There's one company that knows precisely how — and where — to goose the nation's teens.
Not the Gap. Not Nintendo. Not even Tommy Hilfiger. It's Abercrombie &
Fitch. So, watch it, because this is the season when that ultra-cool retailer and cataloger of outdoorsy apparel typically likes to do its most over-the-top goosing.
A&F's sexually suggestive catalog hits stores this week. How suggestive? Well, it comes shrink-wrapped in plastic. And you have to prove that you're 18 years old to buy it.
While the photos in the newest issue might be a tad tame by A&F standards, this holiday catalog still is destined to cause commotion. It features a lesbian wedding, a naked male mounting an outdoor fountain and, oh yes, an interview with Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson commenting on penis size.
Teens love it. Parents hate it. Some lawmakers have even tried to ban it.
And it is more important than ever for A&F to stir the pot. At a time when the retailer's cachet may have peaked and sales growth is slowing, Abercrombie is clawing to stay on top as King of Cool.
What's behind all the buzz? USA TODAY was given the first-ever
behind-the-scenes look at the making and marketing of what is arguably the most provocative of retail catalogs.
Until now, the secretive company, which evolved from a decades-old stodgy maker of travel gear into an edgy seller of teen apparel, has never publicly discussed the planning process behind its quarterlies. Instead, it has quietly gathered cult-like status.
So, what gives? Is this holiday issue of the A&F quarterly tamer by design? "It probably will be regarded as less controversial than last Christmas," CEO Michael Jeffries says. "But that wasn't purposeful. I didn't give anyone direction to tone it down."
Previous catalogs raised eyebrows. Last year's holiday book featured an interview with a female porn star and photos of male and female models naked on horseback. The fall issue showed a naked male lap dancer on a female customer's lap. And one past issue featured binge-drinking recipes that raised the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (Jeffries admits, "I made a big mistake on that one.)
So provocative is the brand, conservative Bob Jones University banned A&F clothing on campus. Some students are hiding A&F logos by sticking bandages over baseball caps or electrical tape on jackets.
Any teenager with a credit card knows exactly what the expression "That's so Abercrombie" means: stylish, edgy and expensive.
An A&F canvas jacket will set you back $139. And one pair of its men's boxer shorts fetches $18.50 — about the price of a Jockey three-pack.
But is "edginess," as embodied by the catalog, the main ingredient in A&F's success?
"I don't think it stimulates business to be controversial," Jeffries insists. "It's unpleasant to be attacked and vilified when all you're doing is creating a magazine that respects its readers."
For all the hoopla it receives, the quarterly catalog itself basically breaks even, he says. About 200,000 are sold, at $6 a pop. Catalog sales account for less than 5% of the company's overall apparel sales, which topped $1 billion last year. The purpose of the quarterly catalog is simple, says Jeffries: "To help communicate the image of the brand."
He says that image is about college kids having fun. Critics contend it appears more to be about pre-college kids occasionally doing kinky stuff. In either case, it's a long way from its roots as the retailer that for decades sold travel gear to the high-society crowd.
Not that everyone is pleased with the change in direction. Jim Secreto may own a pair or two of Abercrombie boxer shorts, but he says those were gifts and swears he doesn't buy the brand. "They're a good thing gone bad," says the twentysomething government worker from Woodstock, N.Y.
But these days, it's hard to find a teen closet or dresser without an A&F shirt, sweater or sweatshirt stuffed somewhere inside.
Naomi Jodre, an 18-year-old photography major at New York University,
doesn't hesitate to brag that she owns at least 15 Abercrombie sweaters worth upward of $1,000. "It doesn't matter to me what kind of photos they put in their catalogs," she says. "I like the clothes."
The appeal goes beyond teens. Despite dozens of requests, A&F refuses to supply free clothing to celebrities. Yet everyone from Tom Cruise to Brad Pitt to Jennifer Lopez wears the brand. And the brand has already been enshrined into the world of rap. Lyte Funkie Ones recorded a No. 1 hit with this lyric: "When I met you I said my name was Rich;/You look like a girl from Abercrombie & Fitch."
With coolness, however, comes controversy.
After last year's sexually explicit holiday catalog came out, the attorney general for the state of Michigan succeeded in prodding A&F to stop peddling it to youths under 18. She's got her eye on them this year, too. "They are marketing a lifestyle that screams to children: Promiscuity is cool," Jennifer Granholm says. "Believe me, we'll be monitoring how they distribute their catalogs."
Stock problems, slow sales
That may be the least of A&F's problems. Its stock is down about 19% for the year. Same-store sales growth has slowed dramatically. Its wild popularity with teens and college students has begun to ebb. ("They're so 1980s," says teen marketing guru Marian Salzman.) And the brand is trying to be all things to all generations of youth.
The 20,000 or so college kids who work in its stores often look more like customers than employees. That's the way A&F wants it. And the music in A&F shops is intentionally played just loud enough to keep out the grown-ups. Now, in a bid to extend the brand, the company has begun to test new retail stores under the name Hollister, aimed at high school teens. It also is targeting kids as young as seven with its Abercrombie stores.
Has A&F lost a step?
Worse than that, Salzman says, it's losing its cool. "It's overdone. The current trend among teens is sensual, not sexual."
Not so, says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited. "This age group is hormonally driven. And more than anyone else, A&F is the teen lifestyle manual."
At first blush, the 280-page Christmas book being distributed nationwide this week looks, well, tame. The cover shows a handful of siblings about to decorate their New England home for Christmas.
The paper on which the magazine is printed is among the finest available. The photos are shot by one of the world's top fashion photographers. And the images — the majority of which are not blatantly sexual — show college kids at their frolicking best.
"Abercrombie & Fitch is today's Norman Rockwell," says a smirking Sam Shahid, the New York-based agency chief and creative mastermind behind the quarterly magazines.
What's this 57-year-old doing setting the coolness agenda for the nation's youth?
In two words: loving it.
Each catalog, Shahid says, is quite simply, a collection of photos that show how much college kids love to play. "The world of Abercrombie," he says, "is very physical."
Right. Like the guy in the latest catalog who has a Christmas card sticking out of his briefs. And the two-page spread of the nearly naked guy smirking in bed while his knockout wife (she's wearing a ring) pokes his groin with a ski pole. "Redefining the use of ski equipment," says the caption to the photo.
Provocative pictures aside, this Christmas issue also has a controversial story that weaves through it: "A Very Emerson Christmas." It's about four brothers and a sister who return home at Christmas for a double wedding for one brother and one sister. Never mind that the sister is marrying a woman.
Sound a bit over-the-top?
Well, one day spent at the company's Manhattan ad agency with its key creative staff makes one thing crystal clear: Much of this book is done on the fly.
Oh, sure, there are planning sessions. And heated discussions. And costly photo shoots. But, in the end, a good chunk of this catalog is the result of whimsy. And last-minute decision-making.
Case in point: There's the humorous invitation to the lesbian wedding in the newest edition. (The response card offers the option: "No, I'm liberal but not that liberal.") But that wasn't some stroke of creative genius at A&F. Far from it. The invitation duplicates a real one received by an A&F staffer shortly before the magazine went to print.
And the San Francisco-based freelance writer who penned the offbeat storyline was an 11th-hour choice who had only one week to write it.
This is not to say there's not detailed planning. Discussion about the December catalog began in early July. The entire catalog was shot over six days in late July and early August, in Hamilton, Mass., about 40 miles west of Boston.
A&F is big on scouting out things.
The 35 college students featured in the holiday issue didn't get there by accident. A&F has talent scouts at schools nationwide. They're at Yale and Princeton. And at UCLA and the University of California at Berkley. But they don't just hit campuses. In search of new faces, A&F sends scouts to Xtreme Games, polo matches and in-line skating competitions.
To keep each issue fresh, the same model is never used in more than one issue. And some who were initially photographed for the most recent issue didn't make the final cut. Even when they look perfect, "You get some in front of the camera, and they act like robots," Shahid says.
Back in late July, the student models were gathered in tiny Hamilton. All were sworn to secrecy. None were even allowed to bring their own cameras.
"If the competition finds out," Shahid explains, "they go there and film, too."
All the students are individually introduced to Bruce Weber, the world-class fashion photographer who has helped to reinvent A&F with his often-provocative work.
"We're not trying to shock anybody," Weber says. "We're basically saying: Open your eyes and have some patience with each other."
Before the shoots begin, the students all are worked over by hair stylists and make-up artists. "You'd be surprised how many of them don't look like what we groom them to be," Shahid says.
Typically, the crew does two or three shoots a day. "It's a lot like making a movie," Shahid says. But there are no scripts. Although the students are put into a setting — like a Christmas-tree-decked living room inside a New England home — it's generally up to them what they do there.
The shoots typically stretch from about 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Then, they do it again the next day.
Before the lesbian wedding scene was shot, only the two models who played the brides were told in advance that they would marry, and kiss. When they kissed, Shahid says, applause broke out.
"Until then, everyone was wondering, why are there so many brides at this wedding?" Shahid says.
Passionate catalog editor
The actual editing of the new catalog didn't begin until mid-August. The editor is a 27-year-old who less than five years ago was an agency assistant hired out of college to basically fetch coffee and file documents.
But now, Savas Abadsidis edits the quarterly magazine. He's passionate about it, too. "College years are the time of your life. It's a coming of age. It's about rebellion and about fighting the system," he says. "Our book isn't just about sex. You have to look at it as a whole book. It's intelligent. And it's honest."
But in today's culture, honesty is a matter of semantics.
Do college kids really look like this? Gorgeous women without an ounce of body fat? Pretty men without a hair on their waxed and bulging chests? Aspirational perhaps, but not your typical college crowd.
Yet the stuff the kids are doing in many of the photos is mostly for real. The guy and gal wrestling half-naked in the grass. The kiss under the mistletoe where the sneaky guy has one hand down the gal's pants. And that shirtless romp under the Christmas tree. This is as hormonally real as it gets.
Better perhaps than anyone else, A&F knows hormones.
When 55-year-old CEO Jeffries needs inter-generational advice, he doesn't consult his marketing director. Or call his brand manager. He simply phones or e-mails his 20-year old son, Andrew, who is still trying to decide his major at Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal arts school about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. That's where Jeffries went to college, too.
"We're raising a great generation of kids," Jeffries says. "The trick is not to treat them as children, but as intelligent, caring people."
"And to make them laugh," he adds.
All the way to the ATM.
USA Today, November 8, 2000