There's a queue every day outside Abercrombie & Fitch's flagship London store on Savile Row. The "lifestyle concept" shop opened in 2007 and, given its conspicuously preppy image, its location seemed not entirely ill-fitting: if Abercrombie's customers really are the wealthy college kids portrayed in its advertising, they might conceivably be the sort to buy bespoke suits 20 years hence. In 2009, the veteran Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson told The Independent that the US chain's arrival was welcome. "Footfall has increased and that can't be a bad thing," he said. "Before, it was a destination venue. But now, while children are in [Abercrombie], their fathers will wander up and buy a shirt, a belt, a tie."
This year, however, some of the Row's exclusive outfitters are railing against Abercrombie's further expansion into their territory. It recently unveiled plans for a children's store at 3 Savile Row, once home to The Beatles' Apple Corps headquarters, but local tailors argue that this would fundamentally alter the character of the historic street, and are seeking to prevent it. Why, they wonder, must the brand concentrate its energy on Savile Row when there are other, more appropriate locations nearby?
Already, the original shop has drawn too many "uncouth" youths to the area and, one tailor complained to the Daily Mail, opening yet another would be "like adding orange squash to the best vintage champagne". In the past five years, the Abercrombie store has become famous not only for clothing retail but also for low lighting, loud music and semi-naked sales assistants.
The chain was established in 1892 to provide shotguns, tents and fishing rods to Manhattan's outdoorsy upper classes. But in its present, publicly-traded incarnation, it aggressively markets men's and women's wear to the highly-sexed, upper-middle-class 18 to 22-year-old. Its website's home page, and that of its spin-off brand Hollister, both feature topless young men in place of actual clothes. In 2004, Abercrombie was forced to pay $40m to settle a series of discrimination lawsuits after a US judge found its college campus image relied too heavily on white models. It was also accused of sexualising children by selling padded bikini tops and thongs in pre-teen sizes.
Alex Bilmes, editor of the men's monthly Esquire, works in an office not far from the Abercrombie flagship, and suggests that the influx of young people to the area might not be so bad after all. "It's not a bad idea for them to know what Savile Row is, and where it is," he says. "If Savile Row was simply made up of very expensive bespoke tailors, one wonders whether anyone but the people who could afford that would really know where it was. That said, we wouldn't want it to turn into a high street. Savile Row is an amazing thing that's specific to London. It ought to be protected, and it would be a real shame if it were taken over by chains."
There is something of a split, Bilmes suggests, between the traditionalists and tyros of Savile Row tailoring. "Sometimes there can be a sort of fuddy-duddiness, which younger tailors like Richard James and Ozwald Boateng have challenged. They know it's no good just getting old duffers to come and spruce up their tweed. You need to attract younger people, and I got the sense they thought it wasn't such a bad thing when Abercrombie first opened."