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The Store They Love, or Love to Hate

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."

Both Nicole and Nancy listed Abercrombie and Hollister as their favorite stores. Ellie Barton, 13, of Alexandria said Abercrombie is her favorite store because of its colorful clothing. Nadine Gibson, 16, of McLean said she loved the colors and the "preppy, relaxed style."

Throughout the mall, it was clear that girls were hyper-aware of the commercial images bombarding them. They could separate air-brushed fantasy from real-girl reality, and they knew they were shopping for their own bodies, not some model's. Yet no store had a more powerful image than Abercrombie, and it elicited their most passionate, often negative, reactions.

"I do not like it,'' said Liz Gipson, 15, of Silver Spring, who did not shop there. "I think they exploit women and sex too much." The clothes are the uniform of the "mean girls" at her school, James Hubert Blake High. Liz is more of an Urban Outfitters or Nordstrom kind of girl.

Her friend Sacha Vega, 15, of Silver Spring agreed. She's only been inside the store once but was immediately turned off.

"It was so intimidating,'' she said. "There were pictures of girls half-naked, spilling over guys with perfect chests.''

Financially, Abercrombie has been on a roller-coaster ride, tossed and turned by the whimsy of fickle teens. Sales at stores open at least a year rose in March but then ebbed by double digits in April. But first-quarter profit grew 7 percent, to $60.1 million, compared with $56.2 million in the comparable period a year earlier.

Lennox makes no apologies for the chain. He says the Abercrombie brand is targeted at college students, though the high school crowd and younger often aspire to it.

"It doesn't appeal to everyone. We're not trying to be all things to all people," he said. "It's a very targeted strategy."

Mary Anne Daymont, 13, of Burke wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the Abercrombie & Fitch logo as she strolled through Tysons. She even made a stop at the store. But don't get the wrong impression -- she didn't buy anything, and the shirt is her sister's, she said.

"Usually all the people who shop there are mean and preppy."

At those words, a friend next to her grimaced, shocked. The look said it all:

What's wrong with shopping at Abercrombie?

Mary Anne quickly made an exception: "I don't mean you."

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