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Stories like these require time and money, but in today's retail environment—where every brand wants to distinguish itself as a lifestyle choice, not just a place to shop—they're practically a requirement. And while merchants are dabbling in editorial content, publishers that run the gamut from Condé Nast to personal style bloggers are trying their best to milk their stories for profit via affiliate links and brand-sponsored projects. Right now, the line between e-commerce and editorial, between selling and telling, has never been thinner. Maybe this is part of the reason we're all so nostalgic for the '90s, supposedly a more innocent era where people created zines for the fun of it and nobody ever used the word "monetize."
But take a look at one of the most notorious publications of the decade, and it's clear this brave new world of branded content existed even before the birth of Google. A&F Quarterly, the magalog produced from 1997 to 2003 by Abercrombie & Fitch, is probably most famous now for its nudity-filled Bruce Weber photo shoots—and for being a lightning rod for controversy. During its six year, $100 million run, it was protested by everyone from conservative groups like Focus on the Family to the Chicago chapter of NOW. But if you flip through it today, what stands out is the range of people who agreed to lend their star power to what was essentially a catalog by a teen retailer.
What stands out is the range of people who agreed to lend their star power to what was essentially a catalog by a teen retailer.
There's Kylie Minogue at the height of "Can't Get You Outta My Head" fever. Jamie-Lynn Sigler talking about how Meadow Soprano lost her virginity. Charlie Hunnam on his role in Freaks & Geeks. There are the Hilton sisters answering hard-hitting questions like "Would you rather be fat or poor?" (Both chose poor.) And then there's prominent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, talking about Fight Club.
Wait, what? This is the craziest thing about A&F Quarterly. It was published by a small group of kids barely out of college. It cost $6 and could be purchased only by those over 18, and only at an Abercrombie store or by subscription. It even came shrink-wrapped with a warning label. Yet, issue after issue, the staff was somehow able to convince the era's biggest literary and intellectual stars to sit down for interviews. In addition to Zizek (who was legitimately huge among a certain subset of post-structuralism-loving college students in the early '00s), the catalog featured interviews with major novelists like Michael Chabon and influential journalists like Andrew Sullivan.
For Abercrombie, including highbrow content was a way to show consumers that it was more than just a shop in the mall. Editor-in-chief Savas Abadsidis tells Racked that CEO Mike Jeffries was inspired by Disney head Michael Eisner, who broadened the company's focus from entertainment to retail so that consumers had an endless array of options for buying in. Just as Disney was iconically associated with American childhood, Jeffries wanted Abercrombie to be associated with the American college experience.
Behind the scenes, the book was split, with only limited overlap between the racy photos up front and the editorial content in back. "It created this weird interplay where we'd have an essay by Michael Cunningham after he won the Pulitzer beside these nude, nubile 19-year-olds," says contributor Guy Cimbalo. But from a reader's point of view, the result was exactly the kind of 360-degree experience Jeffries wanted to achieve: one-third scandalous photos, one-third magazine articles that could have appeared in GQ or Esquire, and one-third rugby shirts going for $49.50.
The appeal for Abercrombie was clear, but for the award-winning writers and glossy movie stars, the motivation was less obvious. Abadsidis says that at first, he had trouble recruiting big names. Celebrities saw appearing in the catalog as an endorsement and wanted to be paid accordingly, although they warmed up to the idea when they realized they were getting a free shoot with Bruce Weber, and the young staff pulled every string they had. (Abadsidis asked a former professor to help him recruit Zizek, for example.)
Once the publication picked up steam, though, "it was shockingly easy" to get access, says Cimbalo. "Bret Ellis wrote a number of times. It was this moment of highbrow/lowbrow coming together before it got tainted with native advertising or something like that. It was a fun, innocent moment, and also, where else is Michael Cunningham going to get 1500 words to reach a young audience?"
By Christmas 2002, the culture pages were star-studded enough that a book-buying guide could include this sentence: "Jonathan Franzen might have turned down an appearance on Oprah, but he's already willingly appeared on the pages of the Quarterly." The highbrow frat party couldn't last forever, though. In December 2003, Abercrombie decided to close the publication. Clothing sales had been falling for months, and, as WWD put it, once the money stopped flowing, "the Quarterly became an albatross—an immensely unpopular icon using sex to sell to teenagers, who had already decided that A&F was no longer cool anyway."
In 2010, the brand brought back a limited-edition Quarterly packaged with a red warning label. Shoppers had to pre-order the book online and could only pick it up between 11am and 4pm at select Abercrombie stores. New York blogger the Shophound, who also performed a nudity count (15 bare male behinds, only 6 female ones), wrote this withering critique: "If you didn't know it was from 2010, it could easily have been from 2003, or 1998 or whenever, which, depending on your point of view is either comforting or disappointing." He thought it was a sign that Abercrombie was stuck in the past.
It's clear Abercrombie has fallen on hard times. Today's teens don't like the sorry-not-sorry offensiveness that once made the brand huge, and they'd rather spend their money at non-teen stores like Zara and H&M. Persistent rumors claim that the Quarterly is a hot collector's item selling for upwards of $300 online, but Darren Sutherland at the Strand Rare Books Room quickly debunks that theory. "People like them fine, but not for $45. I believe they sold pretty well downstairs, but for more like $6 or $10. Any collectibility they have is because of the Bruce Weber photographs—many of his books do sell for $200 - $600."
If you have $6 or $10 to spend, the old Quarterlies are worth a read: a time machine to an era when the jeans were boot-cut, the models were nude, and mixing sophisticated editorial content with old-fashioned commerce still felt like something new.