MOST of the year it might be too chilly to go shirtless in Glasgow, but if rumours are to be believed, locals had better get ready to see toned, tanned, and – most importantly – exposed male torsos on Glasgow's Buchanan Street year-round.
• The 'jeans and little else' uniform ofA&F is the newest incarnation of a brand image that numbered among its fans John F Kennedy. Picture: Getty
Yes, rumour has it that US retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch – who woo customers into their stores with the help of buff, topless male staff – may be setting up shop in Glasgow's Buchanan Street, above the premises that once housed Borders bookstore.
The company has made no secret of the fact that it sees serious international expansion abroad as the key to securing its future, having taken a hit during the recession. The opening of a Glasgow store, however, would be a major coup for the Scottish retail scene, since it would be only the company's third European store, after Milan and London (which opened in 2007).
While the company is refusing to lend any weight to the rumours, it would not be at all surprising if it selected Glasgow as the site of its newest store.
Last year the chief executive, Mike Jeffries, stated: "We have said for some time that the future of our business is tied to international growth." Another spokesman added, "All major (UK] cities are candidates for our brand … given the success of the A&F flagship store in London, we see the UK as an important strategic staging ground for the roll-out of our brands internationally."
Abercrombie & Fitch, which turned over 2 billion last year, is the ultimate lesson in good fashion branding. The clothes themselves – an all-American preppy college aesthetic – are almost secondary to a specific image that the company has built; that of wholesome, beautiful young things wearing very little.
Their monochrome advertising campaigns feature very few clothes indeed. Male models are topless, while women might wear jeans and a white vest. There's even an Abercrombie smell: walk into any one of the more than 1,000 stores throughout the world and you'll be assaulted by their perfume which is sprayed all over the shop. (In womenswear, the scent's a warm floral; over in menswear it's citrus-based.) They know that what they're selling is a lifestyle, not just sweatshirts.
Jeffries makes no attempts to hide this, admitting recently that "We go for the cool kids. A lot of people don't belong and can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." The company goes so far as to call them "Abercrombie kids". They tend to be the kind of all-American jocks and cheerleaders who are the self-styled 'popular crew' and sport an unimaginative dress sense to match.
Abercrombie's constant pursuit of physical perfection is notorious. On my one and only visit to one of their stores I was greeted by two topless male models wearing perfect smiles and low-slung jeans, with equally-beautiful staff folding jeans while a pounding soundtrack (CDs of which can be purchased at the tills, naturally) played in the background.
A Muslim employee in the US accused the store of firing her for refusing to remove her headscarf on the shop floor, while a disabled employee of the London store successfully sued them last year after she was consigned to the stock room for not having the correct "look". She revealed that the store's staff include a group called the "model team", employed primarily for their looks.
The Abercrombie aesthetic remains hugely popular internationally, however, and the company clearly believes that it could work in Scotland. Like its British equivalent, Jack Wills – possibly the company's main UK competitor – the look is wholesome and sporty, with the average Abercrombie customer toned and tanned from a summer of surfing or a winter of skiing.
And, like Jack Wills, price points are very specific: high enough to be aspirational, but low enough that most people can afford to buy something as a treat. A simple sweatshirt might cost 60, a T-shirt 30 and a shirt 58.
Like early Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as other US brands like J Crew and the Abercrombie-owned Hollister, Americana is a firm focus for the brand's aesthetic. Designs do subtly reflect current fashions, but they change very little from season to season.
Instead, they promote a classic, collegiate look that's almost a uniform for the brand's fans. Most of the clothing is emblazoned with the brand's name and/or logo, emphasising that it's perhaps the name more than the design or quality that really shifts stock.
Established in 1892, in New Albany by David Abercrombie (he was joined by Ezra Fitch in 1900), the store was originally a sports and excursion outfitters aimed at miners and cowboys, and famously sold Ernest Hemingway the shotgun with which he killed himself. US presidents Teddy Roosevelt and John F Kennedy were fans, as were Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable.
The idea of "heritage" is always a big selling point for a brand, and in a country as young as the US, Abercrombie & Fitch is about as heritage as it gets, which goes some way to explain its popularity both at home and in the Far East, where heritage brands like Burberry and Pringle of Scotland do hugely well.
When Jeffries came on board in 1992, however, he transformed the company from a rather dowdy retailer into the kind of covetable brand that marks out the "nobodies" in US high-school corridors: they're the ones not wearing it.
Needless to say, the company targets a young-adult market. "At the weekends, teenagers queue for up to an hour outside the Abercrombie & Fitch store in London," says fashion stylist Lindsay Campbell.
"It's hugely popular, however, I do wonder if expanding to Glasgow, and perhaps to other European cities might make the brand lose it's sense of exclusivity and exoticism. It's got a real Americana vibe, and it used to be the case that you could only pick it up in the US. That was part of it's appeal, but I do wonder if, if it opens up in Glasgow, it will begin to feel a bit ubiquitous."
Would Scottish shoppers flock to an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Glasgow? Well, 50 per cent of Abercrombie & Fitch's online sales do come from the UK. Twenty-five-year-old PE teacher Louise Dawson is a fan of the label, which cites its three main values as "fashion, quality, aspiration", and is excited at the prospect of accessing the brand close to home. "I need to wear sporty clothing for my job, and for me Abercrombie & Fitch offers high-quality sportswear that's not the slightest bit tacky," she says. "It sits well, it fits well, and it doesn't scream 'sportswear'. I think that American brands are particularly good at achieving that classic aesthetic, and I think it would be hugely popular in Scotland. Their branding is undoubtedly clever, but I buy it for the design, the fit and the quality."
Charlie Bennet, a hairdresser who lives in Glasgow and works in Edinburgh, wonders if Buchanan Street is the right location for a store: "I think that Abercrombie & Fitch have done a great job of building a really strong brand, and I can see the appeal. I think it would do really well in Scotland, particularly because it's almost like a cult in the US, but I wonder if it's more Edinburgh than Glasgow because of its casual college vibe. After all, Jack Wills is hugely popular in Edinburgh. I'd wear some Abercrombie stuff. It's a bit like a cooler Gap, but I think it's a bit too casual, and perhaps one for teenagers."
Well, one for popular teenagers. Where the fashion world lends Abercrombie & Fitch no credence whatsoever, along with the equally brand-focused Jack Wills, it continues to be the byword for cool among middle-class teens, who dress head-to-toe in a corporate take on the idea of heritage. Will its version of branding over style, flesh over fashion and topless staff work in chilly Glasgow? Of course. Sex sells everywhere.
• 50 per cent of Abercrombie & Fitch's online sales come from the UK
&149 The company has 1,000 stores internationally but only three outside North America; in Tokyo, Milan and London.
• It has an annual turnover of around 2 billion and an annual profit of around 180 million.
• The company employs around 100,000 staff
• They specifically target 18-22-year-old consumers.
• The thumping dance music in stores can be as loud as 90 decibels, comparable to heavy construction machinery noise.
• There is an Abercrombie & Fitch in all but one of the American states.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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