'You ask him," the blond girl says, nudging her friend.
"No, you," the brunet says, clutching her camera and shaking her head.
They're wearing faded jeans and layered shirts in bright colors, with flip-flops on their feet. Their hair is shiny and they're young, so young that a mom or dad is probably skulking around Barnes & Noble, waiting to drive them home. Staring at the bronzed, shirtless man-boy in artfully unbuttoned jeans, they gather their courage, link arms and approach him. "Um, can we take a picture with you?" asks the brunet. Of course he says yes. That's what he's here for. His heavily muscled arms encircle them, and they hold themselves slightly apart from his glistening torso.
"Ready? 1 . . . 2 . . . 3!" The girls grin and, on three, the blond shouts: "Abercrombie!"
Then they scoot inside. Abercrombie & Fitch has scored again.
In April, Abercrombie & Fitch shuttered its store at the Grove in Los Angeles. Three months and obviously a whole lot of money later, the store reopened, a three-level emporium wrapped in old-school exclusivity and modern-nightclub cool. There are dark wood louvers behind the soaring panes of glass, so not an inch of what's inside is visible from the outside--not an inch except an oversized black-and-white photo of the torso of an extremely fit young man whose crotch, barely encased in jeans, is subtly spotlighted. It's against this backdrop that the greeters-cum-doormen pose for snapshots with gigging teens and, sometimes, their parents.
Abercrombie, which started out in the 19th century as a purveyor of elite sporting goods, seems to be aiming to take retailing to a new level, but of what? A spokesman for the company, which in recent years has stirred controversy with provocative imagery in its catalogs and store displays, says Abercrombie doesn't comment on its marketing or merchandising strategies.
The two experts I consult aren't so reticent. They are Barbara Bundy, a vice president at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, and Lucie Ayres, a teen marketing specialist with L.A.'s Membrain Consulting (who, by the way, worked as a clerk at Abercrombie's South Street Seaport and Trump Tower stores in New York when she was in college).
I make two trips to the store, one with each expert. They agree that Abercrombie has created a whole new world at the Grove, as it suggested it would when it posted job openings this summer on Craigslist. The ads were for models who would "be responsible for creating a unique store experience synonymous with our casual, American classic and aspirational heritage" and for other staff members who understood that "A&F;'s brand-powered momentum is fueled by additional lifestyle reinforcement." In other words, sex.
To a certain extent, the two experts agree, the retailer's approach works. For one thing, there is buzz, Ayres says. "They're really good at getting people to talk about what they're doing."
Bundy sums up her assessment this way as we stand outside and gaze at one of the door greeters, which is what Abercrombie calls the shirtless hunks. "If I were my granddaughter," Bundy says, "I'd follow him anywhere."
The "unique store experience" starts on the dimly lighted first floor, most of which is given over to the Jeans Bar, two long glass counters where carefully placed piles of painstakingly faded or torn or bleached or skinny or dark jeans are presided over by attractive salespeople. Here you don't paw through racks and search for your size; here someone serves you with a smile, no matter what you weigh. Intimidation, friendliness and a charmingly antiquated notion of service are all rolled up into one--it feels like a haberdashery run by the high school cool kids.
The clubby feel is accentuated by a lounge area of dark leather chairs. You half-wonder if a butler might stroll up and offer you a proper pour of single malt whiskey. "It's a nightclub for kids who can't get into nightclubs," Ayres says during our visit. Bundy agrees. "It's like a traditional men's club goes disco." As you walk up the central staircase, a frosted-glass grid lighted from below, it does feel like a nightclub, especially when the soundtrack is Bananarama's "Look on the Floor."
On the second level is men's clothing. Sexually charged black-and-white photos of handsome guys mingle with display cases packed with vintage shotguns, skis, snowshoes, canoes and oars. Bundy points out the piles of artfully rumpled clothing, which, she notes, are "inviting to the touch." Sales staff, dressed in jeans and olive-green polo shirts, diligently re-rumple any piles that may have been straightened out by neat shoppers.
It's all about presentation. According to former employees, the company bible is a manual issued to every store that outlines proper display tactics; the retailer rarely advertises or discounts merchandise, putting its energy into perfecting the in-store atmosphere. All the senses are considered and assaulted. I notice that Fierce cologne, an Abercrombie scent, is spritzed regularly over key display areas. Four carefully selected hours of dance music--a factoid noted on an A&F; fan Web page--loop at the ear-shattering decibels and booty-shaking pace that experts say encourage teens to stay inside and keep shopping. Cashmere and denim are displayed behind glass, making you yearn to touch the clothing. Although the store is dim, the dress forms are spotlighted. "It makes you look at the clothes," says Ayres, "but all of the people look anonymous, the way they do in a club."
On the third floor, where women's clothing is housed, there is a shift in strategy. The cologne is spritzed on the hour, but instead of sexy boys, the photos are of smiling, multi-racial couples. For all the camera-happy girls at the front door, experts do say that young female shoppers can be turned off by too many displays of boy-flesh. Ayres says she would have put some pictures of single women on the walls, but that, for the most part, the decor makes sense.
There is no question that Abercrombie is doing something right: After a four-year slump, sales are climbing and the stock price is up. But some things in the Grove store are mysteries, including the mural wrapped around the central elevator shaft, a Dante's "Inferno" of bare-chested, blueblood debauchery and outdoor sports, with chiseled men with ghostly white skin rappeling down mountains and wooing the occasional androgynous woman with cigarettes and picnics. "Maybe," Bundy guesses, "it's an irreverent version of A&F; history." Mostly, it's just strange. Odder still is an enormous, unwieldy statue at the base of the elevators on the first floor. It is a male, of course, dressed in a loose, diaper-like undergarment and nowhere near as attractive as the live door greeters outside. The statue is by Bruce Sargeant, an alter-ego of cultish gay art icon Mark Beard, whose oeuvre mostly consists of images of virile, muscular men.
I pass the statue on my way to the exit. Even after walking through the store so many times that I feel like a corporate spy, I leave wanting only one thing, and it's not a charming young man. It's a soft, thick A&F; hoodie lined with faux-fur. It covers every inch of me, and zips straight up to my chin.