The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust.  Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).

Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes.  Let us count the ways…

Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting “the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website).   There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens)  that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?

Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on “boy”) reputation.  Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.”  Parental boycotts? Porn?  Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don’t think too much about that one.]  All like catnip to your underage kitty.  Meee-ow!

A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.


On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores.  A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet – now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Gucci knows how to push the rags.  The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section.  But what is A&F’s spin?  A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever.  The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18.  If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you.   ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.


A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend.  Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street.  What could it be?  Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)?  No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day.  There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner.  A velvet rope.  2008’s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch. 

There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity.  Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist.  And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.   

Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the “Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.  


Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress.  Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff.  It also has a  huge “Diversity” section on its website.  Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress.  The company can’t give up everything!


[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring “ugly” people, with the company’s “hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything.  And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.] 


Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created.  And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.

Abercrombie & Fitch  back to school shopping  clothing retail

 

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