There are girls on a bench at Sherway Gardens mall in Etobicoke, eating Yogen Früz and wearing so much A&F you’d think there aren’t any other letters in the alphabet. They’re probably 15 and they have the telltale shopping bags, emblazoned with black and white photos of naked male flesh.
For years Abercrombie And Fitch has been embraced by a certain type of gay man. A&F is shorthand for, “I’m openly gay among those who are in the know, and though I am proficient in the use of hair gel and I think I’m in pretty good shape, I’m not a fussy person; I don’t mind shelling out $44.50 for a chain’s T-shirt, but I don’t follow fashion, not really.”
But A&F clothing seems to be waning lately as bar-wear. Ironically this pendulum swing in gay clone sensibility comes on the heels of A&F’s arrival in Canada. January openings of stores in Alberta’s West Edmonton Mall and Sherway Gardens mean that A&F products are no longer a way of saying you’ve been to the US — just that you’ve crossed the Humber River.
As far as ritzy Toronto malls go, Sherway Gardens is as straight as they come. So when two 13ish-year-old boys stare at the huge A&F entryway photo of three ripped male torsos and say, “Hey! look at those abs!” I assume it’s envy, not lust. Three model-beautiful teenage greeters, two male and one female, tell me, “Our low-rise jeans make everything look better! Check ’em out!” and then break into giggles, giving you the feeling they’ll be making out in the back during break time.
The flip-flop-wearing sales clerks, some willowy, some hunky, are all sun-kissed, like it’s a choice between this and a TV career, rather than this or Jean Machine. Female shoppers outnumber male about six to one; the only people over 24 are parents of teenagers. It’s like seeing your high-school class at a leather bar: the shoppers don’t even seem to notice the homoeroticism that surrounds them. Why would a straight guy want to wear a cologne named for the drag-queen catchphrase, “Fierce”?
Of course, you see more Hollister clothing in gay bars now. Also owned by A&F, Hollister’s straighter client-base is younger (say, 13 to 20) and a little less experienced with sex. (A&F’s shirtless boys are shot in sharp pornographic focus, while Hollister’s are sepia-toned soft focus; A&F’s humorous T-shirts are explicity sexual, “Enjoy The Xtra Inches,” while Hollister’s are more vaguely flirty, “Define ‘Girlfriend.'”) Maybe Hollister’s rising popularity among fags comes with a new sexual modesty. Or maybe it’s because Hollister is much cheaper and has a location at the Eaton Centre. Certainly the stores are so dark and labyrinthine, you could be in a darkroom maze.
After an hour of hanging out at A&F, I finally see a couple of guys who set off my gaydar. They’re easy to spot; they’re the ones wearing dress shoes. They ogle the sales clerks, run their hands over the $69.50 polo shirts and stumble out empty-handed, a little dazed by it all.