Preppie clothier pins hopes on amateur wrestling ads

November 02, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

IF YOU ARE out to catch the eye of the incredibly fickle 18- to 22-year-old clothes horse, it is hard to believe that you'd hitch your marketing wagon to, ummmmm, wrestling.

Not the WWF kind of wrestling. Not "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Not Goldberg. Not "The Undertaker." Those trashy spectacles are the cable campfires around which kids are gathering these days. That might actually make sense.

No. We're talking about the Dan Gable, Dave Schultz kind of wrestling. Amateur wrestling. College wrestling. Bloody-nose, cauliflower-ear, spit-box wrestling.

The kind of wrestling I witnessed in my previous life as a sportswriter and the kind of wrestling I hear about all the time as the mother of a wrestler and the wife of a sportswriter who would rather cover the NCAA wrestling championships than the Super Bowl.

"Wrestling: what men do during boys basketball season," teased the print ads that first appeared in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

With that, Abercrombie & Fitch, the latest hot new thing in retail, launched its fall advertising campaign and its first-ever television spots.

Starring wrestlers.

"People love it," says Sam Shahid, whose ad company came up with the campaign. "The thing is, it's real. And it's about brotherhood and preparing yourself to win in a sport that isn't about money, that isn't about going to the big leagues. It is an emotional, spiritual thing for these guys and the ad captures that.

"Kids love it, women love it," he says.

And wrestlers love it.

"Beggars can't be choosers," says Kendall Cross, NCAA champion, three-time U.S. national champion, 1996 Olympic freestyle wrestling cham- pion and now a volunteer assistant wrestling coach at Harvard.

"Wrestling isn't a sport that commands a lot of attention. It's difficult to understand because there isn't a goal post at either end," says Cross, who works as a financial consultant in Boston.

The ad campaign is shot in black and white by Bruce Weber -- he of the stark and sensual Calvin Klein ads. He was inspired by a the memory of a wrestling workout he photographed in Iowa, the Holy Land of U.S. amateur wrestling.

The result is a spinning, turning, hand-held view of, in Cross' assessment, a pretty authentic wrestling practice. In place of a thumping soundtrack, there are disembodied voices of wrestlers talking about what the sport means to them.

"At the end of the day, you can't even move," a voice says. "You've kind of gone through something together. It is friendship and loyalty through shared pain "

"Guys get hurt. Guys get bloody. Guys get in fights "

But in these spots, the guys look incredibly good doing it.

The models in the ad are wrestlers, or were in college or high school. When Shahid tossed out the net to cast the ad, he chose the guys from the Abercrombie & Fitch stable of washboard stomachs who had some mat experience.

(The balding guy in the middle of the mat barking orders is an actor. The real wrestling coach on site at the University of Miami filming wasn't enough of a screamer.)

"They have a wrestling background, you can see that," says Cross. "But from an aesthetic point of view, they made it very pleasing to the eye."

What he's implying, of course, is that real wrestling isn't.

There are more lantern jaws and soulful eyes than cauliflower ears in this wrestling room. No blubbery heavyweights and no dwarfed and skinny 112-pounders. Just a bunch of glistening torsos and sculpted shoulders.

It looks like a wrestling team made up of two-dozen 157-pound male models -- which may explain the enthusiastic response to the ads from the homosexual community.

"Gays love it," says Shahid.

But so do a lot of straight women. The ad runs continuously on monitors in Abercrombie & Fitch stores, a shocking oasis of naked sensuality in the middle of your basic suburban mall.

Whew! Hot. Hot. Hot.

"Hey, they are great looking," says Shahid. "What can I say? Women are finding it very sexy. Sports can be that way."

I doubt that it ever occurred to wrestlers that their sport could be a hyper-sexual vehicle to push clothes on kids. For guys like Cross, wrestling is akin to Holy Orders. The physical punishment of a wrestling practice can be stomach-flipping, the endurance required is legendary. There is a reason why they close the door to the wrestling room.

By comparison, actual competition, a physical chess match that requires as much strategy as it does strength, can be over in the blink of an eye, and only a handful of spectators will have the slightest understanding of what happened.

How dare some New York ad guy take this sacred calling and use it to sell T-shirts to chicks, mall rats and wannabes?

"Hey, this is a wonderful deal for us. I hope more come along like it," says Cross, whose sport continues to be squeezed on the college level by the pressure to balance the numbers in men's and women's athletics.

"We're like gymnastics. The public only pays attention to us every four years. We've gotta find a way to market our sports, or we will end up like the dinosaurs."

Or like the faded logo on somebody's T-shirt. The ad promotes Abercrombie & Fitch's fall line of athletic sportswear, which includes a line of $30 to $50 "old-look" T-shirts with the fading legend "Abercrombie Wrestling" emblazoned on them.

The irony is that a T-shirt is often a wrestler's only reward for victory -- one of the voiced-over wrestlers even mentions this -- and he will treat that shirt as if it were the Shroud of Turin. Wrestling isn't a big sport for trophies and hardware, but they always have tournament T-shirts.

"A medal is a medal is a medal," says Cross. "It is what's behind that victory -- what a wrestler goes through -- that counts. And that is something no one but a wrestler understands."

And as any wrestler will tell you, nobody wrestles just because he wants the T-shirt.

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