“Irreverent, unbiased and sexy,” the ads claim, but first things first: If you pick up this spring’s shrink-wrapped issue of the Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly looking for naughty pictures, you won’t find any.

For the past few years, the American Decency Association and some state legislatures have fought the casual clothing company’s racy catalogs, which have featured nude photos, sadomasochistic themes and drinking games along with conventional photos of A&F’s wares. This spring, perhaps because of the boycotts, or perhaps because of the country’s newly somber mood, the blatant pics are gone.

Instead, the pages are filled with a more subdued homage to Eros and the cross-country road trip, photographed in the artsy-sexy way only Abercrombie can. Make no mistake—minus the trash, the catalog is beautiful. While the articles and Q&A’s are mostly ho-hum, no one’s buying the quarterly for its celebrity profiles. Still, while the catalog pleases the eye, its success highlights an unfortunate tendency among Abercrombie’s mostly college-aged clientele. “What do I care if I’m late to class, he’s wearing Abercrombie!” one A&F t-shirt reads, and like the t-shirt, the catalog indulges its readers’ fantasies in the most mindless manner possible.

A voyeuristic journey

So what is alluring about the catalog? From the cover, the reader enters a make-believe world, beckoned in by a young man leaning over to kiss a girl with untamed hair whose eyes are blissfully closed. The lovers travel by train and car across America, staring wistfully out the windows most of the way. No one looks quite at the camera, and smiles are replaced by enigmatic expressions pointing to a dream world somewhere else. Beautiful people press their bodies together, lounge in the grass with their clothes in disarray, and feed each other impossibly perfect grapes. It’s a world of no cares, skin, casually plucked guitars, sexy bodies with no faces, and hence no responsibilities—in short, a world of unrequited hedonism.

The catalog shows Abercrombie’s clothing only after the hundred-plus page photomontage, and then, the clothing is exhibited museum-style with a white background and a few notes in ridiculously small text. Many of the models’ outfits aren’t even for sale in the catalog. I searched in vain for one girl’s snap-front top, and another model’s lace-front jeans. But this unorthodox approach is all part of the packaging—Abercrombie sells you first on the lifestyle, then sells the clothes as accessories. Want the Abercrombie world of romance, rebellion, and open-toed shoes? Then buy the pricey clothing, and it can all be yours.

A cynic could easily dismiss this approach as ‘posing.’ After all, a $40 frayed miniskirt won’t make you a rebel, any more than a $50 sweater will score you the hunk on the cover.

But Abercrombie’s method—selling clothes by selling lifestyle—appears to be working. A&F stock is climbing, despite the lousy economy. And while comparable companies like the Gap are struggling with low in-store sales, Abercrombie’s totals are up month over month from last year. The brand has a cachet most retailers would kill for, and a “coolness factor” that justifies inflated prices to Abercrombie’s loyal customers.
…to be continued…

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