In the midnoughties, the era that fashion forgot, there was one brand in the mall that loomed larger than any other. Abercrombie & Fitch had more than 1,000 stores and held teenagers all over the world in their thrall, desperate for a slice of the California beach bum dream in the form of a $30 pair of flip-flops. But what these stores had that others didn’t was not just wildly high markups and levels of lighting so low it verged on the unsafe. They had the Shirtless Guys. There were the pictures of buff men rippling on the front of the store’s bags and staring in their ad campaigns. But there were also the ones that hung out in the flesh, as greeters, available for photo-ops. They were chiseled and beaming with abs for days, if not weeks, and absolutely no body hair whatsoever.
Abercrombie’s reputation has suffered over the years. The brand was always kind of exclusionary; you were either the kind of teen whose parents could afford to buy you Abercrombie polo shirts or you felt keenly the fact that you weren’t. Racism and sexism were rife in its employment practices, and countless staff members have spoken publicly of their mistreatment. As part of the brand’s efforts to revamp its increasingly toxic image, the shirtless hunks that used to stand so hunkishly outside the doors got the chop in 2015. Perhaps it was the right move. But the shirtless guys live on in the memories of millennials, occupying the same “did that really happen?” recess in our brains as $3 ringtones and the poncho trend of 2004.
Some of the top-tier hunks, those who were featured in the billboard campaigns, went on to become household names: Channing Tatum of Magic Mike fame, Penn Badgley from Gossip Girl, Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan. But what became of the others, the mall-tier greeters? Where did they go, these ur-himbos? How do they look back on their time as hired eye candy? What’s the next career move after serving as the bait that lured millions of high schoolers into buying unflattering booty shorts? I spoke to five ex-shirtless greeters to find out.
Samuel Rason, who was based at the London store and flew around the world to do store openings, ended up doing it by accident. “I’d just auditioned for a reality TV show where you had to survive on a desert island and I’d gone into the store thinking I need some new clothes, if there’s [going to be] another audition [for the show]. One of the store managers approached me and said, are you looking for a job? I started work the next day.”
He remembers being very nervous for his first shift. “There were a hundred people waiting for a picture. You know kids go to Disneyland to have a photo with a superhero? It felt like that. You’re playing the role of the Abercrombie shirtless greeter and people are there to have a photo with that superhero.”
It could sometimes be tough on his self-esteem: “You can’t help but measure yourself against the other guys. It did play on my mind, and that need to stay in shape has kept with me throughout my life.” He carried on doing the job right up until Abercrombie axed the shirtless greeters, but he was ultimately ready to move on. “The realization came that I had been standing in the same spot, physically, for, like, multiple years.”
He tells me that the hunks have gone on to be physios, boxers, soldiers, models, entrepreneurs, financial advisers, Love Island and Bachelorette contestants, and even professors of math. As for him, he’s got his own business now: “I run a startup, and I’m using my brain very regularly.”
Johnny, who requested that we use a pseudonym, was based in Texas but also did international store openings. The time he remembers most fondly was spending two months at the Shanghai store. “It was one of the coolest experiences ever, there were like 16 guys and they put us all up together in a really cool place. It was like a free vacation.” Not everyone was thrilled to see them, though. “At one point, we all got arrested and interrogated because the authorities didn’t know why we were shirtless.”
What does he think about the fact that these roles no longer exist? “Personally, I’m kind of sad,” he says. He loved how unique the concept of the hunks was. “You’ve got other mall stores, like American Eagle or Aéropostale. They’re just stores. Abercrombie were known for doing something that was a little cheesy, perhaps a little ridiculous. But it gave them an image.”
Johnny has left the world of shirtless hunkdom behind him and now works in labor and employment law. “Being an attorney, I’m always having to interact with people that I don’t know. From modelling, I learned how to make an effort to leave a good impression.” I ask him what the worst part of the job was, and he thinks for a moment. “I guess … I just didn’t like having my shirt off a whole lot.”
Carter Czech worked at the Abercrombie store in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. It supported him through high school and then college. “The pay was really good considering what ‘work’ you were actually doing.”
“Sometimes customers were a little thrown off by a shirtless guy wanting to talk with them. For the most part, people were very friendly. They always asked if I was cold.” He told me he had too many weird experiences with customers to count: “One of the things that happened on multiple occasions was big hairy men would come and take their shirts off as a joke next to me and want to take a picture.”
He works in biotechnology now, and he’s not surprised that the shirtless greeter is a thing of the past: “I knew what I was doing and I thought it was empowering, but I think that given the state of society these days, this ‘objectification’ would be very controversial. A&F has needed to adapt to the times, and these advertising schemes, if you want to call it that, aren’t as appealing to youths as making TikTok videos and the like.”
Harry Tucker was scouted in London and then started working with Abercrombie by modeling for one of the company’s campaigns in Boston, going on to work as a shirtless greeter worldwide.
“It’s probably the most boring job I’ve done, just standing outside with your top off,” Tucker, who had a number of gigs as a model, recalls. “It’s just a bit demoralizing, isn’t it? I’d literally rather dig a hole. At least then you’re doing something.” Not only did he not enjoy being a shirtless guy, he’s critical of the entire concept. “It’s very shallow. They used to employee people based on their looks, and anyone who wasn’t as good looking went up and stocked shelves in the warehouse. I think the world we live in is superficial enough as it is, without that.”
Now, he’s a financial consultant and co-owns a business making high-end furniture from aircraft parts.
Andrew (not his real name) was scouted in Dublin to interview for a new store. He remembers some of the women being a little too hands on: “Sometimes they would put their hands in places that they shouldn’t put their hands, like up your back, or on your bum or whatever. Which was obviously weird, but it was just a bit of a joke at the time.” Dublin is not known for its balmy climate. “If it got below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, then you had the option to wear a shirt.” But they tended not to take that option, Andrew explains, as it would mean foisting more work on one’s fellow hunks. “There were only three greeters in the whole store that could do the topless stuff.” If one defected, that would mean the others had to each stand there for more photos themselves.
What was the best part of the job? “Making friends. My best friend today was one of the other greeters that I worked with. And that’s what, 10 years on now?” But he does remember the aesthetic standards being a drag. “The slightest bit of hair on your face and they’d make you go inside and shave with these awful Bic razors, and your face would come back cut up.”
He now works in sports marketing and keeps his hunk past under wraps. “If I’m ever asked about where I worked, I just say I worked in a store in Dublin. There’s that perception straightaway that people have, that you’re a bit full of yourself if you say you worked at Abercrombie.”