&F’s bizarre internal world. Once your eyes get used to shopping in darkness, the full A&F sensory experience takes over. It is densely crowded with almost manic shoppers, and the dance music blares, providing the fast rhythm of retail madness. Meanwhile, lots of white, cute shop assistants (not quite buff enough to stand with their shirts off, but pleasingly good-gened anyway) scamper about smiling in a too-friendly, Stepford-wife sort of way. It’s extraordinary, this blend of bland American middle-class home-fed wholesomeness and the throbbing nightclub.
It isn’t until you start to look around and take in the full aesthetic horror of the store that things get scary. Way up high by the ceilings a series of intensely homoerotic murals of pumped-up shirtless men rowing or fencing. (Yes, I said fencing.) There are other sports, too, but every attempt is taken to paint young, naked white males. On the edge of one mural, a line of naked men walks through shallow water in a kind of spiritual baptism by sport and retail. I respond well to most things homoerotic, as it happens, but this is all deeply creepy. It takes the familiar Bruce Weber-inspired fantasy of preppy, outdoorsy white boys to a more lurid, more insipid level.
It topples over into madness in the foyer of the grand staircase that snakes its way up to the first floor. For here we find a towering bronze-looking statue (see above) of a nearly nude, nicely endowed young male who stands imposingly, looking meaningfully into the future. Tomorrow belongs to him. On its own, the statue might not be so disturbing (though it would still be ugly), but in the context of the accumulated aesthetic experience of the store, it appears more Leni Riefenstahl (see right) than Michelangelo. Suddenly, A&F’s relentless marketing of clean and perfect bodies, of whiteness and numbing homogeneity, of male strength and power becomes distinctly uncomfortable with unsettling connotations. And all for an overpriced, badly ‘designed’ t-shirt.
The really frightening news? They plan to expand and take their campaign to new fronts. You have been warned.