Selling Sexless Sex at Abercombie & Fitch
One day in college, on what would have otherwise been a forgettable afternoon, two attractive people approached me outside of my department. The man, with his bionic back, parabolic pectorals and arms fixed at right angles, cut an intimidatingly precise figure. The woman was an implausible series of distends, curves and stares—all unnervingly suggestive. There were no introductions or pleasantries; instead, they presented me with a pristine white card. Looking down at it in hope of an explanation, I read, “Abercrombie and Fitch recruitment.” They stood back proudly and expectantly, letting what I suppose they thought was an honor sink-in. When I showed no response, they resorted to their pitch. They told me that they needed someone like me and that I would really enjoy working at the company. Everyone was exceedingly “cool” and, in fact, it “wouldn’t even seem like a job.”
Their company-supplied rhetoric was far from compelling, and had I received this pitch alone, such an afternoon would have inevitably meandered into the anonymity it had once been headed for. However, I slid too easily into the Hollywood high school cliché where the popular, beautiful kids invite an unsuspecting and shy outcast to sit with them at their lunch table. This was in London, and Abercrombie was still relatively new in Europe and carried little of the baggage of its domestic travails; it wasn’t cool, but it was still attractive.
I joined, out of a pitiful vanity and because I thought I would get laid.
Four days later, after a less than rigorous interview process, I stood next to two hulking bodies outside a store in the Westfield mall in London. Fortunately, my job had nothing to do with baring my abdominals to the world. Unfortunately, I was given another ghastly task, and that was to greet the customers as they came into the store.
“Hey, what’s up welcome to the pier” was my vainglorious line; and I was encouraged to say it as if the “pier” really was the best place to be on a Monday, Tuesday, and well, any other day of the week. It wasn’t.
Inside, the music thumped, the lights flashed and the interminable perfume machine sprayed out dense clouds of cologne. The store was always cast in semi-darkness; hips thrust and bodies strutted to the repetitive and ear hemorrhaging beats of sickly pop music. Outside, hundreds of customers would line up in anticipation of what, for many, was an event of the week, sometimes even the month. Young girls and women giggled and gossiped, while young boys and men pranced, swaggered and lamely salivated in desperate hope. The talk was always the same: Who was their favorite model and would they be in that day? Where would they be? No one ever talked about the clothes.
Entering into an Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister store (where I worked for the most part) a customer is meant to feel as if she is inside a nightclub, and not any ordinary nightclub, but a nightclub in which beauty is the norm and where a bulge of fat, a puckered pore, or crooked nose is impossible to find—never mind a prosthetic limb. In 2009, at Abercrombie’s flagship store in London, Riam Dean, who was hired initially as a model, was made to work in the store room, away from the customers, because her prosthetic forearm did not adhere to the company’s “look policy.” The company was taken to court and forced to pay Mrs. Dean £8,000 in damages for unlawful harassment.
But not only is the store an attractive night out, it’s also a friendly one, where everyone is exceedingly helpful. I was routinely watched by one of my managers to check whether I was sufficiently smiley while I greeted each of the arriving customers, and if I wasn’t, I was told to be so.
“Be happy guys and enjoy your time here—we’re all about giving the customer an experience,” our bosses would constantly reiterate, “…you have to make the customer believe in the Abercrombie model.”
Indeed, as Mike Jefferies, the company’s CEO, has said, such an Abercrombie model should be “fun, smart and optimistic, never” “moody” or “cynical.”
The employees are made to exist, and represent, a single, unchanging moment: a moment that replicates the tipsy confident phase an hour into a party; where everyone is beautiful, when the alcohol still tastes good and when the idea of sex is at its most cogent and coherent. The shopper wanders through the store, bewitched by “Brad’s” pectorals—while “Brad” and the rest of the gang thrust, smile and represent the clean, healthy sexuality of the All- American having a good time.
And what are they wearing while having the time of their lives? Well, Abercrombie, of course; it’s what all these beautiful people have in common, it is the uniform of aesthetic fun. And so in the same way that Nike sells soccer boots through its association with, or aiding of, Cristiano Ronaldo’s skill, Abercrombie sells its shirts and dresses, through the allusion to what lies beneath them—it sells clothes by encouraging people’s desire to take them off.
But the sexuality that it sold wasn’t anything like real sexuality; it was far too prepared and aesthetic to be considered normal. No, the protruding abdominals of Abercrombie and Fitch were illusions.
Employees had to conform to a very specific idea of attractiveness—neat, tidy and above all impersonal. No facial hair, tattoos (at least visible ones) or particular hairstyles were permitted. I remember a list in the staff room with recommendations on how one might prepare his or her hair and body before coming into work. According to the list, girls were to wear very little makeup; all employees, if they were going to wear perfume (and they were encouraged to do so), would smell only of the company fragrance; short hair was preferred (or rather forced); and our hands and feet (we had to wear sandals all day) were to be immaculately clean. On top of this, all employees were encouraged to buy, albeit at a stingily discounted price, the latest tops and jeans of the brand. The idea behind this was that everyone would look the same—and, in spite of the wide racial variety in my store (something more to do with London’s cosmopolitanism than Abercrombie’s policies, I suspect), we did all begin to look alike. It was a process of depersonalization, in which, although aesthetic standards were upheld, individuality was stripped away. This meant that while the Abercrombie models were appreciably good looking, they had no identifiable personality to make them tangibly attractive, or indeed, real—the alluring bulge and the seductive swell of the model were for all intents and purposes the simulated equivalent of a mannequin.
Outside of work we were encouraged not to become familiar with any of the other employees. This meant no flirting at the workplace. Interaction with models was discouraged during work hours, because, as the management told us, although we needed to appear to be having fun, it mustn’t come at the expense of neglecting a customer. More likely, however, is that the company didn’t want to destroy the customer’s perception of the “experience”—that experience in which the liberty of each of the models in the store is representative of the possibility of future assignations with similar looking people at real parties. A model going out with another model immediately destroyed the fantasy, because it represented unattainability in an Abercrombie spectacular that made everything seem possible.
The store that sold its clothes as items of sex deliverance, frowned upon its own sex symbols sleeping with one another—models were to be sexual, but most certainly celibate. And this was, and still is the paradox of Abercrombie, that its ideology means that it tries to sell sex … sexlessly.
The most powerful part of Abercrombie ideology, the insidious side of it, is that any lasciviousness that might exist in the advertisement of its products is placated, or at least this is how the company makes it seem, by the conservatism of the sexual image that sells it. A conservatism that the brand implies is representative of the American dream. As I alluded to earlier, the models are not just depersonalized, they are also idealized—chosen and coached to seem like the Colgate-smiling, healthy, hard-working, fun-loving, moral citizens that any society would desire. These beautiful, good people couldn’t possibility be up to no good—they’re too healthy, accomplished and conscientious to do anything lecherous or overtly sexual.
This paradoxical sales philosophy can be seen in the company’s 2002 scandal, when it began marketing thongs for young girls. Jefferies bizarre response to this uproar was one that espoused the impossibility of Abercrombie sexualizing its clients.
“People said we were cynical, that we were sexualizing little girls,” he said. But you know what? I still think those are cute underwear for little girls. And I think anybody who gets on a bandwagon about thongs for little girls is crazy. Just crazy!”
An Abercrombie thong can be “cute,” not sexual, because it is the thong “of the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” Jefferies said, describing the company’s target customer. How could that be sexualizing?
But of course, this assertion is false. As well as selling “innocent sex,” the company is far from representative of that All-American image it so vehemently upholds. Jefferies admitted in an interview with Salon that, “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong…Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” Really, the company’s preferred figure is WASPy and of the thin and beautiful kind; a contradiction that has landed it in a fair amount of trouble over the years.
In 2002 the company had to recall a line of T-shirts that portrayed Asians through caricatured faces. One of the shirt’s slogans read, “The Wong Brother’s Laundry/ Two Wongs Can Make It White.” In 2004 a group of Hispanic, Black and Asian prospective employees filed a discrimination lawsuit against the company for being ushered into the storeroom instead of the sales floor. Allegedly, positions for models and store managers were offered far more regularly to white Caucasian males than they were to any other ethnicity. Abercrombie’s desire to be hijack the notion of the All-American living the American dream, with its specific image of the hard working white hunk of the 1950s sees it walk precariously into another ideological paradox.
I quit the job about four months after I started. Thirty hours a week of enforced self-idealization was enough to drive most narcissists mad. I left a little vainer, nostrils lined with perfume and my cheek muscles still aquiver from the constant smiling. Three years on and it seems that Abercrombie’s sex no longer sells. As of this month overall sales for the brand are down by 7% and the board has announced that it will have to close some 60 stores in the coming year. The reasons for the company’s decline are numerous; but that it tried to have the best of all worlds is surely its greatest flaw.
Matthew is a Scottish journalist and writer who lives in the U.K. and Spain. He has written for ESPN, Narratively, ArtReview, Timeout and Road and Kingdoms, among others. You can check out the rest of his work out at www.matthewembremner.com.
Photo: Alan Light