chic c'est la vie

It Took the French to Make Abercrombie Chic

I came to Paris to write about Fashion Week beauty and in my spare time to eat buttery carbs and discover French pharmacy secrets. But you cannot visit Paris without touring the cultural institutions, of which there are between ten and 100, depending on whom you ask. Yesterday, I stumbled into what is surely the 101st: The Abercrombie & Fitch store on the Champs-Élysées.

If you’re American, I know what you are thinking. Who cares about this saddening and dated retail chain? But French Abercrombie & Fitch appears to exist in an alternate reality where the Mike Jeffries years never happened. My first clue came from the entrance, an ornate, gold- and black-plated gate like those in front of French diplomatic residences. As with the American stores, it was guarded by man-candy, in this case an approachable, handsome Frenchman (sort of like your cutest biology partner from high school) who was fully clothed (he was wearing a puffer vest). Despite this startling sight, no one was taking pictures with him, or of the entrance.

To enter the store, you must pass through the gilded gate and follow a winding path strewn in fine slate-gray gravel through perfectly manicured, ten-foot-high hedges. For a minute, I wondered if I’d somehow stepped into Valentino’s estate, which I have not visited personally but once witnessed in the “Kim’s Journey to the Altar” episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which is nearly the same thing.

But then I was stopped by the unmistakable familiar smell of Fierce, A&F’s signature cologne, which exists to torment customers even in this bizarro Abercrombie. Once inside, I heard a mom pinch her nose and complain to her husband that the “cologne trop.” (She should have smelled it before it was reduced by 25 percent.)

Beyond the winding Versailles walk is another black-and-gold ornate door. This was guarded by yet another fully clothed greeter and opened to reveal a large mural, the style of which is best described as “the cover of Atlas Shrugged but with more color.” It depicted two bare butts, 12 abs, and 16 back abs, compiled from a total of four strapping men. Hey, Abercrombie’s sexualized marketing ban only mentioned “in-store photos” — it never said anything about in-store frescos.

This Abercrombie wonderland is four floors, two of which I roamed trying to charge my dead phone. The store was very, very busy. I had assumed that most of the people visiting would be from outside France, but in the 40 minutes I spent in the store, French was the language I heard most often.

Unlike their American counterparts, who spend their time idly pretending to fold clothes and mumbling “Sorry” when you ask them questions, the French salespeople were running around at a frantic clip, getting new sizes and being genuinely helpful. Four salespeople greeted me with “Bonjour” (I guess “Hey, how’s it going” doesn’t easily translate) before I surreptitiously managed to locate an electrical outlet. One even said “Je suis désolée” with profound empathy while telling a woman that the V-neck moose T-shirt doesn’t come in red.

The company allegedly no longer hires for physical attractiveness, but the salespeople were far from homely. One could have been Imaan Hammam’s brother. The men were all cutely boyish — no Bruce Weber musclemen in sight. All wore distressed torn jeans, pairing them with either cool Timbs, oxfords, or hightop Nikes. Alas, a few unlucky souls had to wear CEO footwear (a.k.a. flip-flops), making them possibly the only four people in all of Paris to wear rubber thongs.

However, even the French can’t really make Abercrombie clothing chic. The clothing assortment appeared to be largely the same as in the U.S., apart from a small display on the first floor of Paris Abercrombie T-shirts. These did not seem to be very popular, perhaps because people are here to buy into this controversy-free version of Americana collegiate prep. Getting a French T-shirt would defeat the point.

After 40 minutes, my phone finally reached an acceptable level of power and the level of Fierce began to get to me. As I exited Le Palais d’Abercrombie, I witnessed some tourists taking selfies. Beyond the ivy hedge, I heard a man ask the greeter about the brand. “Il est de la Californie,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him even in this alternate reality, he probably meant Ohio.