Sportswear retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is facing a tidal wave of criticism from part of the surf community for a recent catalog that shows a historic photo amid shots of apparently nude male models.
A lawsuit filed by five legendary surfers this spring is still pending in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. The surfers allege their names and likenesses were used to sell goods without their knowledge or permission.
The "Spring Fever" catalog features a four-page "Surf Nekkid" fashion layout with hunky male models in the buff, surf boards and towels strategically placed. The section includes a history of the sport, a list of clothing-optional beaches worldwide and an article about San Onofre State Beach.
There also is a 1963 black-and-white photo from the Makaha International Surfing Contest in Hawaii of the plaintiffs George Downing, Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana, Rick Steere and Ben Aipa, all of Oahu; Paul Strauch of Irvine, and eight others.
"Imagine what these guys thought," said Brent Blakely, the Manhattan Beach attorney representing the men. "George is 69. These guys are legends. To see their images portrayed like that, implying they are endorsing what is in the catalog, it's inexcusable."
The surfers, identified by name in the photo caption, are wearing contest jerseys. On the next page, copies of the jerseys with an "AF" logo on the sleeve are for sale. The surfers are seeking more than $500,000 in damages and more than $5 million from the catalog's sales.
A&F; is the latest in a string of casual sportswear retailers, including Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren, trying to cash in on the trendy surfwear market traditionally dominated by Orange County firms such as Quiksilver, Gotcha and Billabong.
"Abercrombie & Fitch is not a surf company. They are out in Ohio trying to capitalize on the surf market because it's hot right now. These surfers have spent their lives promoting the traditional surf lifestyle. This catalog makes a mockery of that," Blakely said.
The Reynoldsburg, Ohio chain had no comment.. But in court documents, the company denied the allegations. Calling its catalog a magazine, A&F; invoked its 1st Amendment right to use the photograph. The company claimed no commercial sponsorship or paid advertising tie-in.
This is not the first controversy sparked by A&F;'s quarterly catalogs, which are aimed primarily at college-age consumers. Last July, Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested a two-page feature on alcoholic drink recipes. The company subsequently removed the pages and apologized.
A&F; and a growing number of retailers such as Delia's Inc. and MoXIEgirl are mixing editorial content such as the surfing history with sale items to create what they believe is a more compelling "magalog" or "catazine" format.
While the use of likenesses and names for news reports, commentary and works of fiction is protected by the 1st Amendment's right to free speech, the surfers' lawsuit could involve a battle over the difference between editorial content in media and catalogs.
D. John Hendrickson, a Century City lawyer specializing in advertising issues, says, "The trend toward 'magalogs' is a gray area that hasn't been fully defined by the courts yet."
* Staff writer Neda Raouf contributed to this report.
* Booth Moore can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.