An Eagle That Carefully Plucks Its Feathers
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I HAVE no problem with the guy riding a horse while wielding a mallet. The crocodile is a gimme, as is the tiger. I can stomach the dangling sheep and the equestrian knight. On a weak day, I can tolerate the crow. I won't even entertain the idea of the skull.
The eagle, though, forces an unusual amount of reflection.
And creativity, too, which explains why I recently spent several minutes in the basement dressing room of American Eagle Outfitters in Times Square, examining the breast pocket of a blue gingham oxford, strategizing ways to dislodge the eagle logo from its perch. Wow, it was stitched tight.
Taking up barely a square inch on the left side of the chest of a shirt, an insignia can scream much more loudly than the remaining yard of fabric it's not attached to. And, yes, it matters. Style is as much perception as intent; a careful outfit can be undone by one small misstep. From a distance, the emblems may all look the same, but historically, the eagle has been a weak substitute for the other animals of the kingdom. It came on clothes manufactured for instant sloppiness, deliberately ratty polo shirts that were ready for the charity pile while still on the rack, and cargo pants with distended pockets that looked as if a frat-hippie had already worn them to a couple of Bonnaroos.
There has long been a self-effacing modesty to American Eagle -- not as sun-kissed (or sun-bleached) as Hollister and lacking the postpubescent eroticism of Abercrombie & Fitch (though the latter is perhaps deliberate: American Eagle has been sued by Abercrombie multiple times, unsuccessfully, for allegedly copying designs). But through it all, American Eagle, which was founded in 1977, has remained Gap-like in its commitment to affordable basics, increasingly with arpeggios of flair.
The men's clothes in the Times Square store -- the New York flagship, which opened in November -- reveal the war between the brand as it has been and how it might evolve. It begins with the staff members themselves, in beaming winter flannels and spring plaids. They were ubiquitous yet invisible, graciously offering help in fleeting moments between refolding items disturbed by browsers. (The folding was incessant; it recalled the merciless "Saturday Night Live" Gap Girls skits.)
Those plaids -- salmon, watermelon, tangerine and more -- looked mildly overfaded but pleasant. On the salmon one, thin straws of purple cut horizontally across the pattern, imposing a bit of rigor. I tried it on, expecting it to billow awkwardly; instead, it remained crisp.
Over that, I threw on a credibly distressed dark denim jacket ($69.50), easily one of the store's best pieces, with overlaid strips of denim shooting from the pocket down to the waistband on either side. Buttoned at the chest and collar popped, it was snug and sleek. I looked like an art-school kid dressing up for his first gallery show (though, for the price, scouring eBay for something with actual scrapes seemed preferable).
And so it went: a simple piqué polo in purple ($19.95, marked down from $24.50; with eagle) felt more luxurious on than it looked on the rack. A military-style polo with pockets on the front (also $19.95, marked down from $34.50; no eagle), in navy and black, was cut well, with a thin, unobtrusive collar.
Across the basement floor from the plaids hung a rack of oxfords, in bright ginghams and stripes ($39.50 each). I pulled on one with light green stripes. Even with the eagle, it looked impeccable, the fabric sturdy enough to maintain the shape but with the requisite give for that rogue-son-of-privilege look.
Many things at American Eagle are pre-disheveled -- many things for men, at least -- from button-up shirts to cargo shorts to off-white straight-legged jeans ($39.50), destroyable without regrets. On the main floor is a wider selection of jeans ($29.50 to $59.50), almost all grim. The more abused and tattered the pair -- the "light bleach repair wash," say -- the more expensive, just like Balmain.
HERE is where American Eagle's heritage is a liability. The denim felt cheap and rough. The cargo shorts ($39.50) were frayed and dumpy by design, with bruised fabric and haggard seams. And there were no accessories to accompany the sharper clothes. No belts appeared narrower than an inch and a half; many were eagle-embossed. Underwear, patterned with eagles or whales or the term "bowchickawowow," suggests that anyone who might eventually see it wouldn't be the discerning sort.
And if anyone got as far as the underwear, clearly the T-shirts were no bother. A long table supported a phalanx of ostensibly slimming "vintage fit" models ($19.50 each, with a second one at half price). One read, "Who's Your Paddy?" -- hey, it's almost March -- and another featured a Tyrannosaurus rex holding a "Free Hugs" sign. Hanging on a wall nearby, relatively unloved, were the "athletic fit" T-shirts, cut for the husky, who apparently don't like puns and are crazy for homespun-looking appliqué.
Not far away was a table piled thick with hoodies ($39.50) sporting curious coded messages: "A. E. NYC 46TH/B'WAY 19-77." Or, in English: something for the tourists, clothing as GPS.
"How are you doing, man?" I'd been asked on my first visit to the store. "Where are you from?"
Anywhere but here, of course. Several items by the main entrance were location-specific mementos. A T-shirt marked "W. 125th Blues" seemed disproportionately long for its width, with the lettering creeping up to the neckline. (And, no, there is no American Eagle in Harlem.)
Visitors can leave something behind, too. The photo booth on the bottom floor feeds snapshots, with accompanying quotes, to the three-tiered video billboard facing Times Square; they're interspersed with video clips that recall Guess ads, with young denim-clad women frolicking around cars. "Times Square, baby!" said Josh and Michael, from Naples, Fla. They didn't seem ambivalent about the eagle.
Me, I didn't take a picture. But, yes, I bought something, and I'll never tell you what.
American Eagle Outfitters
1551-1555 Broadway (West 46th Street); (212) 205-7260.
BASIC GOOD CHEER Not a single member of the staff wasn't smiling, and not one looked bad in the house plaid.
GIRLS AT THE TOP Men's clothing is in the basement and shares the small main floor with women's wear, which also occupies the second floor. The third floor is given over to Aerie, the company's underwear and sleepwear line. Even boyfriends and dads are looked at askance here.
TOURIST TRAP Open and, relatively speaking, bustling until 1 a.m., helped by a glossy, peppy playlist spanning Vampire Weekend to Nelly; it's billed as AE College Radio.
First Published February 4, 2010 2:00 am