BY Bruce Hainley in Frieze | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Boys will be Boys

Abercrombie & Fitch's new catalogue is like a magazine, just more honest

BY Bruce Hainley in Frieze | 11 NOV 98

It has pretty girls and really cute boys, advice on how to furnish a room, what music to listen to, which books to read, movies to watch (and which to skip), really cute boys, what to pack for college, what places make for good weekend getaways, pointers on what to provide for, uh, overnight guests - 'Have condoms placed around the room. A bedside supply of crisp cotton towels is an even better idea.' It also has advice columns, stories, interviews, recipes, tips on dating, and - did I mention? - really cute boys. And then there are clothes to buy, because it is a catalogue, probably the first with a warning label (WARNING: Parental Consent Suggested For Readers Under 18), due, I suppose, to six strapping lads streaking across a rather sumptuous four-page, sepia-toned Bruce Weber fold-out.

Abercrombie & Fitch's A&F Quarterly asks predominantly to be admired for the really cute boys in and out of A&F clothes, posed in all the scrubbed, buoyant ways Weber can pose them - lounging around, fooling around, goofing off, lost in a daze, fast asleep (on a pillow the book they're not quite making it through). It can also be appreciated for its blunt, no-nonsense, frontal approach to marketing: given a well-styled spread, certain shoppers might desire to buy it all. Fortunately almost everything in the A&F Quarterly's just a toll-free number or email address away, even when it's not an A&F product, like the bitchin', low slung 'Teardrop' sportster bike by Hurn (at 416 406 7243 or So while a budget Weber collectable, it's also a cooler, snazzier, more cost effective Wallpaper.

Since the theme of the 'Back to School Issue 98' is 'On the Road', the transformation of dormitory cell to 'habitat' requires little more than keeping an eye on comfort and affordability, and a Kerouac-inspired hipster ease. Recommendations begin with sporty un-frou-frou items aimed at the oblivious college guy, who, while creating the 'perfect pad', wants to 'turn [his] domicile into a babe lair par excellence' (it goes unsaid whether these babes are male or female). Among the suggested furnishings are a 'polar fleece blanket', a 'flotaki rug', a 'brown suede pillow'. The room shown in a softly hued photo printed on the catalogue's luxurious matte paper eschews, thank God, 50s and 60s moderne except as accent pieces. With its Drugstore Cowboy and Lost Highway posters, plastic shelf unit - holding files, books and a bottle of Jack Daniel's - and its Canondale 'Fatty' mountain bike hanging vertically from the ceiling like a better, more utilitarian Calder mobile, it manages to look, well, lived in and resonating possibility. By configuring 'interior design' as a term amenable to any inhabitable environment - even the inhabited 'personal space' of the zone of a human body - A&F can show pictures of locker rooms, movie theatres, new and old VW Beetles packed with people or things, and then shots merely of models wearing their various A&F clothes.

Given the editorial policy of fear at most magazines - where there is no actual aesthetic which is not apron-tied to meaning, slavish to product and beholden to the corporations which churn said products out, it all feels somehow honest. George W.S. Trow tracked such winnowing of (editorial) authority in Within the Context of No Context (1981), but the current state of things is one nobody would have wanted to predict - although it is everyone's responsibility to deal with it. Most editors are afraid to publish essays as essays, things actually written rather than redacted from a press release, on subjects they (by way of their writers) believe in; things which might be eccentric, outré, or out of circulation. But believe it or not, furniture and clothing are best when they look a bit out of kilter and enjoyed. Stars and performers are most interesting when they are not promoting a film or recent 'breakthrough' album, when they're still has-beens and haven't yet had the come-back, when they're just doing what they've always been doing, for years pursuing whatever elusive things keep them at it. Books are most interesting without the publicity tsunami needed to justify an initial print run of 1.2 million copies. But Peggy Lee isn't going to grace the next cover of Spin; since his death, Robert Pinget's books will probably never again be reviewed in what must be called the 'popular press'; and writer James McCourt and artist B. Wurtz, among others, remain underappreciated if their names are even recognised. To look at this another way, Madonna might be interesting, but only when personal tweakiness decides - not when she and her record company and MTV and her publicity department decide, which sadly is the only time most editors cover her, because the product demands it.

Does this have anything to do with A&F Quarterly and what I see as its bit of honesty? Well, only that Abercrombie & Fitch's publication is a display of what they find, cool, healthy, sexy, what have you, but unlike most magazines, they print the prices of just about everything they're offering up as cool, healthy, and sexy rather than dissembling - as if their objective critical opinion were uninfluenced by sales. The corporate gush inside, sadly, seems to be a lot more subjectivity than you find in most other magazines. They've decided to let Bruce Weber give them a look, an aesthetic, and he has (his own); perhaps even more than they bargained for. His work would seem to have something to do with coolness, healthiness, sexiness via the exuberance of boys and their skins and whatever eroticism swirls around that, but I'm not sure Weber's strange genius conveys anything so verifiable. This unverifiability, at least a peppering of it, is what I'm after, and something that market statistics and testing will not allow.

Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles, USA. His book, Foul Mouth (2006), is published by 2nd Cannons, Los Angeles.