The Store They Love, or Love to Hate

Abercrombie stirred conflicting emotions in the teens in this project.
Abercrombie stirred conflicting emotions in the teens in this project. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

The lights are always low at Abercrombie & Fitch. The bass pulses through the stores, pushing its way out the door and into the hall. The staff is insanely good-looking. The heavy scent of musk lingers in the air.

Kate Bolton can't stand it.

"I usually disdain Abercrombie because of the image they put out," the 17-year-old from McLean said. "They have muscular guys, images of perfect girls. I think that's bad. I don't like the advertising."

But, you know, that doesn't mean she won't shop there.

"Today I stayed there a long time," she said, a full 18 minutes. "I liked the music they were playing."

No other store stirred as many emotions -- often conflicting -- in these 61 teenagers as did Abercrombie & Fitch. The chain is infamous for its hotter-than-thou employees and scandalous marketing, once hiring hunky guys to stand shirtless in its doorways and producing a now-defunct catalogue that bordered on soft-core pornography. (Think Calvin Klein ads for the college set.) The kids vacillate between railing against it and ducking into the dressing room, but there is no questioning its magnetic power.

Branding consultant Rob Frankel said Abercrombie's message is primarily and powerfully visual, demanding kids' attention but allowing them to interpret it as they choose. "What Abercrombie's figured out is the mall is an interior advertising venue," he said. "So when you're cruising the mall, it's the biggest, boldest, loudest."

Twenty-eight girls shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch or its kid-size companion, abercrombie, making the stores some of the more popular stops that day. They spent a total of $327.03 at the two stores, second only to the $498.44 spent at Hollister.

But wait: Hollister is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch as well, a surf shop concept with flat-panel TVs in some stores that broadcast live from Huntington Beach Pier in sunny SoCal. Abercrombie also owns the popular store Ruehl, which looks like a Greenwich Village brownstone from outside. Ten girls shopped there, spending a total of $88.10.

But Abercrombie stands apart for its unabashed embrace of flesh. Company spokesman Thomas Lennox said this season is all about "bare and sexy." Short shorts that "accentuate the leg" and strappy tops are key items for summer, he said.

Inside the dressing room at Abercrombie, 14-year-old Nicole Madden of Burke tried on a red top and blue shorts while her friend Nancy Edmundson, 15, waited outside and sent text messages. Nicole came out to show off her outfit. The top was so tight she could see the dimple of her belly button through the fabric.

"I don't like either [the shirt or shorts]," Nancy said. "I like the ones at Hollister better."

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