By  on August 30, 2007

Get ready, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and American Eagle Outfitters — there's another new competitor coming to America.

Who.A.U., a South Korean brand with a passion for the California lifestyle, is the latest contender entering the already-crowded teen-young adult category. Who.A.U. is embarking on an ambitious U.S. launch strategy, with plans to open 12 to 18 stores in the first year. "Who.A.U. could eventually be as big as Hollister," predicted Daniel Pang, executive vice president of U.S. operations for the South Korean group. Hollister has 416 stores in the U.S.

The $4 billion E-Land, Who.A.U.'s deep-pocketed parent, is one of South Korea's largest apparel manufacturers and has the wherewithal to support a rollout. Who.A.U., which launched in 2001, has 39 stores in South Korea and "is planning to launch the brand in Europe and other parts of Asia," said Pang. "It's going to be global."

Pang forecast that, in five years, the chain would have more than 50 stores in the U.S. "We're starting business in the U.S.," he said. "It's a big country, so a rollout will have more than 50 stores."

The unusual name, Who.A.U., stands for Who Are You, Pang said. "We're challenging consumers by asking who you are. The clothing clarifies your identity."

Who.A.U. is establishing itself in shopping malls before venturing to downtown street locations. "We find the [communities with the] target demographic," Pang said. "We've had another business in the U.S. for seven years, a wholesale children's wear collection, so we learned all the geographical differences and town-by-town differences."

Diana Milligan, a director of leasing for the Taubman Company, said launching a brand in shopping centers makes sense "if the target customer is a teen or young adult."

Who.A.U. in November will open its first store in a 4,100-square-foot space at Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Conn. Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of retail leasing and sales at Prudential Douglas Elliman, who is representing Who.A.U., said its typical stores range in size from 15,000 to 20,000 square feet. "Their stores have a cappuccino and soda bar, which takes space," she said.Milligan said there may be an opportunity for Who.A.U. to expand its space at Stamford Town Center, which is operated by Taubman, in the future.

The brand's symbol, an orange with a green leaf, appears above the nameplate. Inside, two mannequins with surfboards stand in front of an orange wall. "It will be a beautiful store," Milligan said. "The store will be well lit and bright. Think surf and Australia and sunny. It looks like they really did their research."

Taubman would "definitely want to put Who.A.U. in our other shopping centers if it's successful," Milligan said. "The customer is always looking for something new. The Taubman Co. has always prided itself on finding new concepts. E-Land does a lot of retail in Asia. I'm sure it will take them a little time to get to know the U.S. markets and tastes. They're a very sizable company in [South] Korea and have stores in Asia."

The brand is built around iconic American images such as palm trees and Airstream mobile homes. "The basic inspiration is the California lifestyle, plus we incorporate the 1849 gold rush," Pang said. "A lot of people think about money and getting rich when they think of the gold rush. We're incorporating it because it's about adventure and pioneering and confronting a challenge. We say to teens or college students, 'You are the bright future, go challenge whatever you're facing.'"

Who.A.U.'s offerings are reminiscent of Hollister and include hooded sweaters for $52; black jeans, $51; black-and-white checked blouses, $20; checked belted shirts, $15, and flower-print tube dresses, $26. "We are very confident about the quality," Pang said. "We want good quality and affordable prices for our target customer."

Who.A.U.'s South Korean Web site features a must-have item of the week, similar to Old Navy. The young buff men and women in Who.A.U. ads could have come straight from an A&F casting call. "We will launch an English version of the Web site," Pang said, adding that the American and South Korean Web sites will look similar.

"Even though we are Who.A.U., a global brand, we are serving the customer in the U.S. and not other countries. Our only concern is American customers. We are focusing on their lifestyle and preferences," said Pang. "They are tuning into music online, so we'll incorporate music. We don't want to use conventional media. We like to use the media that delivers to the target customer."Who.A.U. is entering one of the more buoyant sectors of U.S. retailing. Abercrombie and its Hollister unit, as well as American Eagle, have been among specialty retailing's strongest performers in the last two years, even though their comp-store sales have weakened recently. Ironically, Who.A.U.'s arrival in the U.S. comes as Abercrombie & Fitch is embarking on global expansion of is own, with the opening of a flagship in London and plans to open another in Tokyo.

The arrival of the South Korean group follows the launch in the U.S. of Japan's Uniqlo chain, which has a more fashion-forward image, as well as continued expansion of such European chains as H&M, Mango and Zara. Meanwhile, Topshop of the U.K. is still searching the U.S. for sites for freestanding stores.

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