Store's Thongs for Kids Stir Outrage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Abercrombie & Fitch Co., an apparel retailer that is no stranger to controversy, has sparked outrage again by selling thong underwear to young girls.

The American Family Assn. said Wednesday that it has been assured by the retailer that it was pulling the underwear from its Abercrombie stores, a chain for girls and boys ages 7 to 14.

The company did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Some underwear had the words "wink wink" and "eye candy" printed on the front, said Don Wildmon, founder and executive director of the Tupelo, Miss.-based association.

"They were telling a 9-year-old that it's good for you to be a sex object," he said.

Companies increasingly are targeting young girls with trendier clothes and makeup. Although most businesses insist their products are appropriate for young customers, some parents and child advocacy groups are distressed by what they consider adult clothes shrunk to smaller sizes.

Young girls are more interested in looking cool for their girlfriends than in appearing alluring to boys, said Heather Johnston Nicholson, research director for Girls Inc., a girls' advocacy group. But apparel choices that are too grown-up can be misinterpreted, she said.

"Skimpy crop tops, all that stuff, have a tendency to focus on sexiness at a younger age than most girls can manage," Nicholson said.

Abercrombie said it would pull the line from stores after receiving as many as 120,000 e-mails from people who were furious that the company would sell thong underwear to young girls, Wildmon said.

"I don't think they expected this reaction," he said. "I think Abercrombie & Fitch just blew this one."

Wildmon's Christian-based association was alerted to the thong sales by OneMillionMoms.com and OneMillionDads.com, Internet child advocacy groups that are a special project of the association. The project released a "call for action" Tuesday morning and was told by Abercrombie early Wednesday that it would halt the sales, Wildmon said.

Abercrombie has a knack for stirring strong--and often angry--feelings among consumers. Last month, the New Albany, Ohio-based retailer sparked an uproar from college students who said a line of its T-shirts depicted racist caricatures of Asian Americans.

The shirts showed cartoonish Asian characters with slanted eyes and conical hats. Abercrombie apologized, saying it meant no offense and that it would immediately pull the shirts.

Last week, a judge declared a mistrial in a damages suit brought by seven professional surfers against Abercrombie over the retailer's use of their photograph in a catalog amid shots of apparently nude male models. The surfers said their names and likenesses were used without their knowledge.

A&F; Quarterly, part magazine and part catalog, regularly ignites controversy with its racy images.

Jennifer Black, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, said the controversy probably won't have a significant effect on sales.

"I think these types of things that are happening are immaterial as far as the earnings of the company," she said.

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