ABERCROMBIE & FITCH FORGETS ITS DAYS OF HEM & WOLFIE

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Do we really need this? A doubletruck ad in the new Rolling Stone magazine showing a dozen guys on roller skates and wearing boxer shorts (that's it, boxer shorts and some backwards baseball caps, and nothing else except for great pecs and abs)?

Of course you're not shocked. Last issue Rolling Stone had a lovely on the cover who wasn't wearing boxer shorts. Or anything, for that matter, and all across the country convenience stores refused to display the damned magazine. You'd think convenience stores were operated exclusively by Southern Baptists. Or the Vatican, for God's sake. But I digress. It's this latest issue with the two-page ad of guys in their boxers that has me exercised.

Why? Because of the advertiser. It isn't Calvin (nothing comes between me and my boxers) Klein. Or Tommy Hilfiger. Or Jockey. Or even BVD (is BVD still around? Or should that be, are BVDs still around?).

The advertiser this time, the people selling boxer shorts, is Abercrombie & Fitch.

Once upon a time A & F was one of the classiest brand names in the country. You went to Sulka for shirts and Brooks for Ivy League suits and Best & Co. for children's wear and Sloane's for furniture. The exotic stuff, the rare and unusual, the imaginative gear that injected fun into life, that came from Abercrombie. That was their identity, that was their brand.

You used to go to Abercrombie for skeet shooting lessons and hand warmers for the duck blind, and thermal underwear to keep you from freezing halfway up the North Col on Everest, and pith helmets for The Empty Quarter or a hot day on the beach at Southampton, and hip flasks and stadium blankets for the Harvard game at the Yale Bowl in late November.

Before Henry Morton Stanley set off to Africa to find Livingstone, he probably outfitted the safari at Abercrombie. Teddy Roosevelt may have gotten his field glasses there before setting off to San Juan Hill. If Harrod's didn't have it, Abercrombie did. Or that's how it used to be. And now they're buying space in Rolling Stone to show guys in boxer shorts wearing roller skates and with baseball caps on backwards?

If you want to know the kind of store Abercrombie used to be, go back and reread Lillian Ross's great New Yorker profile of Hemingway from the 1950s (later published in hardcover as a slim book and probably available at good libraries).

Papa and Miss Mary were in New York briefly from Cuba and on their way to Europe. Under his arm Hemingway had the completed manuscript of his worst novel ever, "Across the River and Into the Trees," which he was about to deliver to Charles Scribner. They (the Hemingways and the manuscript) were housed in one of Manhattan's better hotels, I forget which, and Marlene came up to see them. "Kraut, you're the best," Papa said. They all drank a lot. Hem also had a sore bridge of the nose and Miss Mary kept folding fresh pieces of paper to slip in under his glasses to cushion the nose. These bits of paper had to be replaced from time to time so he would look nice.

Hemingway also needed a belt. Which is what got them to Abercrombie. Lillian Ross went along and took down what happened. By this time Hem had adopted what he believed to be an authentic Native American way of talking, which consisted mostly of grunts and unfinished sentences. An obsequious floorwalker (well, that may be redundant) approached and asked what kind of belt.

"Leather belt. To hold up pants."

That was about all the floorwalker could get out of Papa when they were interrupted.

"Wolfie!" Papa shouted. "Wolfie" was Winston Guest (husband of my pal to this day, the blonde and very lovely CZ Guest), a great polo player, sportsman and shooter; also one of Hem's few close pards. He was even bigger than Hemingway and the two men pounded each other for a time. Hem explained about the belt; Guest said he was there trying out shotguns. They promised to meet later somewhere appropriate for martinis.

Now to this day that is what Abercrombie meant to me. It was a place where you bought great stuff and encountered Hemingway grunting and pounding on pals and where Winston Guest tried out shotguns. And now Abercrombie is buying doubletrucks in Rolling Stone to sell boxer shorts to young guys on roller skates with their baseball caps on backwards.

J.C. Penney sells boxers and so does Macy's and Kmart and the five and dime and you can get Ivy League underwear at Brooks and J. Press. Going to Abercrombie for boxers seems to me like going to Purdey, not for an over & under, but for cufflinks or a Speedo swimsuit.

Anyone can sell underwear; only Abercrombie ever sold a belt to Papa or a shotgun to "Wolfie."

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