Abercrombie Modeling: Art Director

At least Sam Shahid, the art director renowned for bringing a naked-as-a-jaybird, homoerotic aesthetic to cutting edge must-haves like underwear, perfume and Abercrombie & Fitch's randy quarterly magazine -- revered, reviled and abruptly defunct -- has the good sense to show up for this tête-à-tête fully clothed. Mr. Shahid, a scampish 62 and a once and forever acolyte of his ex-employer, Calvin Klein, obviously intuits it politic to keep all skin undercover when shooting the verbal breeze with a square, straight reporter in the harsh light of day.

Sure, the laces on his sneakers are untied, his designer white shirttails poke out from beneath his gray sweater like misplaced angel wings à la Comme des Garçons and the dwindling snowdrift of hair on his head is slightly mussed. But this tastefully assembled dishabille is not meant to suggest anything untoward. Sex in the workplace? Sex on the set of those rollicking A&F quarterly confabulations starring collegians who seem to major in Bacchanalia? Au contraire!Mr. Shahid twists the cap off his Perrier with one jerk, takes a hearty swig, then widens his brown eyes in deer-in-the-headlights incredulity: if looks could kill, the messenger would be dead. But Mr. Shahid opts to continue the conversation; he finds provocation endlessly amusing, especially sexual provocation. To Mr. Shahid, named one of New York City's top 101 gay power brokers by New York magazine, "Beautiful and sexy, it's the same thing; sex is not just about disrobing and having sex."

His No. 1 mantra: "Sex always sells. It's just the way it's packaged and presented that changes. All of a sudden everything is lily white, and everybody's into this goody-two-shoes thing; it's a product of the moment." But he sure loves packaging it, even a tempered version befitting "the national mood" set by the Bush administration. His newest take appears in A&F's spring catalog (the quarterly may be retired, but Mr. Shahid, a member of A&F's board of directors, continues to direct the catalog and collect nearly $2 million per year in fees). And this Alabaman who grew up in thrall to television advertising -- Clairol's "Does she or doesn't she" campaign gave him goose bumps as a Birmingham schoolboy -- still annoys a certain segment of the population with his, uh, layouts.

He is unfazed that the American Decency Association and the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, organizations that favored a boycott of A&F as retaliation against the quarterly's sexually explicit content, disparage his work. Did his interviewer hear the one about him allegedly hollering, "Get sexy!" to a parcel of half-clad college kids disporting themselves at a 2003 quarterly shoot?

Mr. Shahid is a bit of a Peter Pan -- he remembers his real age only when he sees himself in photos -- but not so unprofessional as to blurt out directives during a Bruce Weber photo shoot. "Nobody talks when Bruce Weber is shooting," Mr. Shahid says of the collaborator he met 20 years ago in Mexico on a Calvin Klein shoot. Mr. Weber was the photographer; Mr. Shahid was the glorified go-fer summoned to deliver a second batch of clothes after the first was confiscated at the border.

Although Mr. Shahid's beloved quarterly is deceased, the victim of a button-down moment in fashion, it's business as usual at Shahid & Company Advertising and Design, a sprawling loft at 435 Hudson Street with bare white walls and rough cement floors. The single painting on display depicts a male torso with staggering pectorals, but do not mistake it for Mr. Shahid's muse.

"I think I'm my own muse," he says, after some deliberation involving art books, Fellini films, Arabic music and Grace Kelly, "and that's a little confused maybe, but when you're getting down to it, books, music and films are very important to me, but I think all of that, you put into yourself." The "it" he's getting down to refers to the vision this 5-foot-6 Lebanese-American micromanager-in-residence sells, whether for A&F, TSE Cashmere, Williams Sonoma, or adam+eve, a new underwear line. His last underwear client, Bali, dismissed him after four years. "It hurts when you love it, but this business, it's very fickle," he says. "People are not loyal; they're just not."

THEN again, Mr. Shahid wasn't terminally loyal to Mr. Klein, the mentor who gave him his big break by assigning him the Obsession perfume campaign and promoting him to creative director; when Banana Republic called, Mr. Shahid answered. But he's perfected his excuse: "I needed to know if I had another life, if I could do anything on my own. Calvin was like a god to us. But he was the spokesman, and you were behind him."

He lasted 10 years with Mr. Klein, just one with Banana Republic, which fired him not, he says, for racy campaigns featuring same-sex couplings, but over an upper-management conflict--Mr. Shahid's pushy personality is a genetic hand-me-down from his dad, a salesman of infinite brio. A disastrous season at Fila concluded, he says, in mutual animosity: "They hated me, and I couldn't do anything right. If you love it, you can sell anything; if you have your doubts about a product, then stay away."

Mr. Shahid's childhood was atypical; each Christmas he received a football and a football uniform, and each year he left them in their boxes. His interest ran more toward a fixation for movie advertisements; he majored in business and advertising at the University of Alabama, where he was his fraternity's social chairman, dated girls, and recalls meeting just one other gay student. He lives alone in Greenwich Village and also has a house in Bridgehampton. Mr. Shahid's companion of eight years, Larry Soracco, died in 1991. Their bedroom was -- he shudders -- pink: a compromise between white, his favorite color, and red, Mr. Soracco's. "Oh, the compromises we make for love," he says. Wistfully.

Source: New York Times, February 18, 2004

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