Blue jeans, Wayfarers, topless teenage beefcakes lurking around retail stores in a haze of cologne: This is America’s fashion legacy. And in true U! S! A! fashion, many of our homegrown brands consider it their manifest destiny to move into foreign markets. Some succeed, some bomb, and sometimes the host nation adapts our fashion heritage in its own culturally relevant ways. Of course, there are a million ways to interpret what that heritage exactly is. Like our food, accents, and music, American fashion is regional at its core. We don’t typically associate skate and surf style with the South, and “blue collar” workers — named for their durable, blue-hued workwear — have roots in industrial towns, rather than business hubs like New York City. With our melting pot mentality, we’re comfortable borrowing elements from each of these regions to cultivate a look that’s uniquely American. Take a stroll through your local mall if you need proof: Hollister, Abercrombie, Ralph Lauren, and Lilly Pulitzer all coexist peaceably while representing different interpretations of what it means to dress like you're from the United States. The in-store experience, too, tends to fluctuate based on brand messaging: You’d never be greeted by a shirtless hunk at Gap, but it’s perfectly normal to walk two stores down and catch an eyeful of pecs. This blending of styles and shopping experiences can get lost in translation when it makes its way overseas. (Rightfully so, because we have a lot going on.) When American brands go international, they become a sort of ambassador. They each represent a facet of what we know as our country's fashion and marketing. But what works here — from heavily logoed hoodies, to reds, whites, and blues, to club-like shopping atmospheres — can’t just be stripped of context and shipped abroad. Moving a brand from a Middle America mall to Tokyo without any consideration of the local culture can be the death of an American brand overseas. Abercrombie and Fitch learned this the hard way when it opened a store in Tokyo in 2009. In addition to charging prices twice as high as it did in the U.S., Abercrombie failed to connect with Japanese customers by not adjusting its messaging and store experience. Shoppers were greeted in English by Japanese employees, creating a stressful situation wherein locals were forced to ignore the staff's awkward behavior for the privilege of buying overpriced shirts. And, if you’ve ever stepped foot in an Abercrombie, you can probably guess that the boisterous, singing-dancing-flirting clerks we quietly side-eye in the States were an uncomfortable departure from the typically reserved and professionally polite service found in Japan. As were the near-toxic levels of cologne wafting through the store; the Japanese are sensitive to excessive perfume, turns out. The store followed the same American-centric approach in Germany — hot, musk-soaked dudes greeting shoppers in English — and it played far better there. In fact, some shoppers attributed the brand’s appeal to the in-store experience, loud music and all. But Abercrombie has had a few misses overseas: In early 2015, the brand shuttered its Australian stores after lackluster sales and what it described as seasonal challenges due to Australia's location in the Southern hemisphere. If you ask an Australian, though, Abercrombie simply made the same mistake it made in Japan: “[Abercrombie] put a global brand into this country and didn’t localize it,” Brian Walker, chief executive of the Retail Doctor Group, told Smart Company last March. “I don’t think seasonality was an issue — the product was where it needed to be. But the localizing was one [big factor]… It had these sort of Midwestern U.S. images, and Australia, for all its own reasons, doesn’t really take to that,” he said.
Domestically and abroad, Abercrombie and Hollister have fallen off the popularity cliff over the past few years — largely due to an influx of affordable fast-fashion options, and socially conscious teens who don’t want to walk around like branded billboards — but the company is in the process of rebranding itself. In 2014, it announced that Hollister would re-emerge as a fast-fashion brand, while Abercrombie would scrap its iconic logos. More changes surfaced after notoriously controversial former-CEO Michael Jeffries left the company last December: In March, Abercrombie promised to de-sexualize its greeters and marketing, cool it on the cologne, turn down the music, and revamp the lighting in its notoriously dim-lit stores. Significantly, it began the store renovation process in Europe and Asia. And maybe it will work. Abercrombie’s 2015 fall lookbook garnered the company widespread positive press, and overseas, the stores are also changing for the better. Madeleine Westbrook, a British student of fashion design and realization at Leeds College of Art, spoke to me about the changes she’s witnessed. On the staff: “When Hollister first popped up in England 'round 2011, there were shirtless men outside. That lasted about six months. Think it might have made some British customers feel uncomfortable. Or maybe it was just too cold in England! Hollister still have very good-looking staff — but they are very British-looking. I can imagine the U.S.A. stores being full of good-looking, well-toned, beach-type guys, whereas in England it’s more of an Oxford student, posh and preppy vibe. They still wear flip-flops, so I guess they’re trying to keep some of the original look.” The stores and clothes are also more U.K.-appropriate than they once were: “In the beginning, there was a lot of beach wallpaper, and it was very dim. But now Hollister has more British furniture: leather armchairs and a chest at the entrance. It bought a few more lightbulbs. It [also] introduced less beach wear and more going-out wear. Guess that’s because we never really go to the beach. The sweatpants are still the item people buy most,” Westbrook said. One American company that seems to have avoided the pitfalls of expansion is Victoria’s Secret. Founded in 1977, the store didn't make its first forays overseas until the early 2000s, and even then, it did so slowly — first in Canada, then in several international airports. In 2012, it opened its first international flagship store in London. Victoria’s Secret went all out in London: While the shop shares features with the famed Herald Square flagship — marble floors, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, wall-sized screens playing footage of the Angels — there are some significant upgrades. Take the mini fashion museum that features runway lingerie worn by the likes of Miranda Kerr and Alessandra Ambrosio. Or the dressing rooms, which are each outfitted with a bell should you need assistance. Or the penthouse private fitting room for VIPs. Throw some Champagne in the mix, and I’m moving in.
The changes across the pond are subtle, albeit slightly more posh. And there’s a reason for that: According to Columbus Business First, international president of Victoria’s Secret Martin Waters explained the decision to open more locations in London in these words: “What sells here, sells there. What sells there, sells here.” But that’s not always the case — sometimes cultural differences are too great. When Victoria’s Secret expanded into China this year, in order to break into the market without offending the more modest Chinese shopper, the retailer left its bras and panties at home and instead opened boutiques selling iconic and fashion-forward beauty products and accessories. Victoria’s Secret has begun featuring more Asian models in its runway shows and catalogs in recent years — maybe to embrace intersectionality, maybe to plant a seed of suggestion, likely a bit of both. Respecting cultural differences seems to be a consistent aspect of Victoria’s expansion plan. When L Brands CEO Leslie Wexner told a group of VS investors that, “It would be really a very ugly thing if there was any kind of even glimpse of a body,” it may have sounded odd. But he was talking about dressing rooms — specifically, the ones in Saudi Arabia. He’d been advised by Saleh Alshaya, an intern at his company, that dressing rooms would need floor-to-ceiling doors rather than the cheaper curtain option, which could leave women exposed while changing. This is the sort of local, cultural knowledge that can make or break a brand overseas. Victoria’s Secret seems to have the hang of it for now, and other companies seeking to avoid embarrassment and lost investments should follow suit. As "flat" as we like to think the world may be, that doesn't mean that American companies can have immediate success abroad. Making it work isn't about invasion, it's about adaptation — and that's what these brands need to consider when attempting to take the globe by storm.