I was first introduced to Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) by a friend in the United States when I told him I was going to New York. He is one of those consumers who’ll not mention A&F casually and not wear it. He wears A&F and looks like an A&F model. He insisted that I visit any of the stores there and buy some T-shirts back. But he forgot that I didn’t have the look to match A&F clothes. That was five years ago. Anyway, I visited an A&F store in New Hampshire – I happened to pass by. I stepped out empty-handed and flew home without a single A&F purchase. I didn’t visit their store in New York even though I was there; I didn’t see the point. I thought their designs were nothing spectacular; the only things that stood out were the photos of male rippling bodies in their stores. I found out later that the display of bare male bodies is more extravagant in their store at Fifth Avenue, NY (the one which I missed). There’s a four-storey tall mural depicting topless boatmen and a six-foot tall bronze statue of a man with nothing on except an underwear. Their decors were more enticing than their clothes. I heard that their sales staff look like models and walk around the store topless. But I didn’t see any at the NH store even though it was summer. Perhaps, it was conservative in NH. At its NY store, a Londoner couple said that they were greeted by staff clad in just T-shirts and flip-flops during winter. I bet the guys had difficulty breathing than enduring the coldness.
Men wear A&F – not because their designs or their materials are better than other brands, and definitely not because they’re cheaper. A T-shirt costs about USD30 and a pair of jeans costs about USD80. The brand association is what drives many men – mostly gay – to their nearest A&F store. Think of A&F and images of muscled, semi-naked men as beautiful as Greek gods flood your mind. Guardian's fashion writer, Hadley Freeman described the A&F look as “A porno version of Brokeback Mountain”. The company prides itself on hiring young, good looking people and excludes the ordinary-looking, the ugly, the fat and the shapeless. “…A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely...” A&F Chairman and CEO, Mike Jeffries made it clear that he only wanted attractive people in his company. His logic is this: “Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that.” When you meet the sale staff, you’ll either feel intimidated or dazzled by their good looks. They’re aptly called “models”. If you’re eyeing for their sale position, the job title itself tells you whether to look elsewhere or not. When A&F opened their flagship store in Paris, they hired 101 models to meet and greet their Parisian customers. All had gorgeous look, great smile, rock hard pecs and washboard abs. These young men represent the type of staff and customers A&F is targeting.
A&F enforces the “look policy” strictly and scrutinises every little imperfections. Any apparels that are not in their “style guide” – a manual for all hiring managers – are not allowed while working on the shop floor. Hani Khan, 20 was fired from its north California store when she refused to remove her headscarf. Riam Dean, 22 was transferred to the stockroom because of her prosthetic arm which she hid under a cardigan while working at its London store. A&F’s book of perfection also excludes the non-white community. Its controversial and discriminatory business practices had infuriated the so-called outcast. In 2005, a class action was filed by 10,000 employees and job seekers who are deemed unfit to work in A&F. The pressure to fit does not spare its founder. Jeffries who advocates youth and beauty in his business is not at all young and beautiful himself. The 67-year old tried desperately to fit into his vision of American beauty. His face looks like he had undergone cosmetic surgeries here and there. And his body tells me that he has been working out.
A&F was first incorporated in 1904. The brand image was rugged but never sexy. Its founders, David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch, were outdoor enthusiasts. Naturally, A&F sold gears for hunters, explorers and trappers. Interesting to know is that they employed rugged outdoorsmen as salesmen at the shop – a similar hiring approach adopted by A&F today. The brand later expanded into sport wears and moved away from its humble waterfront site at downtown New York City to a 12-storey building at midtown. By 1917, A&F was fast becoming the largest sporting apparel store in the world.
Courting controversy was said to be A&F’s way of publicity. If this is true, it has achieved its motive in Singapore. The billboard of a headless, semi-naked male model erected at Knightsbridge, Orchard Road has drawn flak from conservative onlookers who found the image “lewd and inappropriate for a prominent location”. This alerted the industry watchdog, Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) to push for the removal of the advertisement. Does that mean Singapore shoppers will not walk out of the A&F store on 15th December with their ubiquitous black and white paper bags printed with similar images? I hope not. A&F, please keep your promise that the store in Singapore would be “consistent with what our fans would find in any of our stores around the world”. At least, let’s us have topless guys in the store for your opening week. Prove my friends wrong that the A&F models are only hotter on the other side.
Images of sexy men are a commonplace in advertisements whether they are fashion or not fashion related. And women, too, are not falling short of the demand. If lingerie posters with busty models are pervading our heartland, how can the A&F billboard be out of place in a vibrant shopping district? Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill. Anyone who finds A&F’s image a sore eye doesn’t have to like it and A&F doesn’t have to like you either. As The Straits Times journalist, Jessica Lim quipped in her article, ‘Hire for looks’ policy suits Abercrombie to a T, “you’re probably not whom they’re targeting anyway.” If hot bodies upset you, don’t use A&F as a darting board to vent your resentment. Let out your steam in the gym. In that way, you may have hope of looking like an A&F model. While beauty is blessed, a great body is an embodiment of hard work and discipline. Take cues from their models – you’ve to work really hard to belong to the Abercrombie & Fitch family.
Face it: When you have a hot body, you’ll want to show it and not hide it.