Creative Critique: Abercrombie Celebrates Male Beauty

Abercrombie celebrates male beauty, while quietly promoting its clothes
We are posted, like voyeurs, in the corner, watching a scene as carnal and voluptuous as any cinematic love act or perfume commercial.
“You’ve cried with him, you’ve gone through pain with him, and a commitment, a passion, for something you love,” a college student says in the voiceover. “You’ve stared [him] in the eye and you can hear his heart racing,” says another. They are absorbed in each other, transfixed, intense. What kind of mating dance is this?
Kids, this is wrestling, courtesy of photographer Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch, and according to the tagline, “It’s what men do in boys’ basketball season.”
These guys, so artfully shot in black-and-white and slow motion, are actual wrestlers from the University of Iowa and the University of Miami.
And this is not the World Wrestling Federation–it’s a serious Olympic sport. We watch the participants train and talk about pain. What they say and what we see makes for an oral versus visual cognitive dissonance. On one hand, as we hear these wrestlers speak, they tell war stories about the agony of the sport. One guy says, “For my first match, I was like 68 pounds, and I was up against a guy who was 110 pounds. My dad came to watch me, and the guy busted my lip, and my dad was like, “Alright, you’re becoming a man.”
Another wrestler talks about his coach grabbing him by the shoulder and just slapping him across the face. He was mad, he said, “but it gave me what I was lacking at the time.”
So there we have the straight, in every sense, stereotypical path of toughening up, not-showing-your-feelings route to becoming a man. No doubt this is what writer John Irving subscribed to as a wrestler in prep school. He has even posed in a wrestling singlet, which looks like an old-fashioned, one-piece bathing suit.
In the ads, however, the guys occasionally wear T-shirts above their shorts, but not often. Mostly, as with Weber’s oeuvre, it’s about the bodies, and the beauty of their form, in the same way Michelangelo’s David is about the body. See these beautiful, sweaty young men. See them run, stretch, jump rope and grunt.
In one weirdly affecting exercise, each big, buff, bare-chested guy must carry another big, buff, bare-chested guy across the gym. Even though it is a test of strength, there’s something tender going on here. Throughout, they display their glistening chests in all their pec-titude.
Through this lens, it’s breastling, not wresting. It’s more than 20 years since Calvin Klein startled the world with a new definition of beauty–objectified male beauty–as photographed by Weber. Sam Shahid, whose shop Shahid & Co. has done all the Abercrombie spots, worked at Klein’s in-house agency in those years and was also responsible for many of those ads.
When I asked Shahid about the homoerotic nature of some of the shots, never mind the clenches, he said, “I don’t see that at all. It’s almost like the army, except the army isn’t fun. These guys are doing it for love, not money. And sports is about body contact.”
Do these commercials contribute to Abercrombie’s huge success in wooing the high school and early college crowd? I see these big, burly guys in Abercrombie clothing from head to toe and wonder if they’ve been affected by the provocative ads.
These spots, however, are a bit different. It’s not man as sex object, which is as familiar as grandma’s wallpaper. It’s not only about a pose, about putting models on pedestals, like the Victoria’s Secret cleavage-bearers. Instead, it’s capturing the training process of wrestling, which is as ritualized as Kabuki, and that’s interesting. It’s even ancient.
There are early Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting wrestlers. This work is as stylized as any ancient image; it’s just the modern American version: Abercrombie Babylon.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Agency: Shahid & Co. New York
Creative Director: Sam Shahid
Director: Bruce Weber
Producer: Michael Capotosto