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ABERCROMBIE & Fitch's racy catalogue prompts a boycott campaign

Abercrombie & Fitch says its summer catalogue is sexy in a wholesome sort of way: ``Norman Rockwell of 2001.'' Critics from conservative Christians to liberal feminists call it soft porn, and now they've joined forces to boycott the trendy, youth-oriented retailer.

By the standards of Penthouse or Hustler, the A&F Quarterly might seem tame. But it is displayed in tightly wrapped plastic, intended only for buyers 18 or older, and features young, unclad male and female models in what the company touts as ``pictures hotter than a backyard barbecue.''

Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman Hampton Carney said the publication is as much a magazine as a catalogue, targeted at the college market. But boycott organizers contend the company also is wooing younger customers and using sex to popularize its image.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood _ a Republican who has been sparring with A&F since 1999 _ announced the boycott campaign last week in Chicago. She has recruited a diverse mix of supporters more familiar with facing off against each other than with working together.

The broad alliance ``shows the importance of this issue,'' said Michelle Dewlen, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women. She faulted the catalogue for promoting ``unrealistic body types'' and displaying images that evoked group sex.

``It's not a catalogue,'' she said. ``It's a soft porn magazine.''

The Rev. Bob Vanden Bosch, head of Concerned Christian Americans, said it was ``quite unusual'' to find himself allied with NOW. But he welcomed the coalition.

``It's very important for people to get involved,'' he said. ``The exploitation of sex and young people in A&F's catalogue is not only atrocious but also a psychological molestation of their teen-age customers.''

Carney said Abercrombie & Fitch takes the criticism seriously but has no intention of toning down the catalogue.

``You have to be true to your customers _ and their response is overwhelmingly positive,'' he said. ``There's nothing in it you don't see on any public beach in Miami. It's the Norman Rockwell of 2001 _ wholesome images of kids having the time of their lives.''

Circulation of the quarterly is about 300,000. Half go to subscribers; the rest sell at stores for $6 apiece.

The question for some boycott proponents was whether their effort would just win attention for Abercrombie & Fitch, making the catalogue even more popular.

``The alternative is saying nothing,'' said Joe Kelly, founder of the Minnesota-based group Dads and Daughters. ``That's just not acceptable when we're talking about our kids, and trying to address some really disturbing things happening with marketing to children.''

Wood, mother of two teen-agers and an 11-year-old, says she has no doubts about the strategy. ``Whatever publicity A&F gets from this boycott will be bad publicity,'' she said.

Previous editions of A&F Quarterly have included interviews with porn stars and an article titled ``Drinking 101'' that incurred the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The Michigan attorney general's office denounced the 1999 ``Naughty or Nice'' Christmas catalogue as sexually explicit and demanded steps to curtail its distribution to minors. The company then said it would sell the catalogue only to people 18 and over.

Wood, who also protested the ``Naughty or Nice'' issue, thought at the time that Abercrombie & Fitch would reduce the sexual content of its publication. She decided to organize the boycott after concluding that the latest catalogue was the worst yet in terms of nudity.

``What they're selling is an image _ that it's cool to be running around naked or half-naked with other teen-agers,'' she said.

Founded in 1892, Abercrombie & Fitch became famous as an outfitter for expeditions, including Theodore Roosevelt's trips to Africa and the Amazon. Ernest Hemingway bought guns there; President Eisenhower used A&F fishing gear.

A decade ago, the company switched its primary market to 18-to-22-year olds. From a new corporate headquarters outside Columbus, Ohio, it operates more than 370 stores nationwide.

Wood hoped the boycott would hit home to the company's shareholders, who learned last month that first-quarter earnings rose 27 percent.

``We'll try to generate some negative feedback. Then we'll try to make a dent in the corporate bottom line,'' she said. ``The message is simple: Our children are not for sale.''
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