This originally was a comment on a post College Jay wrote about modesty (and other things). He had pondered, in passing, the strange advertising technique of Abercrombie & Fitch, wherein they use unlcothed men in order to advertise clothing. I happen to find that really interesting, and so I wound up writing quite a bit about it. My comment happened to be twice as long as the post, so he suggested that I put it on my own blog. So, here it is.
The way that retail stores work is that they have a fantasy ‘ideal customer,’ essentially the person who would wear their clothing, around whom they build all of their advertising, the way their stores are set up and how they function, who works for them and how their employees present themselves, and various other details. This creates a picture of what the customer should be like and in extreme cases what their entire lifestyle should be. Abercrombie and Hollister Co. (which are owned by the same parent company) are two examples from the extreme side of this, as are Anthropologie, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, and J Peterman Company. These stores create a narrative that the people they hope to attract as customers will identify with. So HCO is the California surfer, Abercrombie is the big man on campus college student (who is perpetually on spring or winter break, apparently), Anthropologie is the young woman with a quirky sense of style, AmApp is the socially conscious 20-something, Urban Outfitters is akin to AmApp but slightly less socially conscious, J Peterman is someone who leads a life of leisure and puts good money into unique clothing.
All of these ideas about what type of person wears their clothes are conveyed via the in- and out-of-store advertising. Abercrombie has half-naked models and a porn filled ‘catalogue’ (actually they may have finally gotten rid of it, or at least made it harder to get a hold of, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk to find out); AmApp employees produce all of their advertising as part of their vertical hierarchy business model; Anthropologie produces a high-concept art catalogue and gives a quirky name to everything it sells; J Peterman has a write up (long copy) about all of its clothing that explains how ‘J Peterman’ discovered the piece and portrays the buyer wearing it accompanied by a drawing (rather than a photo) of the clothes without a ‘person’ wearing them; Urban Outfitters has overly artistic photography reminiscent of the ’60s, ’70s, and sometimes ’80s; HCO is Abercrombie-lite with younger models and no porn. The styles of clothing fit in with this advertising. The way the stores are set up also contribute to this affect, (No Anthropologie store is the same, but they tend to be set up to look like boutiques rather than corporate chain-stores; HCO and Abercrombie have those giant pictures everywhere, are darkly lit, the entrances lead to an atrium rather than opening into the whole store). The employees are supposed to wear the clothes (and at least in the case of HCO are actually hired based on whether they fit the ‘Hollister’ look, and HCO openly says that the employees are the advertising).
The models that these stores choose for their catalogues are also chosen very specifically. They are all looking for models with “The Hollister Look,” or “The Urban Outfitters Look,” excepting AmApp, which uses AmApp employees (again, part of the business model). This allows customers to identify further with “The Look,” if you compare the men pictured in Abercrombie’s advertising to the men in Urban Outfitters, or the girls in Anthropologie to the girls in Hollister, you will see what I mean. It’s not just the way they look, it’s the styling of the make-up and hair, how they stand, etc. Anthropologie usually uses only a few models per catalogue, and about four times a year produces a catalogue using only one girl, who is accompanied by a man (presumably her husband) and her children. They rent a house, furnish it, and stage various parts of the models ‘life’ there, giving a full picture of what “The Anthropologie girl’s” life is like. This creates a full template for the customer to identify with. The same sort of thing was intended through the Abercrombie catalogue, except the concept was to show a sexually irresponsible twenty-something. J Peterman takes a very interesting approach in that it eschews models entirely, instead using drawings of its clothing sans the humans wearing it. This frees the customer from the specifics of super-attractive, super-thin models, as well as the specifics of age, race, etc. It is just as easy for a black twenty year old to imagine himself wearing a Gatsby shirt as it is for a white fifty year old. This technique therefore seems to broaden their possible customer pool considerably.The concept behind creating these detailed presentations is that it creates signals that say to the customer “this is my style, this is the type of person I am,” and the customer will begin to identify himself as “an Abercrombie guy” or “an Anthropologie girl,” thereby committing themselves to shopping even more at the store. If you go to the websites of these stores and look at how they present their clothing you can see all of this for yourself (and maybe you can even figure out what kind of a guy you are; I’m definitely an Anthropologie/J Peterman girl).