I don’t wait on line for things not worth the wait. Those two hour lines at the Cheesecake Factory? No thanks–even with the fun buzzers. Velvet rope night spots? They’re not so special that I should wait an hour and pay a $25 cover charge for the privilege of a $15 excuse for a Cosmo. When the Abercrombie & Fitch flagship store opened on Fifth Avenue in 2005, with lines around the corner, I applauded the retailer for having that effect on people. But I continued on to Bergdorf Goodman where I get impeccable service and great sale prices a few times a year. I popped into H&M to get cheap trends and seek out their occasionally stocked black T-shirts with 9% spandex that keep their shape forever. I saw the A&F ads. Hot, young models with “just went sailing” hair in frayed t-shirts and plaid. Like Ralph Lauren with an edge. Or in need of an iron.
But a recent trip to Italy piqued my curiosity about this American original. To Italians, Benetton is their Gap. It’s their source for sweaters and jeans. But I didn’t see the “Gap” emblazoned on the chests of Romans or Florentines. Plenty of well-heeled young, trendy Italians had the letters “AF” appliqued on sweats and tees. Abercrombie? “Had they all been to NYC?” I wondered. Online? What about this 100+ year-old US brand appealed to Europeans more than, say, Levis? I would soon find out.
One recent autumn day, it looked like rain. I was strolling Fifth Avenue, impressed by the persistent tourists in pursuit of fashion no matter what elements fell from the sky. As I approached 720 Fifth Avenue, I saw the crowd. I heard a bevy of languages: Japanese, German, and some squeals that only come from girls under 18 in the sight lines of a shirtless stud. (Said shirtless stud greeted shoppers as they entered). The 3-D shirtless stud was worth a look for sure. But the 2-D shirtless stud in the foyer was even bigger, with a six pack 4 feet tall!
Much to my amazement, and likely due to the economy, there was no line.
Someone put a Meatpacking District-style club on Fifth Avenue, it seemed. Buff guys in tight black t-shirts with sharp eyes scanning the crowd. (Bouncers? Jeans and t-shirts for sale require bouncers?) The beat of the techno music that you feel in your chest came from every nook. It was very dark except for the lighted stairways and pin-spots providing dramatic highlights. But no bar or cocktail servers. Where there would have been liquor, there were hundreds of impeccably folded $34 long sleeved cotton t-shirts. Not bad. Soft too. Instead of the fashion forward, typical nightclub attire with stilettos, these social butterflies wore jeans and sneakers. Some had entourages. (A.K.A. mom and dad) They were weighed down with shopping bags instead of over-sized handbags.
Lots of chit chat, meat-market type interactions (when mom wasn’t looking). All the employees are young, cute, hot, striking–pick one of those adjectives. They don’t hover–they hang out. No sales pressure. When they say, “How’s it going?” you really think they want to know or might be trying to pick you up.
No t-shirt goes unfolded for more than a minute, yet shoppers are not made to feel like they can’t be hands-on shoppers. Go ahead–unfold that shirt. You won’t get sneered at by the sales staff, despite the fact you almost expect to get the evil eye. But you don’t need to bring it across the store to see if it matches the jeans you want because there are duplicates everywhere. They fill five floors with clothing, but I think there are really just 10 different tees, 10 pairs of jeans, 5 plaid shirts and a sweat shirt or two.
Decor aside from the music and industrial metal felt like Ralph Lauren stereotype passed through the filter of a Playboy/Playgirl editor. The murals feature art of men (mostly) in athletic pursuits. They have perfect bodies–not too muscular. One demurely lifts his shirt to reveal a six-pack.
Poster sized photos around the store are of gorgeous men and women superimposed with quotations from great Americans. It’s a way to sneak in a little of the A&F that dates back to the store’s 1892 founding. With walls of dark wood, stacks of antique canoes, a showcase full of old skis, A&F wants you to feel tradition. Especially if you’re not the club type–the other easy comparison is to a keg-less fraternity party. All that wood, trophies for who-knows-what and pseudo-preppyness was like any of the Greek-lettered fraternity houses I frequented in college. But the plaid would fit as well on a BMOC as it would on a hipster from Brooklyn.
But feeling clothes, experience, and spending is all you get to do, because I was scolded for taking photos. Perhaps they’re worried I’m going to try and stack my t-shirts like that at home.
It’s all part of a very successful plan. Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF) has more than 1100 stores in the US, UK and Canada. In the past year, their stock has risen more than 44%. And while their back to school sales for 2009 were down 10%, comparable stores were down 18%.
I’m 37 and this experience did NOT make me feel old. (Happily) Probably because most shoppers were too old to be my children. Thank goodness for that. Their target market ebbs a bit younger at 18-22. But if I was in the market for a long-sleeved t-shirt, I might try one out. But even though I live in Philadelphia, I’m a NYer at heart. I wear black and white tees and you can find pretty good ones anywhere for $30.
October 30, 2009 Comments Off