Retail Sex Therapy at Abercrombie & Fitch

The once elite outfitter of men the likes of Hemingway now casually displays the chiseled torsos of half-naked men, and has women in New York all hot and bothered.

It was 93 degrees the other afternoon, but it felt hotter. Especially outside the Abercrombie & Fitch store on Fifth Avenue, where a gaggle of blonde Belgian girls patiently awaited their opportunity to enter the temple of summery checkered shirts, mildly distressed fabrics and the most chiseled employees this side of a Friday Night Lights screen test—if Friday Night Lights were directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

It’s reassuring, isn’t it, the persistence of the line outside Abercrombie & Fitch? Whatever else happens, New Yorkers can rest assured that at any business hour, during any season, one can saunter past the corner of 56th and Fifth and think, “What the hell is wrong with those people?”

For a long time, I thought that perhaps tourists had been tricked into thinking the store was a nightclub. Sometimes, walking by—I do this a lot—I’d mutter “It’s not a nightclub!” under my breath. “Nightclubs aren’t open at 2:00 in the afternoon. Not in America.”

Actually, I kind of wish there were a super-secret tourists-only pop-up discotheque, accessible through a hidden door behind the sales racks. Better that than the alternative—that the endless line of people waiting patiently behind the velvet rope are merely there to pick up up a hoodie. It’s a bit like seeing the best minds of your generation destroyed by madness. Or it would be, if the best minds of your generation happened to be spray-tanned orange and live-blogging the experience frantically on a Hello Kitty stamped iPhone.

I approached the Belgians. “Why are you here?” I asked, hoping to sound simply convivial and inquisitive rather than baffled and ornery.

“The guys,” one exclaimed. “We like!”

“All-American men!” a tank-top clad girl cooed in agreement.

The shirtless door hunks are a staple of Abercrombie & Fitch —the corn-fed equivalent of the large-bosomed waitresses at Hooters, the slutty little tramps at American Apparel, and the unusually large mice at Walt Disney World. They stand at the entrance, greeting customers and posing for pictures. And they do look American, or at least they look like what an alien might imagine Americans look like if he was partial to reruns of Dawson’s Creek.

The sweater-folders and and cashiers inside aren’t too shabby either.

A&F has put a lot of effort into building its brand over the years. The infamous A&F Quarterly, which featured Bruce Weber’s photos of strapping young men and women—and the odd golden retriever—frolicking in the nude and nearly nude, was a reliably controversial piece of beefcake samizdat in the late-90s and early aughts. (At press time, a set of 28 issues in “pristine condition” could be had on Ebay for $840, with a mere 31 hours to go.)

Back in 2005, the conservative Christian Bob Jones University prohibited students from even sporting the A&F logo, due to the company’s “unusual display of wickedness.”

And then, of course, there was that $40 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the company’s hiring practices. And the $20,000 payout last week to a Muslim woman who claimed job discrimination.

None of which seemed to trouble the Belgians. The door hunks aren’t menacing. They’re wholesome looking. They’re pleasant. They ask the women entering how they’re doing today. They are to women what Britney Spears circa 2000 might have been to men. Meanwhile, the interior of the store, with its low lighting and pulsating music, does look a little like a nightclub, but one where all the men seem desirable, courteous and attentive. The company has come a long way since they sold Hemingway the gun he used to shoot himself.

I approached Elijah, who said he had been working as one of the door hunks for a little less than a year.

“Do women ask you out all the time?” I inquired.

“Every day!” He replied.

“Really?” Elijah looked surprised that I was surprised that women ask him out all the time.

Of course, I wasn’t asking him out. I was reporting a story. A few details from my research: Elijah was almost comically good looking. He had the name of an angel, as well as the face and sturdy calves.

“Does it ever make you feel like a piece of meat?” I asked.

“Nah,” Elijah said, shrugging good-naturedly. “I kinda like it.”

So, I wondered, these women … does he actually, you know, date them?

“Date? Or, like …” he trailed off and raised his eyebrows. The door hunks may not be as innocent as their plaid shirts would have us believe.

Suddenly, a skinny white-haired man wearing a Statue of Liberty hat rode up on a tricycle. Pausing at the front of the line, he wordlessly presented me with a stack of Polaroids taken of himself and women inside the Abercrombie store. In some he was flexing his skinny arms in a muscle man pose. He grinned as he shifted back and forth in his flowered galoshes and wrinkled sweatpants, proudly displaying his picture-book. The women seemed to enjoy his company—he might have been a bit eccentric and had a physique closer to a preadolescent than a muscleman, but he had the Abercrombie pose down. Maybe that’s all anyone was looking for.

I asked if he planned to wait in line and do some shopping. He shook his head no. Too hot. Only a crazy person would do that.

Retail Sex Therapy at Abercrombie & Fitch