Selling clothes with nudity

Marketing: Catalog from Abercrombie & Fitch causes a stir with cool kids, and concerned parents, over what it's selling.

December 20, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Abercrombie & Fitch's winter catalog is about the clothiers' "youthful, spirited, yet responsible" lifestyle, says spokesman Hampton Carney.

You know, "playing touch football, riding on horses."

That's cool. But why are some of the models doing these things naked?

That's what angry politicians and parents want to know. Since the 300-page, $6 catalog came out last month, government officials in Michigan, Arkansas, Illinois and Missouri have loudly voiced disapproval, written letters of complaint, pursued legal or community action against the company, or done some combination of these efforts. (The Maryland Attorney General's office hasn't received any complaints, according to spokeswoman Jamie St. Onge.)

The "Naughty or Nice" catalog, available at Abercrombie stores, select bookstores and through mail-order, comes encased in plastic with a warning sticker suggesting parental consent for kids under 18. Last month, Abercrombie stores began carding kids in response to the outcry.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood is calling for an Abercrombie boycott.

The company is peddling "what essentially is soft porn," Wood says.

She's appalled by the "Naughty or Nice" catalog, which seems a little at odds with the sporty, all-American clothes the company offers.

Naughty or nice? Take a look. There's no full frontal nudity, but it gets close.

Take page 104 where you'll find porn star Jenna Jameson stretched out on a bed, displaying her tattooed bottom, followed by a graphic interview with her. Midway through the catalog, there's a double-page spread of a comely, unclothed redhead sprawled on a horse. The next page features a fake interview with a pedophile mall Santa.

Offensive or not, "Naughty or Nice" had sold out at four of the five Abercrombie & Fitch stores in the area by Friday.

The catalog is more of an artistic statement than a product vehicle, Carney explains. Abercrombie has another, more reserved quarterly that is more traditional, he says.

The company argues that its target market is 18-to-22-year olds.

"Make no mistake about it, this is adult stuff," Carney says.

Mercedes Cardona, a writer specializing in apparel for Advertising Age, says the brand skews much younger. The clothes are "aspirational." Young teens buy them to emulate cool college kids. And Wood agrees.

"Talk to any parent with children ages 10 and on, and you'll know what's the most popular, cool store, and that's Abercrombie & Fitch," Wood says. "The fact is, they're marketing sexual images to 10-14-year-olds."

Wood canceled her family's subscription to the Abercrombie catalog last November in reaction to a cover featuring four teen-age girls and a boy in bed together. The girls were holding up a pair of boxers.

No, "Naughty or Nice" isn't the first Abercrombie ad campaign to raise eyebrows. In fact, Cardona says it's pretty much "par for the course" for the company that has a history of using suggestive photos, and that last year had a drinking game primer in a catalog. Cardona explains that about three years ago, Abercrombie, facing declining sales, wildly revamped its wholesome image.

Shock is essential, Cardona says, because teens have "the attention span of a small flea. Any type of fashion advertising has to be constantly renewing itself. If the next wave is New Puritans, they'll do something much more prudish."

She adds, "You don't sell clothes based on how straight the seams are or how the zippers work. You sell it because it's cool and you'll be cool if you wear it."

Wood, of Illinois, says several stores in her state have not been obeying the carding mandate. But Abercrombie & Fitch in Owings Mills was, at least one recent afternoon.

Felix Gleiser, 13, just tried to buy one. "They wouldn't sell it to me," says the Reisterstown resident.

He and his friend Alex Trakhtman just finished shopping at the Owings Mills store.

"Teen-agers are all into this," says Trakhtman, 13. "When they see nudity, they think the clothes are cool."

What clothes?

"How is it advertising clothes if they're naked?" asks Christine Parr, 18, also at Abercrombie in Owings Mills.

The Severna Park High School student flips to the naked-girl-on-horse page. "That's almost like porno," she says. Parr then catches a glimpse of a series of pictures featuring nubile models, seen nude from the back, embracing fellow cuties clad in space suits. "What is this?" she says in disbelief. "This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

Her mother, Sherrill Parr, considers herself more "liberal" than most parents. Still, the Parrs canceled their subscription to the Abercrombie catalog about a year ago because of its racy content.

"I don't think it's anything they haven't seen in the movies or on TV," says Sherrill Parr.

Abercrombie is hardly alone in the questionable advertising methods camp. Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, French Connection and more fashion retailers also have been attacked for seducing pre-teens with inappropriate images and ideas on billboards and in print.

Cardona thinks all the fuss is just going to make the catalog and the store more popular.

Even if that's so, not all parents are worried.

Cindi Topolski, 39, and her son Ben, 13, sit on a bench outside Abercrombie and leaf through the catalog. Topolski, a Reisterstown resident, doesn't cover Ben's eyes or make overly condemning statements. She is, however, a little surprised to discover this isn't Ben's first look at "Naughty or Nice." Ben, a Franklin Middle School student, already saw it at a friend's house.

Topolski flips to a picture of an elfin young man and woman -- practically in the buff -- lying on top of each other. "What do you think they're doing?" she says with a laugh.

Smiling, she turns the page to a well-toned lad straddling a horse clad only in tattoos. His arm strategically covers, well, you know.

"That's kind of nice, actually," she says playfully.

Ben rolls his eyes.

"Mom, turn the page."

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