With nonstop pictures of beefcake, clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has not only taken the gay community by storm but straight young men in college as well.
The company's black & white magazine ads feature young men streaking through campus, in the showers pulling down others' boxers and fully nude posteriors on the beach. One insert to Vanity Fair showed a middle-aged man and young man in playful, romantic poses aboard a sailboat, an ad that many read as a gay couple -- even though in reality they were the son and grandson of actor John Wayne.
Although the Reynoldsburg, Ohio retailer's advertising appeared in OUT magazine over the years, A&F spokesman Hampton Carney said the company doesn't target the gay market. "We really market to 18-22 year old college students," he said.
The company has never feared that its advertising appeared too gay, Carney said. He then added, "It's a shame almost, that it's been pigeonholed as homoerotic."
Many were upset when an article in New York magazine about the American version of controversial Brit hit "Queer As Folk" (aired in the US on Showtime) pointed out that the retailer would not allow product placements in the show, along with other fashion brands Versace, Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Anne Klein, Old Navy and Casio, along with the NFL and Pittsburgh Steelers. Some of the companies later claimed they were not asked and A&F said it never loans product for placements.
The successful quarterly magalogue has also brought some trouble to A&F, for its occasional male nudity (shrink wrapping coupled with an age disclaimer were added in 1998) and for appearing to encourage alcohol consumption among youth. The magalogue and ongoing ad campaigns over the last four years have been created by celebrity art photographer Bruce Weber and Sam Shahid, creative director of Shahid & Co., New York.
The two have worked together for 15 years, starting at Calvin Klein in 1981, where they helped win acceptance of the male body in mass media. They put up a larger-than-life billboard in Times Square of a muscled man in white briefs that became synonymous with Klein — a brand that now has tremendous currency in the gay community. Back then, the nearly nude male was considered taboo in a business that used women's bodies to sell most anything.
From there, Weber and Shahid moved to Banana Republic, where in 1992 they created a sensation with the "Free Souls" ad insert into Vanity Fair. In a sensual series of six heterosexual couples, the insert closed on a male couple, arms entwined. Shahid had to insist that the couple be included when he created the ad.
Openly gay Shahid said that Abercrombie has never been concerned about his work appearing too gay. Yet like A&F, he is uncomfortable talking about the advertising in terms of its appeal to the gay market. He focuses on its universal appeal, noting that heterosexuals love the advertising as much as gays.
The ads for A&F, with uncommon displays of male physical interaction, strike many as gay vague too. Shahid describes such model interactions as uncoached, that their physical antics are mostly spontaneous. "There's a freedom there, they don't have any problem touching one another. We as adults have a problem when we're looking at it and read things into it."