The Abercrombie & Fitch quarterly magazine has won a place of honor on the cocktail tables of gay men from Chelsea to the Castro. But these gentlemen are not looking at the clothes. Instead, they are admiring page after page of buff college boys frolicking on campus in Abercrombie & Fitch jeans, pullovers and crew-necks. A posse of young men in boxers and roller skates whoops it up at a dimly lit rink. Half-dressed guys are pictured with their bedroom eyes staring directly at the reader. Four pages feature young men streaking across campus, their bare bottoms facing the camera.
The images are neither physically threatening nor aggressively sexual. But to a host of readers, they are obviously homoerotic. What makes the images unique is their context. They are not in the sort of high-end fashion magazine in which homoeroticism is now commonplace, thanks to advertising campaigns from Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace, Gucci and others. They haven't been placed in a niche publication, such as Out magazine. And they are not loaded with attitude. They are in a mainstream
"I like it," says Joe Landry, publisher of The Advocate. "There's an essence of innocence that has been captured."
"As a gay person, at that age if you're coming out you're fearful and shameful," he says. "To see kids at that age, to see them being playful, happy and open -- even though it's not sexual -- there's a romance that's captured."
Unlike the images of muscle-bound men from the Davidoff advertisements or the Calvin Klein billboards, these photographs aren't confrontational or intimidating.
"The men are idealized, but not challenging," says Harold Levine, a New York-based marketing consultant. With the Abercrombie & Fitch campaign, "a straight guy could say, `It could be me.' A gay guy could say, `Wouldn't that be yummy if that were my boyfriend.' "
The $5 quarterly catalogue premiered in 1997 as the lead tool in Abercrombie & Fitch's national marketing campaign. The current book, titled "On the Road," has a circulation of about 1 million and has largely been credited with sparking the company's recent huge sales increases. Total net sales in 1997 were $522 million, up 56 percent from the previous year.
The success of the catalogue has not been without controversy. Earlier this year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested a two-page spread in the quarterly, which is aimed at the college-age market, because it featured a list of recipes detailing how to make alcoholic drinks such as Sex on the Beach and Brain Hemorrhage. The company subsequently removed the pages from the magazine and issued an apology.
A spokesman says that the company has been on a mission to change its image from that of a purveyor of rugged outdoor wear to that of a more fashion-driven house. But he denies that it has made a conscious attempt to court gay customers.
"People are reading into it and projecting their own sexuality on the images," says Lonnie Fogel, director of investor relations and corporate communications. "It's not attempting to deliberately make some sexual statement."
Abercrombie & Fitch produced the magazine in collaboration with the New York advertising agency Shahid & Co. and the images were photographed by Bruce Weber. Shahid worked on "Chosen Families," a controversial advertising campaign for Banana Republic that portrayed gay families in their leisure time. And while Weber is a photographer with a range of topics and styles, he is best known for his homoerotic fashion and advertising shoots for designers such as Calvin Klein.
Fogel, however, says, "Weber was engaged because of the high quality of his work and his creativity."
"That's what good advertising does," Levine says. "If I were [Fogel], I'd say exactly the same thing: We've chosen images to show healthy, American exuberance. . . . We leave interpretation up to the viewer."
And a lot of viewers see, in Abercrombie & Fitch's makeover, a courting of gay men. "It is a known fact among the gay population that the cutest sales boys can be found in Abercrombie & Fitch stores," Levine says. "My college roommate is straight but he has his eyes open, and we went into Abercrombie & Fitch in a suburban Washington mall. He said, `What the hell is going on here? Look at these boys!' I said, `I am.' "
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the company has been successful in creating a buzz. Levine reports seeing increased numbers of gay men wearing Abercrombie & Fitch clothes. Others talk of ripping pages out of the quarterly or pulling ads out of Vanity Fair just to savor the images.
"I think we've made quite an impact across the board," Fogel says. "But we can't point to specific markets or neighborhoods where sales are hot."
That inability may, in fact, be indicative of the success of the campaign. "They're doing a brilliant job," Levine says. "They're not turning anyone off."
Source: Washington Post, August 7, 1998