Undressed for success: the store that discovered sex

Abercrombie & Fitch made its name kitting out US film stars and presidents, before finding another way of selling clothes. Now it's arrived in Britain.
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The Independent Online

With his new-fangled neck-ties, five-hour dressing sessions and demands that his boots be polished with champagne, the extravagant tastes of George "Beau" Brummel helped establish London's Savile Row in the 19th century. What though, would Brummel make of a purveyor of tight-fitting T-shirts bearing the words: "Who needs brains when you have these?". Or underwear emblazoned with the words "wink wink".

That trader is Abercrombie & Fitch, a firm as famous in the US for sexually charged ad campaigns featuring scantily-clad boys and girls cavorting around outdoors as it is for its flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue, where bare-chested male models pace under moody low lights. Savile Row it ain't, you might say. But in Savile Row it has arrived. In all its oversexed, underdressed glory, A&F's first store outside the US opened at 7 Burlington Gardens yesterday at the start of what the firm hopes will be a global expansion.

The US is highly amused by the retailer's choice of location, which was presaged by a massive construction wall depicting men's bare torsos appearing on Savile Row in the middle of one night last May. "Abercrombie has Brits in a snit,"one US newspaper scoffed last year. But A&F's CEO Mike Jeffries sees London as a key staging post in the store's long transformation from an esteemed sportswear outfitters to the essential store for the aspirational preppy girl who adores Justin Timberlake or the boy who just wants to wear underwear like his. (Justin's choice is white A&F boxers, for the record.)

A&F has certainly not stinted on the detail of its London store. Jeffries promised, "a store full of gorgeous kids" and to ensure that his staff - "store models" - rather than "shop assistants" - fit the bill he hired a team of 14 recruiters to scour pubs, clubs, gyms, sport meetings and students' unions in search of some ripplingly healthy specimen. All of which means that when seeking the essential shirt or jeans in the new place, you might well encounter a reality TV show contestant, a rugby-playing Cambridge student or a swimmer from the Welsh national team.

Mr Jeffries seems to be hoping he'll have a clientele to match. "These great-looking college kids exist all over the world," he said. "We think there are Abercrombie kids everywhere."

This is certainly a far cry from the stuffy Abercrombie of old, established in 1892 by David Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch to kit out the great and the good on their various sporting expeditions. The clientele has included Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn as well as US presidents and Ernest Hemingway, who is said to have bought the gun that he used to commit suicide at the store.

Almost immediately, there were quarrels about modernising and Mr Abercrombie departed in 1907, leaving his partner to broaden the sales base. Mr Fitch was big on the retail experience: he lit camp fires in his stores to recreate the "great outdoors". So is Mr Jeffries. His staff spray the stores with men's cologne every 30 minutes to enhance the atmosphere.

Mr Fitch's recipe pretty much worked until the late 1960s, when the firm began to falter financially, ahead of bankruptcy in 1977. It was after it was was bought out that Mr Jeffries arrived, adamant that the old policy of, "targeting people anywhere between 92 and death" had to change.

"We decided [to] go for the younger customer, using the heritage of the outdoors, quality and privilege," he said.

The new brand of distressed-looking clothing is fiercely controlled by A&F, which has complete control over the design and production of its merchandise, stores and marketing - right down to the CDs its 1,000 stores must play for a month and discard when a new one arrives. Gieves & Hawkes and Henry Poole be advised: A&F are loud.

"We get asked by big malls to turn our music down the whole time," Mr Jeffries revealed at a recent London conference. "We do and then we turn it back up again an hour later."

Mischievous, perhaps. But the company's policies have been decidedly dubious since its reincarnation. In 2002, it was boycotted by Asian-American students and forced to apologise after introducing T-shirts caricaturing ethnic groups. One, depicting smiling figures in conical hats, featured the slogan "Wong Brothers Laundry Service - Two Wongs Can Make It White." In the same year, its children's clothing division removed a line of thong underwear sold for girls in pre-teen sizes and including phrases like "Eye Candy" after parents mounted nationwide storefront protests.

The chain's once legendary quarterly magazine A&F had to be dropped when several US states claimed it was pedalling soft pornography to children. The "Who needs brains...?" T-shirts were removed after a protest by women's groups in the US. The company has also faced accusations of discrimination against minority employees and agreed to pay $45 (£23m) in an out-of-court settlement in 2004 to a number it had rejected.

But through all of this controversy, profits have soared relentlessly. Nearly 60 consecutive quarters of earnings growth continued last month when Mr Jeffries reported that fourth-quarter net income had increased by 20 per cent to $198.2m (£100m). (He is understood to have been wearing his lucky shoes on that day as he always does when delivering results and is said to be religious about parking his Porsche at the same angle.)

More expansion is afoot. A new chain is planned for next year - codenamed "concept 5" and believed to be some related to underwear - while A&F will open a store in Tokyo in 2009.

The scale of Mr Jeffries' ambitions for Burlington Gardens, where he expects to find similar density sales to Manhattan, is considerable. The move here belongs to a procession of US brands and retailers, including LD Tuttle, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren, who have alighted in London first. The city's creativity is part of the attraction, according to the shoe designer Tiffany Tuttle. "The new talent [makes it] difficult but to be an American designer sold in the UK is an important part of bringing our aesthetic to a fashionable, knowledgeable audience," Ms Tuttle said.

Inevitably, some anguished cries about the new pretender have been issuing along Savile Row, where the bespoke tailors are already contending with rents that have risen by 57 per cent since 1995. The decision by their landlord, Pollen Estates, to attract chain stores to the area while retaining what it calls the "tailoring flavour" prompted the creation last year of what, in another walk of life, might be described as a protest group. The Savile Row Strategic Group said the street's image was being jeopardised for short-term financial gain.

"The homogenisation of the High Street is the way it is going," said Michael Skinner, chairman of Dege &Skinner, a tailor established in 1865. Thomas Mahon, another tailor, recently said he didn't want to be, "driven out by crappy retail stores selling poor quality clothes".

But A&F spokesman Thomas D Lennox is unperturbed. "We're shaking up the neighbourhood. It's going to be an extension of the irreverence of the brand in London," he said. "It's going to be fun."

Naked flesh and a melancholic moose

In the entrance lobby to Mayfair's newest clothing store, a hunky member of staff obligingly takes a Polaroid snap of a young couple to commemorate their visit. The girl is giggling, possibly because the assistant is naked to the waist and has shoulders out to here.

A flock of young girls watches with interest as a second half-naked greeter strolls over to chat to the first. The boys are young, handsome and as relaxed as one can be when resembling the cast of a gay bathhouse movie. Naked flesh should be the antithesis of clothing. At Abercrombie & Fitch, it's part of the marketing strategy.

When they opened their flagship London store yesterday in Jil Sander's former emporium, it was the first sighting of Abercrombie & Fitch in Europe. It's a well-known chain which, like Brooks Brothers or Victoria's Secret, has never tested the water in the UK. Until now. With 944 stores in the USA and Canada, all of them rigorously micro-managed (even the half-hourly aerosol room-spray is standardised,) they've decided to try their luck in Europe.

"This is a huge step for us," said Tom Lennox, head of communications, "Not every space will work for us. We spent 18 months refitting this place and we're thrilled to be part of London." They are clam-like on the subject of money, but Mayfair gossip suggests they'd be lucky to have any change from £20m. "This is our third flagship after New York and LA," said Lennox, "and we're exploring potential sites in Italy, Spain, France and Tokyo."

Step into the shop's interior and you're swept away by a throng of shoppers. Its walls honeycombed with wooden shelves holding garments lit by spotlights. There are T-shirts as far as the eye can see. Their own-brand jeans cost £70, as do their preppy striped shirts. Leather flipflops and baseball caps are everywhere. Pitched upmarket from Gap, but not quite as posh as Ralph Lauren, A&F are careful not to overdo the pricing.

The décor is kitschy: a melancholy moose's head protrudes above one of the counters (the moose is the A&F logo, possibly a satirical poke at Lauren's polo-player) and a statue of Miron Discobulos stands 20-ft high on a pedestal.

Frankly the clothes here come some way down the scale of importance after the décor, the music, the people and the naked flesh. The walls are filled with homoerotic pictures of effete young boxersand oar-wielding Genymedes. Everything about this shop is as gay as bunting, except that the clientele are straight and predominantly female.

The company was founded in 1892, outfitting rich folk on sporting trips (the hard-travelling President Teddy Roosevelt was a big fan, as was Ernest Hemingway who bought from Abercrombie the gun with which he shot himself.) After many vicissitudes, the company was reinvented in 1992, with the staff as its unique selling proposition. They used to be called "brand representatives" and were chosen for the extent to which they matched desirable stereotypes: A&F boys and girls had to be "attractive, athletic, popular and outgoing".

Abercrombie & Fitch have run into trouble in the past for the naked models in their catalogues, and for rumours of jokey sexism and discrimination. But they undoubtedly bring a whiff of sulphur to the bland world of clothing retail.

John Walsh