Today my brother and I visited the Abercrombie and Fitch shop on Saville Row for the first time. Despite noting its booming music many times in passing, the gigantic queue that often snakes around the corner prevented me from going in. Today's entrance was blissfully clear at about 3:00 pm, and we decided to brave the Chippendale-esque sentries at the door and the thick clouds of brand perfume that seem to be pumped into the shop by some psychotic engineer intent on gassing every client that enters.
When we were inside (greeted by the all-too friendly "Hey Mate, how's it going" by every Abercrombie model strategically placed around the shop -- according to a friend who knows someone who works at the shop, the greeting is specified in their contract) we were enclosed in a world of towering dark wooden clothes shelves stacked with every shade of jumper and polo possible and pumping Eurodance hit "Story of My Life", by Tess. Enshrouded in the darkness of the ground floor, like H.G. Wells's Morlocks, our eyes naturally gravitated upwards to the Mezzanine balcony about fifteen feet above us where the shelf-towers end. There, ensconced in light were two dancing Eloi, Beautiful People complete in short tartan skirt (for the woman) and shapely jumpers, grimly performing dance moves that might have been off Top of the Pops 1995. What were they doing up there? Were they paid to dance? Were they just elated / ironic customers who'd seen their chance to express themselves among the kindly store staff?
We marched to the back of the shop to the changing rooms (yet more "mate, how're you doing?"s from the store staff) and we started to feel, weirdly, that we were among friends. The staff seemed so nice, their accents shorn of any geographic or class markers, their stances in relation to the world were so cool, their features were so chiseled (I later found out that it has been publicised that Abercrombie discriminates against ugly folk -- though I heard that's fixed now). We too began to feel like happy, integrated members of the vast, a-political preppy conspiracy to create a world without irony, without politics and hardship. But at the back of the store, by the changing rooms, the veil started to tear. Though the elegantly wood-panelled saloon-doored cubicles are full of Asian tourists, my brother's comment comparing them to the seedy loos at a South Ken nightclub complete with all the pertinent vices was far more believable.
Soon we were running for the door, but not before asking one of our new-friend-store-employees whether the dancers on the Mezzanine were bona fide.
"Hey, how are you, mate?" he asked.
"Fine", I answered, and then, pointing to the dancers, "Are they employed by the shop to dance?"
"No --" he stopped, embarrassed, almost as if he was a Cold War Pole confiding his dissatisfaction with the regime to a US tourist "-- they're not employed to dance, but they're not dancing out of choice. They're forced to dance."
With that, my brother and I ran from the shop, howling with a mixture of fear and laughter, crazed by the idea of these Faustian dancers who've signed their youth away to gyrate to eurodance for tourists in a fake Mayfair boutique. Even as we ran, we felt sucked backwards as the thuds of the bassline (were they in our heads or in our ears? followed us past the Haunch of Venison Gallery all the way to the Burlington Arcade.