Expensive stuff and boys in the buff

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 01:00

THE ABERCROMBIE BOYS don’t do body hair, body fat or even clothes, as a scandalised glance at the enormous torso draped suggestively over the facade of a building on College Green in Dublin makes pretty clear.

The waxed washboard stomach, superpecs and flash of denim displayed in one of the capital’s most prominent locations have been generating shock and awe, and the odd guffaw, for more than two weeks, and few people who have walked through the city centre will be oblivious to the fact that the company would like us to think something big is coming to town. That next big thing is Abercrombie Fitch, one of the world’s most successful retailers – and one that is often criticised.

During the boom, hoodies and T-shirts carrying the A&F logo (discreetly) and name (as indiscreetly as possible) were as much part of the Celtic Cub’s uniform as Ugg boots and Juicy Couture tracksuits. The clothes had to be sourced in the US, which only added to their appeal. Even though the boom has gone the retailer is confident it can get Irish teens to spend money on its high-priced clothes. It is putting its money where its mouth is by spending more than €7 million refitting the one-time Bank of Ireland building to improve their shopping experience. And make no mistake: the A&F experience is like no other.

When the store opens, in September, shoppers can expect to be greeted at the door by tanned, underdressed staff. There will be models working as shop assistants, very dim lighting, high-energy dance music, A&F fragrances wafting through the air-conditioning vents, and queues of well-heeled teenagers looking to spend their money on tight-fitting clothes that few people over 22 would be able to pull off, physically or metaphorically.

Dublin is not alone in feeling the A&F love: the shop on College Green is part of an expansion that will see the brand open at least half a dozen flagship stores across Europe this summer. It now has more than 1,000 outlets.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s baby brother Hollister has been here since last summer; its dimly lit shop at Dundrum Town Centre has been drawing Irish teenagers like tiny planets to a black hole. It says something about Ireland that, despite these hard times, the Hollister store in the south Dublin shopping complex is its second most popular branch, surpassed only by the shop on Fifth Avenue in New York.

One former employee from Dublin says he loved working at Abercrombie & Fitch in New York when he was a student, 10 years ago, as he got discounts “and was scoring two or three customers a week”.

During his job interview he was asked to take off his top, “so they could have a look at my build”, he says. “I was delighted to be put on the shop floor, but to be honest I’d say there was a thin line between my being on the shop floor and being in the stockroom.” He says a manager once warned him “to ‘catch a few rays over the weekend, because your skin’s getting a little pasty’. I used to look around the shop floor and marvel at how beautiful everyone was.”

Attempts to get a comment from the company this week failed.

That sex sells is hardly a shock, and A&F’s strategy, aimed at teenagers, continues to outrage grown-ups. Sometimes it pushes the boundaries way too far, such as when its Gilly Hicks lingerie brand sold children’s thongs with “wink wink” printed on the front and “push-up” bikini tops for seven-year-old girls. Such sales practices played well nowhere.

The Dublin banner has drawn criticism on grounds of taste, and council officials are investigating whether the four-storey advertisement complies with planning regulations. But A&F is winning the retailing war, for now at least, and, with annual revenue of more than €800 million, it is set to expand further.

The notion that the Abercrombie brand carried even a whiff of scandalous sexuality would have generations of Waspish Americans spinning in their well-appointed tombs. For almost 100 years A&F was the place to go if you were a well-heeled American in search of a shotgun or safari gear to wear on your weekends in the Hamptons.

It styled itself as “the greatest sporting shop in the world”, and the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway prowled the aisles of A&F in Manhattan, hunting for clothes to take with them on safari; JFK favoured the brand for his weekends living it up on Cape Cod.

During the long oil-crisis-inspired recession of the mid-1970s A&F shut up shop. But in 1977 it was reinvented as a mail-order company selling hunting paraphernalia, and for a decade it kept its head just above water until, in the late 1980s, the company was bought by a little-known clothing retailer from Ohio. Then the game changed dramatically.

It gave itself a facelift, waxed its chest and pulled its suddenly tight jeans down dangerously low. The man responsible for the makeover was Mike Jeffries, who became chief executive in 1992 and transformed a loss-making company into a profitable one that is worth more than €3 billion today.

Jeffries rarely gives interviews; reading his few public utterances, his recalcitrance is probably a good idea.

Business Week reported in 2005 that he always left his black Porsche “at the same odd angle at the edge of the parking lot” as he is “superstitious about success. That’s why he always goes through revolving doors twice. Associates have learned not to pass him in stairwells.”

In another piece, Jeffries told Salon, “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.”

This notion that only good-looking people need apply has done the company no favours in recent years, and its employment policies have led to a number of court cases. In 2009 a former employee of a London store took it to an employment tribunal claiming she had been forced to work in the stockroom because she didn’t match the company’s strict “look policy”, a guide to the appearance of its shop-floor staff. She was born with the lower part of her arm missing. She won the case, and A&F had to pay her £8,000.

A much more damaging action was taken against the company in the US in 2003. Several Hispanic, black and Asian employees and applicants sued the company saying they had been put into less visible backroom jobs. The company disputed the claims but settled in 2005. As part of the deal it agreed to pay more than €30 million to black and Hispanic groups across the US while admitting no wrongdoing.

It also appointed a diversity and inclusion officer to increase the number of nonwhite employees in its stores. In 2004 it was 10 per cent but has risen to more than 50 per cent.

In a statement at the time Jeffries said, “We have, and always have had, no tolerance for discrimination. We decided to settle this suit because we felt that a long, drawn-out dispute would have been harmful to the company and distracting to management.”

The store has also been accused of exploiting staff by dangling modelling contracts in front of them. All the models it uses in its advertisments are current or former shop assistants.

Another controversy erupted in Milan last March when leaked correspondence suggested that male staff were forced to do 10 press-ups every time they made a mistake and female employees were asked to do squat thrusts. An email sent to staff by a manager, and obtained by an Italian trade union, said the physical punishment would ensure “we will learn more from our mistakes”.

One former employee said staff would be ordered to perform the exercises in front of a manager for minor infractions.The retailer was quick to distance itself from this in-store bootcamp, which it described as an aberration.

It is safe to say when the headless man comes off the facade of the Dublin shop and the doors open to long queues, the Irish staff won’t be caught doing press-ups. They are sure to be sculpted enough already. It’s the A&F way.

Street style What shoppers think

“I like the stuff they have, but it’s very expensive. You can get several T-shirts in Penneys for the price of one in Abercrombie.”

Carol Corcoran, 24-year-old psychiatric nurse, Donegal

“I’ll go in for a look because I like the cologne they sell and it’s cool that you can buy it in Dublin now. The staff are another attraction, too.”

Andy McGilp, 24-year-old finance administrator, Dublin

“When you go for a job in Abercrombie, it’s more like a model casting if you want to work on the shop floor. I think this is why customer service is poor and the shop can be pretty messy.”

Erin Brennan, 19-year-old student, Westmeath

“I think the whole Abercrombie fad is over. When I was on a J1 in the US Gilly Hicks, the sister label of Abercrombie, had taken over. In the US, people my age don’t wear it. It’s more for high-school kids.”

Aisling Scally, 23-year-old TV researcher, Westmeath

“I’ve no problem with Abercrombie coming to Dublin. Recession or not, I’m sure it has done its market research. I’ve never shopped there myself, partly because of the cost but mostly because I’ve no interest in the status associated with the label.”

Killian MacCártaigh, 23-year-old student, Limerick

“I think Abercrombie opening in Dublin will take some of the exclusivity away from it, as has happened with Hollister. I was out with my group of friends the other night and a girl pointed out that we were all wearing Hollister T-shirts. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was quite funny.”

Ronan Farrelly, 24-year-old trainee accountant, Cavan

“I think people buy the clothes in Abercrombie for the image and because it’s perceived as being quite exclusive. I’m not mad into labels: Penneys all the way!”

Becky Long, 24-year-old student, Wexford

“Take a regular item of clothing, brand it like a cow with the label ‘Abercrombie’ and people will pay three times as much for it. You may as well pin a €50 note to your T-shirt saying, ‘Look how much I paid for this.’ ”

Tony Sheridan, 24-year-old university tutor, Monaghan

In conversation with ÁINE McMAHON

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