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Abercrombie topless models open shop in Savile Row

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. clothes retailer Abercrombie & Fitch brought its half-naked male models to Savile Row on Thursday shocking the discreet tailors to the well-to-do and pleasing teenage girls.

Customers attend the official opening of a new Abercrombie & Fitch store in central London March 22, 2007. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Abercrombie & Fitch took its first step outside of North America with bare chests and blaring music courting the controversy that has helped make it a top-selling teenage brand at home.

A spokesman for the clothier, Tom Lennox, confirmed the London opening was the start of a global expansion.

“In Europe and the Far East, we’re aggressively looking for real estate,” he said. Tokyo is expected to be next.

Tailors on “the Row”, for 200 years the clothes makers to English aristocracy, were also keen to give their opinion on the newcomer pumping dance music into the narrow street.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s racy advertising and merchandising -- whether billboards featuring Bruce Weber photographs of muscular young men in tight T-shirts or slipping out of their jeans -- is a departure for the upmarket shopping district.

Across the road at Ede and Ravenscroft, providers of royal garments for 12 coronations since 1689, some employees complained the store would spoil the street’s cachet, while others said the $7 billion (4 billion pound) brand’s arrival was positive.

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Company executives hope the mix of edgy image and casual sportswear will build it a niche outside North America that rivals like Gap have struggled to find.

QUEUING IN THE RAIN

Retail analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say Abercrombie & Fitch, founded in 1892 and originally a hunting and fishing outfitters, faces mixed fortunes in Europe where homegrown fast fashion giants Zara, owned by Spain’s Inditex, and Swedish H&M dominate the market.

Many of the nearly 200 people, mostly teenagers, queuing in the rain for the 18,000 square feet store were clutching bags from H&M where pop star Madonna’s collection for the chain had just gone on sale.

Christine Chen, a Needham & Co. analyst in San Francisco said Abercrombie & Fitch’s namesake chain was nearing saturation in the United States and success could come from a fast roll out of stores in Europe. Even so that strategy was high risk.

“One big store could be really successful, but if you overpopulate does it have the same cachet?”, Chen asked.

Its fortunes will be watched by Whole Foods Market, the premium organic foods chain due to launch its London flagship in early June. Meanwhile, stores from Topshop to supermarket giant Tesco plan U.S. expansion.

Bear Stearns analysts predict annual sales of more than $30 million from Abercrombie & Fitch’s London store, helped by the higher retail prices, although renovation costs are expected to crimp first-quarter earnings.

The company, also owner of Hollister and Ruehl brands, said last month it expects earnings growth in the mid-single digits, an outlook below the 11 percent rise analysts had expected.

Sarah Glenister, 18, who had travelled from outside London to the opening, shrugged off paying 60 pounds for a polo shirt and 25 pounds for a T-shirt -- double the U.S. retail price -- as she carried more than 150 pounds worth of clothes to the cashier.

“There isn’t anything else like this in London. I’ll definitely be back,” she said.

Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage in Los Angeles

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