diamond geezer

 Friday, March 23, 2007

geezer goes out... to experience day 1 of a retail phenomenon
Abercrombie and Fitch - flagship European store now open in Mayfair

Up until yesterday if you'd seen somebody in London wearing Abercrombie and Fitch clothing, you'd have known it had been purchased across the Atlantic. A&F do love to scrawl their brand name across their apparel, so you'd probably have noticed. Maybe some scrappy cloth letters across the front of a sweatshirt, maybe a patch down one leg of some swim shorts, or possibly a slogan sewn above the peak of a baseball cap. It's effortlessly trendy stuff is Abercrombie and Fitch, and has been endowed with a certain smug exclusivity when worn on the streets of the capital. But not any more. Now any Tom, Dick or Harriet can clothe themselves in A&F from head to toe, thanks to the grand opening yesterday of the company's very first UK store just off Savile Row. And what a store.

It's not at all obvious from the outside that this is a shop of any kind. Stand in Burlington Gardens, round the back of the Royal Academy, and the building looks like an extremely wealthy gentleman's well-preserved Mayfair villa. The store boasts a broad white Georgian facade with prim rectangular windows, as befits a Grade II listed townhouse dating back nearly three centuries. There's not even an obvious Abercrombie & Fitch sign above the door. But that's no problem, because the steady stream of shoppers attempting to pass through the elegant entrance suggests that this store will feed off word of mouth alone.

I suspect that the two live specimens of topless chiselled beefcake positioned just inside the front door yesterday were special features exclusive to Day 1. A&F do like to associate themselves with barely-attainable muscle, and there are plenty of pert pectorals depicted in paintings and murals high up on the interior walls. The overarching artistic theme is a sort of classical/public school hybrid - very Mayfair and appropriately un-American - right down to the semi-clad statue stood at the bottom of the staircase. And the staircase still looks like a proper 18th century wood-panelled staircase, even with ultra-keen 21st century shoppers swarming all over it. The parlours, side-rooms and bedchambers leading off from the hallway and landing have been sympathetically transformed into womenswear mini-departments. Meanwhile the central part of the building, with its interlinked high-ceilinged chambers, is where the men hang out.

The shelves are stacked so tall that the upper levels can only be for show. Here are tidy piles of colourful sweatshirts and subdued crewnecks, above tables strewn with neatly-folded shirts and hoodies. In the central hallway there's more of a jeans focus, dispensed from behind a glass-fronted counter reminiscent of a post-war department store (apart from the moose's head on the wall, obviously). Yesterday a throng of curious customers filled the aisles, shuffling round to peer and gawp at every product in every nook. Some schoolgirls looked like they'd bunked off lessons early just to be here, while many 20- and 30-something blokes were staring in reverence as if they'd just had their wardrobe prayers answered. The queue for the gents changing rooms stretched back rather longer than that for the cash desk, although none of the grinning shop assistants seemed to mind.

There is, of course, a catch - these clothes aren't cheap. A triangle of skimpy swimwear will set you back £35, a polo shirt £50 and a tasteful stripy shirt all of £70. You have to mentally translate each price into dollars ($70, $100 and $140) to see that Abercrombie and Fitch are having a highly profitable laugh at the expense of the UK consumer. However cool the brand, this is just high street fashion at wallet-emptying prices. But still very desirable, very aspirational, very must-have. If Day 1 is anything to go by, this brand new store can expect a better-than-rosy future. It's well worth coming and taking a look around, I reckon, just to absorb the full UK A&F experience. But if you want to spend a small fortune on giving your image a trendy transatlantic overhaul then you might be better off waiting until a wet Wednesday morning several weeks hence, when the initial interest has finally died down.

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