Good Friday is a public holiday in the UK, which means I had the day off from work. Jon and I are leaving for a ten-day vacation tomorrow (Slovenia and Croatia with our friends from college), but the weather was so sunny and inviting today, we started our holiday in town by picnicking in Hyde Park with friends and then going on a scavenger hunt in Westminster.
While we were out and about, I noticed a lot of double-decker buses emblazoned with Abercrombie & Fitch ads. They’re hard to miss thanks to the double-decker size of the half-naked hottie featured, and it reminded me to describe my visit to the new Abercrombie flagship store in London.
Only if you work in retail (or if you are a hardcore fan of the store – i.e., an affluent, white, twenty-something) might you know that the London store opened to the UK public on 22 March and is Abercrombie’s first venture outside North America. I, however, showed up a few days before the 22 March opening to be part of an “investor tour,” which is an open house-style event for people who own (or might own) big chunks of Abercrombie stock. You show up, get your name crossed off a list by an investor relations/PR-type person, walk around inspecting stuff, maybe talk to corporate reps (the CEO and folks less august), and then leave with swag.
The store sits on Savile Row and is steps away from the Burlington Arcade. If that last sentence meant nothing to you, I’m saying the area where the Flagship opened is super old-school in a big-jewelry, expensive Grandma-soap kind of way. It’s a funny place to locate a store that aggressively sells youth and sex.
Also confusing to me is how nondescript the store is. There was no signage and I almost walked past the entrance – that is, until I heard the pounding techno music inside. The Flagship is housed in a sober stone building whispering “private club,” rather than shouting “American retailer of sexy clothes.” (See photo at top)
Inside, the store was service heaven. It was like being back in America – there were helpers galore. The staff had American accents, and everyone was asking if they could help. No need for the requisite dance with British servers to get basic help (“oh, please, would you ever be so kind as to take the time out of your busy day to see if perhaps you might possibly have this T-shirt in a different size?”). I mean, I’m not saying in America it’s OK to be rude or mean (never acceptable, anywhere in the world), but just that in the US, you can say “do you have this in a different size” without drawing a scornful “what an asshole” look from people who were presumably hired to help you.
As you’d expect from Abercrombie, the helpers were embarrassingly good-looking. An especially attractive young man and woman greeted guests/investors in the vestibule, and as is the Abercrombie way, the man was standing around without a shirt – the idea being that if you want to be like He of the Rippling Abs, you should buy Abercrombie’s £40 T-shirts.
The store interior was all high drama. Dark rooms; soaring ceilings; pinpoint lighting; gorgeous wrought-iron railings and grand stone staircases. The most entertaining touches were the oil paintings of studly young men in their American football outfits. And here I thought oil painting was a dying art.
I haven’t been in an Abercrombie store since college, but overall, I’m highly unlikely to shop there now (and to be fair, they’re not marketing to 30-somethings like me, so no loss to them, I suppose). Two things in particular annoyed me, and I’ll be curious to see if they annoy the 20-something target audience:
1. The Jeans Bar on the ground floor looks user-unfriendly. Jeans are displayed in glass counters and also along the wall behind the glass counters, as if you’re in a jewelry store. To try on the jeans, you have to talk to the helpers manning the counter, and honestly, I like to try on an annoyingly-high number of pairs before I decide on one that fits, so I’d rather not have to interact with anyone if I so choose. I also had to laugh out loud at jeans in the Men’s area that came with a sign announcing that only 250 pairs of these jeans exist in the world, and only the extra-cool stores (LA, New York and London) stock them. Obviously, there’s a price premium attached to such exclusivity.
2. Bad-value goods. Like many Americans, I love casual clothes, and I don’t shy from the occasional “investment piece.” But £70 for a sweatshirt that says “Abercrombie” on it? Seriously? The £50 tag on underwear-length shorts also made quality dinner-party fodder the past few weeks. And there were rooms of this stuff (sweatshirts and shorts), by the way. I haven’t seen any Londoner wear shorts, ever, so what’s with this inventory decision? Additionally, the sizes were American, not British. There’s a big difference between the two: an American women’s Size 6 is a British Size 10, for example. So, given European sensitivity about American insensitivity towards the world’s cultural differences, selling items in UK sizes would be a nice gesture, don’t you think? Or at least smart business.
I’d go back to the store if it ever closes and turns into a martini lounge. If that happens, the new owners should keep the helpers around. They’re hot.