Abercrombie's Christmas

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Dec 12, 2003 12:00 AM
Last week "60 Minutes" trailered a feature on Abercrombie & Fitch. Those of us who have remarked the company's erotic quarterly catalogs sat back waiting for comeuppance from some obscenity agency somewhere. What would the guardians of decency do to Abercrombie? For five years the company has been advertising sex, with a sideline of pants and sweaters and outerwear. There has been a conflict of interest here, because sex does not require outerwear, though the two can artfully combine, and Abercrombie tells you that story, too, though mostly its catalogs feature unhampered flesh.

But when the "60 Minutes" feature came on, was it about protests against Abercrombie's raciness? No, that isn't quite the word. The protests were against its racist-ness.

Yes, the complaints were to the effect that by its penchant for Caucasian models, Abercrombie was demeaning other races. The girls of Abercrombie are mostly blond and blue eyed. And they are winking their blue eyes at mostly undressed men who are blond or brunette and aggressively white and handsome.

Now -- one Asian complainant wanted to know -- how does A&F get away with such ethnocentrism? Where are the Asian girls? The black men? Well, yes, there is a hint of affirmative action there, and one comes upon the odd black ecdysiast, but "60 Minutes" was not disguising the plain truth of it: A&F is a Caucasian display case, and that is something they are going to have to live with. Either that, or A&E comes up with a better ethnic mix of young horseflesh. Thirteen percent black models would be a good start, 18 percent Hispanic, and, oh, 9 percent Asian.

But easy does it! A&F came up with a T-shirt featuring Asian features, and a lobby went into action. "One might wonder what our forefathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and pioneer immigrants who came before us would think of the shirts," wrote a columnist at UC-Berkeley. "I've heard too many working-in-the-family-laundry stories from my mother and father and aunts and uncles to think that 'Two Wongs Can Make It White' can be funny," a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News complained.

The A&F people are attracting the attention of interest groups of all kinds. There are suggestive themes there that bear watching. There is something called Vague Gay, and it is scrutinized by the Commercial Closet Association, a gay PR group. The young men in A&F catalogs are intimately engaged in shot after shot. Is there an implied denigration of good, wholesome gay sex? You have to weigh things carefully. "A man sits in a car sipping a cold drink, then puts it between his legs. Another fellow gets into the passenger seat and puts an even bigger cup of soda between his legs! (Exclamation point in the original.) The first guy eyes the other guy's lap, then looks down at his own smaller cup -- an obvious play on penis envy."

Wait a minute! (Exclamation point is mine.) Abercrombie & Fitch used to be a sportswear outfit for everybody. Then it became something of a nudist colony for 18- to 22-year-olds. Then it is derided as a Caucasian holdout banning blacks in general, and Asians except to make fun of in T-shirtwear. Now it has to watch out because the gay liberation people are looking. On that last bit, the Commercial Closet commented: "This could easily have also been handled with a negative homophobic reaction, but was not." But it's a risky life, A&F's.

The only force the organization can absolutely ignore is that which holds it dishonorable to prey on hormonal flushes of 18-year-olds to advance commerce. It is satisfying, and revealing, that you are not allowed even to buy A&F's catalog until age 18, though the catalog displays thong underwear for girls age 10. These last were pulled for the Christmas edition of its catalog. "In previous years," laments porn publisher Nerve magazine, "we've enjoyed layouts depicting Santa and elves engaged in BDSM and giving advice on seducing nuns." Maybe they'll run that in the spring edition.