I'd like to believe that I am guided by the premise that fashion is essentially about wearing what makes you feel comfortable and confident. This should be an ever-evolving personal process that relies on acquiring the knowledge and experience of wearing a garment or accessory in order to make it one's own and develop an individual and unique sense of style. With this view in mind, I find it very worrying to witness the expansion of mass-produced and mass-consumed fashion retailers whose sartorial concepts and looks rely on exploring fake heritage imagery or the cult of the body beautiful.
It is undeniable that, throughout the history of fashion advertising, promotional campaigns have relied on superficial beauty and sexualised imagery to draw customers into stores. Traditionally, this enticement stops on the shop floor, with brands allowing consumers to experience their products from a personal viewpoint in a purposefully created sense of individuality. However, when brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, and Gilly Hicks openly embrace skin-deep beauty, physical perfection, and sexuality purely to sell basic garments, accessories, skin products and fragrances to teenagers and young adults before, during and after the purchase stage, I cannot help but finding this a very unsavoury development in the fashion world.
Proof of this state of affairs happened on 12 May 2012 in central London. On that day, the British capital was inflicted with the sights of dozens of attractive, well-built and nearly naked young men and women who paraded throughout the city as part of a marketing exercise to celebrate the opening of the flagships stores for Hollister and Gilly Hicks in London. If, on the surface, this revealed a commercially savvy strategy to promote a fashion brand, deep down it was evidence of an extremely problematic and dangerous view of the human body as marketing tool.
As part of the Abercrombie & Fitch group, Hollister and Gilly Hicks essentially rely on the unashamed promotion of beauty and sex to make money. The stores' staff are clearly employed because of their looks and anyone will struggle to find sales assistants with excessive body fat or who could be deemed unattractive. To further show their flesh and entice customers, girls parade in short dresses with lace and floral patterns and boys walk around the stores entrances in swimming trunks and flip-flops, in a permanent fake haze of carefree and highly sexualised Summer days. Their greetings to any customer consist of insincere smiles and scripted idiotic utterances such as 'Hi guys!' and 'How's it going?'
The stores sell an unashamed lifestyle that is purely physical and related to the casual world of sports and outdoors activities such as surfing or sunbathing. This is a world where intellectual or emotional activity of any kind is repressed, a move that many customers of fashion easily buy into. The importance of the physical over the intellectual is at the essence of the Hollister and Gilly Hick shop in central London's prestigious Regent Street, as well of consumers' need to engage in easy satisfaction. It is very telling that the new retail space for the two brands is replacing what used to be National Geographic Magazine store, which had to close owing to lack of interest and profitability.
The interior of the new Hollister flagship store in central London (the 30th store of the brand in the UK) is bathed in images of water flowing and surfing as the brand intends to be known for selling a southern California lifestyle. At the same time, the dark wood that pervades all areas and the very dim lighting (which has garnered criticism from some consumers who have pointed out that they cannot see what they are buying) serve to display collections of clothes and accessories divided into a crude gender polarization between males (the 'Dudes') and females (the 'Bettys').
The fact that there is actually very little space to move inside the store is created with a sense of forceful urgency in mind that funnels customers through the shopping experience in close proximity to staff who look like models and products. The clothes seem to be of reasonably good quality and the design, if basic, is satisfactory. However, journalists and shoppers are told that no photographs can be taken on the inside of the store. In addition, finding images of the stores' interiors has proven to be difficult. This has not only to do with the brand protection to avoid counterfeiting but mostly to preserve a controlled mystique of desirability to consumers who will have to go inside the store to experience the brand and part with money.
In the same building, and across the hall from Hollister, Gilly Hicks describes itself as 'the cheeky cousin of Abercrombie & Fitch'. It provides underwear, swimwear and sleepwear for women at affordable prices and relying on a colourful formula. Gilly Hicks explores the phrase 'Down Under' in crassly literal and metaphorical ways and has added the word 'Sydney' to its branding, making this the only of the five Abercrombie & Fitch brands not to rely on symbols of Americana. Like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, the lifestyle that Gilly Hicks sells is centred on a pornographic view of fashion, where the fine line between sexy and soft-core porn is easily crossed.
There is little doubt that, with such enticing marketing, these stores will prove to be profitable and of interest to young British consumers. As for me, when it comes to fashion I see very little creativity and the potential to celebrate individuality in the clothes and lifestyles engendered by the Abercrombie & Fitch brands. Even if the quality of the clothes could speak for itself, the overwhelming use of the body beautiful as a profitable commodity remains an extremely worrying fact and something that I find myself not able to endorse in any shape or form.
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