Philip Hensher: The ugly cost of a sexy new look

Monday 29 June 2009 00:00 BST

Abercrombie & Fitch, the knickers-and-T-shirt emporium, is not really in the business of tact or good taste. Its CEO, Mike Jeffries, is a gentleman capped and tweaked within an inch of his life, and, in his mid-60s, apparently says "dude" a lot. In an interview from three years ago, he explained the A&F target market. "In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," he says.

"Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes] and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

Shortly after that interview, A&F opened a shop in London. "Oh my God," people said. "You have to go to A&F. It's just hilarious." The sort of clothes they sold – prewashed, casual, just-hanging-out dude – were really no different to stuff you could get in Gap or, if sufficiently uncool, from the M&S "Blue Harbour" range. What you were buying was an image, and the image was fronted by one fact: you were greeted in the Abercrombie & Fitch store by men and women in tight tops, all of physical perfection, their dumb charms on display. A&F's neighbours in Savile Row showed no signs of imitating this lurid sales technique.

Obviously, it worked, and for a while you could see wonky-toothed Englishmen about town in their A&F tops, hoping a bit of that tits-out magic had rubbed-off on them. The limits of the company's approach to selling, however, may fast be approaching. What do you do with a member of staff who looks great, but isn't physically perfect: who, in the particular case, may be considered disabled?

Riam Dean, a 22-year-old student of law, was born with only one arm. She was employed by A&F to work on the shop floor, and told, initially, to wear a white cardigan to cover her prosthetic arm. Subsequently a manager, it is claimed, told her that by wearing a cardigan she was breaking the company's "look policy", and asked her to work in the storeroom until the long-sleeved winter uniform came in. Miss Dean left the shop, never to return, and is now suing the company.

One possibility is that Miss Dean is very naive indeed; another is that she has deliberately mounted the whole business – employment, cardigan, walkout and court case – as a means of displaying the fashion industry's attitude to diversity.

A&F, like much of the industry, has a limited interest in difference. It's all about this season's new look. Journalists arriving to interview company executives have been told that their clothes are inappropriate, and handed a pair of compulsory flip-flops for that regimented "relaxed" look.

And so what? It's obviously a ridiculous business, but fashion houses make money out of selling a uniform. Would they employ someone on the door with acne, or who was 20 pounds overweight, with bad teeth, or any number of similar physical discrepancies from the Leni Riefenstahl ideal? As a pretty young girl, Miss Dean was a beneficiary of this culture. A&F have their own standards, which the rest of us are free to find contemptible, but no one can say that these standards are not sanctified by the rest of the industry.

Fortunately, Miss Dean's law studies will soon lead her to something more worthwhile. And the rest of us will – probably just the once – buy an A&F T-shirt from some hot blond boy with his knockers out and his IQ in two figures. We will take it home, hold it against our nice, if imperfect, bodies, and wonder whether it really achieved for us what we hoped it would achieve.

The dotty economics of Damien Hirst paintings

In the catalogue of his works from 1997, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone; One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Damien Hirst reproduces 231 separate multicoloured spot paintings. That was quite a long time ago, and he and his assistants must have painted quite a few more by now. Pretty, but their value is not sanctified by rarity or skill.

One of them, entitled Anthrafuchsone, from 2006, is coming up for sale this week and "is expected to fetch £300,000 to £400,000". I don't get it. There is no shortage whatsoever of Damien Hirst spot paintings, and there seems no guarantee that the supply won't continue unabated forever.

The Hirst miracle was always in defiance of the laws of economics, and a more bracing financial climate might expose those laws. If two dozen or so of the hundreds of owners of these very similar paintings decided to sell them at once, we would soon see what they are really worth.

Why isn't there openness for all BBC payments?

It's amazing that it's taken as long as this to discover that the deputy director general of the BBC is paid £459,000. Considering that this is public money, I have no idea why openness about every salary and payment isn't required. In that spirit, let me explain what happens when, as a lowly pundit, you are asked to appear on the BBC.

Some junior researcher or producer phones up and invites you to appear. You ask how much they are going to pay you. Every other organisation has considered this, and can give you an answer. The BBC always responds with an astounded, shocked silence that you should ask so vulgar a question, and promises to call you back.

In a period of between four days and three weeks, they call again, telling you that in exchange for your professional skills and use of your reputation, they are proposing to pay you £43. Of course, as they would be the first to tell you, it's an immense honour, and you ought to be happy to work for them for a tiny fraction of what anyone else pays you. I don't doubt that. I just think payments from what amounts to public funds ought to be made public.

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