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The Last Days of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie billboard

A flagship Abercrombie & Fitch store had its grand opening in Shanghai last month, one of one hundred Abercrombie stores set to open in China in the coming decade, according to AdAge. As befitting such an event, young men with the half the clothing and twice the lean muscle mass of mere mortals were there at the opening to welcome to new customers.

As reported in The Street, Abercrombie stores in China will largely replicate the cologne-soaked ambiance and high-priced apparel options of their American counterparts, in a move that represents a remarkable lack of understanding the nuances of Chinese consumers.

The openings in China would be an occasion to celebrate for the brand, if they did not so conspicuously coincide with a stunning 77 percent profit decline last year. Or if the hundred stores in China didn’t look mysteriously like planned replacements for the sixty to seventy stores in the US slated for closure in 2014. Or if it were still 2008, and U.S. apparel brands still had any kind of novelty in China. Or, if the brand didn’t have a track record of aggressively trying to keep Abercrombie as white and as American as possible through its marketing and hiring strategies.

Abercrombie has faced enough charges of discrimination and poor taste to cause suspicion that it might be an elaborate and offensive stunt group, merely posing as an apparel brand for attractive white college students. They’ve marketed thong underwear and padded bikini tops to girls as young as seven. They basically admitted to having a “No Fat Chicks” marketing policy in 2013 amid controversy over the company’s refusal to cater to the plus-size market. With such an impressive rap sheet, it is sometimes easy to forget just how often and how egregiously Abercrombie has been charged with racism, particularly against Asians and Asian Americans.

In 2002, Abercrombie had to make its first recall for T-shirts featuring caricatured Asian cartoons with such subtle texts as “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White” or “Pizza Dojo—You Love Long Time: Eat In Or Wok Out” printed below. An Abercrombie spokesman at the time expressed shock that “some customers” were offended and compared the designs to the company’s T-shirts mocking skiers and football coaches. Ah yes, those historically maligned groups whose lives and livelihoods are persistently threatened by prejudice.

A discrimination lawsuit filed in 2003 that ultimately resulted in a $40 million settlement required Abercrombie to devote more resources to diversity in training and hiring. The settlement also required a commitment to more diversity in Abercrombie’s marketing and advertising campaigns, which were overwhelmingly white at the time.

Plaintiff Jennifer Lu’s 2003 interview with the Los Angeles Times revealed:

Lu, 21, attributes her termination to fallout from the corporate “blitz,” an occasional event in which top managers visit locations to ensure compliance with company practices.

Lu said that during a late January blitz, a corporate employee directed a manager to a poster of a young white male and said, “You need more staff that looks like this.”

As they approached the decade mark of only being casually racist rather than officially racist, white models from the Abercrombie-owned brand Hollister posed for pictures at a Korean store opening in 2012, squinting their eyes and flashing peace signs. “Hahahaha they ruhhvvvv itttt!,” one model tweeted after getting a positive response to the photo from an Asian social media user. Though the models were terminated, it seemed to many an indication of persistent racism within the company culture.

While Abercrombie has had no problem taking money from Asian consumers with stores in Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, it is hard to see the planned introduction of 100 stores in China as anything more than a last-ditch effort at resuscitating a dying brand. Abercrombie is noticeably late to the Chinese market, where brands like H&M landed in 2007, and American Apparel in 2008, to name just a few. Abercrombie hasn’t been doing well financially for years; it probably should have entered this market when it still had a fighting chance.

Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries grants interviews rarely, but when he does, he maintains that the brand is for the “cool kids.” And while he has never explicitly stated that “cool” is shorthand for “attractive and white,” he doesn’t have to, when the Abercrombie aesthetic and marketing strategies say it for him.

With the same arrogance and ignorance with which they sold racist T-shirts and discriminated in their hiring, Abercrombie has largely ignored the particularities of the Chinese consumer market by “jamming its own vision for what customers should wear down their cologne filled throats” by not adjusting clothing to the desires of Chinese consumers, as Brian Sozzi writes for The Street. There have even been reports of customers being greeted in English at the new stores.

The failure to adjust to market needs like style and price seem to indicate a larger issue with Abercrombie’s apparent hypothesis that young and affluent Chinese people want nothing more than to emulate American style and culture. A series of street interviews in China for the Wall Street Journal this March revealed that not all Chinese youth are actually desperate to look and act like young Americans. There are points of admiration, certainly, but even more points of disdain. In large part, they like their culture. They are already cool kids.

If there is any justice, this effort by one of the most mismanaged and distasteful apparel companies in the world will be a failure. And there’s a good chance it will be. Chinese consumers don’t need to know about the company’s racist antics in America to be put off by the brand. The company will demonstrate its blatant disregard for their tastes soon enough. One can only hope that the Chinese job market will be merciful toward the historically downtrodden class of shirtless white guys.