Staff at the London store
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
A woman with a prosthetic arm is claiming damages against Abercrombie and Fitch, saying she was relegated to the stockroom as she didn't fit its "look policy". What is the style of this feted fashion retailer?
COMPONENTS OF THE LOOK
1. Long hair; clean, natural style
2. Natural looking make-up, no fingernail polish
3. Slender figure
4. Tight denim
5. Flip-flops. Preferably leather
Take an all-American classic. Jeans, for instance. Or a check shirt. Pound it and pummel it into faded outdoorsy sexiness.
The jeans should be worn low, so low passers-by will be on nodding terms with your crotch. And the check shirt? Not worn, but draped casually over one sculpted shoulder so as not to obscure one's rock-hard pecs.
Add an eye-watering price tag, and accessorise with photogenic sales staff - so photogenic their job title is "model" - and you have the look of the much talked about American clothes store Abercrombie and Fitch.
The firm is in the headlines after law student Riam Dean, who has a prosthetic arm, took its UK offshoot to an industrial tribunal, claiming discrimination. Ms Dean says the company hid her from customers because the cardigan she wore to cover her artificial arm did not fit the store's "look policy".
The company disputes her version of events and says it "has a strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy".
But the case has provoked a surge of interest in the strict style codes of the store and its loyal customers.
"The Abercrombie and Fitch look? A porno version of Brokeback Mountain," says the Guardian's fashion writer Hadley Freeman. "And judging by their ads, the look is no clothes at all - brave, for a fashion label."
Formerly known as a purveyor of pricey, preppy gear, Abercrombie and Fitch - along with fellow US import American Apparel - is not shy of deploying sex to help shift its clothes. Both retailers run ad campaigns peopled by nearly naked young things in provocative poses.
But while American Apparel's acid bright and tight leggings, playsuits and hoodies are modelled by rangy, gawky teens, Abercrombie and Fitch's models are, by contrast, in rude health and seemingly on the verge of al fresco rumpy-pumpy.
Spot the difference: American Apparel sells bright, tight gear
"It's the cowpoke look, and macho in a way that's very pretty. So macho that it crosses over into camp," says Freeman. "The American Apparel look is more gawky and unconventional, and Gap's is much more wholesome."
So if a man has to think "hot lumberjack" to fit the Abercrombie template, who do female A&F customers emulate?
"Megan Fox in Transformers. Low-slung jeans. A heavy metallic belt on your sexy hips. A top that doesn't quite reach your waist. No obvious make-up, but you look better than anyone actually wearing no make-up," says Freeman.
At the company's only UK outlet, off Savile Row in London, there is no shop sign.
Homage to the male form at the London store
But it is unmistakably Abercrombie. A male model, in worn-out jeans and leather flip-flops, flaunts his honed torso just inside the doors.
This is shopping as clubbing. Alison Moyet's Love Resurrection throbs through air heavy with signature fragrance Fierce, an androgynous cologne muskier than more citrusy rival CK One. And it is dark, lit only by the spotlights directed at neatly folded stacks of faded polo shirts and raw-edge hotpants.
Housed in a mansion built in 1725 that was once a branch of the Bank of Scotland, it has the appearance of a revved up gentlemen's club. Dark walls, ornate fireplaces, gracious staircases.
And the place heaves with staff. Within a few steps, one encounters two doormen in check shirts. The half-naked himbo. A pair of greeters, one boy, one girl. Another pair dancing on a balcony. And a man with greying hair with a broom.
Riam Dean says she was moved to the stockroom of the Mayfair branch
And they've all got the look. Individually, they'd be the most beautiful girl or boy in the room. Collectively, they become a mass of long locks, fresh faces and slender limbs.
The look is so easy to define as the company has a detailed appearance policy, revealed in a 2005 class action filed by 10,000 employees and job applicants who didn't fit the Abercrombie identikit enough to work the shop floor.
Chris Sanderson, strategy and insight director at the forecasting and consumer insight consultancy The Future Laboratory, says the company shifted its marketing strategy and its vision about 15 years ago. Since then, it has been one of the most influential American teen brands.
"What they did was wake the very conservative Ivy League look and sexualise it at a time when the process of brand sexualisation was happening at the top end of the market.
"They brought that to a mid-American audience, through photographers like Bruce Weber, and the A&F quarterly. It was basically soft porn for a very wide audience - young girls, young guys, gay guys."
And the half-naked men and throbbing music are designed to exclude those who don't fit the target market.
"While some brands have tried to widen their appeal, [with A&F] you actually shut out other consumers. You and I walk into that store and it's designed to make us feel uncomfortable."
It's a Mecca for teenagers at half-term coming from outside London, but even those who feel intimidated can end up buying the wares, says Mr Sanderson.
"There is this high energy, high hormone level. We half-wish we could look that good."
The clothing itself is very straightforward - "it's cheap cotton clothing made in the Far East, covered in American branding" - but the marketing and the staff make it look good.
But does it still sell? Greg Hodge, a retail analyst at Planet Retail, says it has had six quarters of poor like-for-like sales figures worldwide, culminating in drops of 25% in the last quarter of 2008 and 30% in the first quarter of 2009. "That is really, really bad. Consumer spending has been cut back severely. They have clearly lost appeal."
Whether the case brought by Riam Dean - which is awaiting judgement - will affect Abercrombie's public image is yet to be seen. But ironically, says Mr Hodge, its opening of a store in London has dented the brand's fortunes in the UK - it had more cachet when you could only buy its clothes on trips to the US.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Whilst at uni I worked as in the stockroom and as a shop floor maintainer (tidying stock). I was told on many occasions that I was not allowed to speak to the models and they were told they were not allowed to help maintain the look of the room. The amount of flirting is sickening and the favouritism between managers and models is enough to make you gag. Every year we get an intake of models who have just come off of the program shipwrecked and every time the superiority complex was quick to kick in as the 'hotties' established themselves apart from the 'notties'.
Luke, London, UK
I visited the London store once. Given a list of things to pick up for my friend, complete with product codes off the internet, I asked a five sales assistants/models, none of which could tell me if they stocked any of the items. I couldn't reach one section at all as one assistant was too busy staring at himself in the mirror to let me get passed (I kid you not).
In my teens to mid-20s, I loved wearing A&F clothes. But it's a look that just doesn't suit bigger sizes (I am a small 12 now, and my A&F days are over). It's a bit like how Boden clothes always fall better on people in their 30s and 40s who are size 12-14. Or TopShop looks better on 14- to 21-year-olds. In a world in which everyone is terrified of getting a bit older and growing up gracefully, this smacks of envy of those people who are in their prime and not afraid to flaunt it. I say go for it - it doesn't last forever.
Having visited the New York A+F store, it's clear why the shop floor workers are called "models" rather than shop assistants - they could not have been any less assistance. No-one had a clue where anything was, whether there were different sizes... It may float some people's boat, but the dark rooms, pounding music and overpowering stench of the aftershave makes the whole experience a horror show - and this comes from a 22-year-old DJ writing this from Ibiza.
The fact that they attempt to exclude anything other than their target market is clear to anyone who has attempted to negotiate the place with a buggy. I went into one of their Toronto branches and it felt as though they had purpose-made it impossible to get around with my baby-vehicle.
Rachel, Cardiff, Wales
My extremely beautiful 19-year-old sister was stopped in the street a few days ago and asked whether she would be interested in working for them. I don't think they stopped her because of her retail experience or intellectual capabilities.
Clare Bullock, London
Abercrombie is controversial for good and bad reasons. Like all clothing retailers, it sells an image. However, the image it is selling is hardly just a "I'm better-looking than you" image. Abercrombie's target market is the successful, middle or aspiring-middle class, and university-educated one. Unsurprisingly, that is why the employees (yes, even the models) are all students or graduates. It's clothing for people who are confident and high-achieving. The problem is that, in Britain, we tend to see these as bad traits. It's our loss.
I'm not successful, middle/aspiring-middle class or university-educated so I think Paul is a bit short sighted. Their clothes fit me well and last a long time. Therefore its money well spent.
The shop may be a mecca for teenage girls but for their mothers it is hell on earth - so dark that you fall over the steps, music loud enough to give you a serious headache, a cloying smell of the scent the sales men and girls keep spraying onto the clothes and no-where much to sit while your beloved daughter spends 40 minutes queuing for one of the tiny number of changing rooms. After you have been there an hour you will pay anything, and I mean anything, to get out of the place and so you foot the bill for a tatty-looking ("distressed") pair of jeans and a few T-shirts. Only later do you realise that the bill comes to about £200! You vow never to set foot in the place again, then the next holidays come round and daughter is saying "When can we next go to Abercrombie?"
Elizabeth, St Albans
I am very involved with fashion and art, yet have been turned down for employment and even refused entry into the UK's biggest high street fashion store because of my Beth Ditto proportions.
On my only visit to the London A&F store, none of the clothes seemed to have any price labels on them. The unspoken message was very clear: If you need to know how much things are, then you're obviously worried about spending too much. I ended up buying two polo shirts for what turned out to be an eye-watering amount. I didn't have the nerve to cancel my purchase, because I would have received looks of smirking disdain from both the sales staff and the other customers around me. That, and the fact that the 'model' who served me - a golden-haired Adonis with a lean, athletic physique and a perfect tan - was impossibly, knee-tremblingly gorgeous, and I was completely hypnotized by his beauty, like a rabbit in headlights of his dazzling smile, so I handed over my card to him before I was even aware what I was doing... Note to self: only shop in stores where the sales staff are hideous.
Well, I do quite like some of the A&F stuff. It's casual in the same way as Fred Perry, but doesn't ooze the typical young white kind of audience, especially as I'm young and black. But I do find the blatant in your face sex appeal in the store a bit much, the male models are a little over-zealous, but it doesn't force me to spend my money on things I don't like.
My husband and I entered the NY flagship store in winter (January this year). We were wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves as it was below freezing outside. These "models", some of whom were manning the doors, were wearing T-shirts and flip flops. They all appeared to be dancing around, which I thought was in order to keep their blood flowing in the freezing weather, but it turns out it is part of the store's policy. The jeans were kept behind glass cabinets, the whole place just felt like we had walked into a fraternity of some sort where we were outsiders.
Katherine Brownstein, London
Call sales staff "models" to let them overtly discriminate on looks? You can't help but admire the mind that came up with that one.
Charlie, Cambridge, UK
When I went to the A&F store off Savile Row, I came out almost out of breath. The atmosphere of the store was like some hedonistic club and the smell was gorgeous. Don't even get me started on the men...
Went into the New York store at New Year and seem to have had an identical experience to that available in London. Throbbing music, male model greeters and podium dancers. There was a big queue round the corner and when we were in the store it wasn't that busy, just a ploy to make the store look like you should go in. Most of the staff had no idea of the stock or could answer queries, possibly because of the music volume.
Robin, Bristol, UK
This is what happens in our society. Women in the West are supposedly "free", but unless they show off some skin, and a perfect body, they have little chance of getting the job. It's the unofficial rules people have to play by. Rules that everyone knows, but no one really likes to talk about.
John, sure I agree, but do most of us really aspire to be shop assistants? I also find the increasing number of pretentious shop assistants such places very bizarre - you're a shop assistant, you have nothing to be pretentious about.
I long to walk into their store and ask loudly "Do you have anything with a 40 inch waist?"
Not as slim as he used to be, Croydon, UK
I paid a visit to the Savile Row store shortly after it opened back in 2007. As a UK size 12, I was rather disconcerted to discover that mine was the biggest size on the shelves. When I queried this with one of the staff, I was told that was policy at this particular branch, despite the fact that she handed me a sizing chart which went up to UK size 16. A&F take the image is everything slogan to the extreme and I hope the Riam Dean case will show them otherwise.
I may not purchase Abercrombie and Fitch products, but I do not feel the need to judge how their models look, or how they market their products. After all, is it not just a way to sell items? The people that work hard to have bodies like the above models are more than entitled to celebrate this achievement by wearing particular clothing. What next, down with all lingerie advertising?!