Who.A.They? Surprise, dude. A retail chain selling surf-inspired clothing that plans to expand across the U.S. is South Korean.

By Mary Bridges

Surprise, dude. A retail chain selling surf-inspired clothing that plans to expand across the U.S. is South Korean.

To most shoppers, the stores will look like another trendy California brand-surfboards propped against mirrors, blond models with sculpted abs on large posters. But a new casual-wear retailer, Who.A.U., isn't an offshoot of Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, or any of the usual suspects. Instead, it's the first foray into American retail by $5.1 billion South Korean conglomerate E.Land Group.

The first U.S. location of Who.A.U. opened in upscale Stamford Town Center in Connecticut last December. And its second installment opened today in New Jersey's largest mall, Westfield Garden State Plaza, in square footage once held by nutrition store GNC. According to the company, 450 more locations in the U.S. could follow in the next decade. "It's a trendy, urban-feeling store in competition with Abercrombie and Hollister," says Kimberly Baldy, a manager for the Westfield mall. "It really has that California surfer feel."

The trend of affordably priced foreign retailers expanding in the U.S. isn't new: Spain's Zara first opened in New York in 1989 and Sweden's H&M has been expanding in the U.S. since 2000. But recently, the list of foreign retailers has extended from traditional European brands to include a broader range of countries, such as Russia, Canada, and India, offering brands such as Kira Plastinina, Parasuco, and Tata-owned jeweler Tanishq, respectively.

Never mind that nearly every economic indicator suggests it's a terrible time for U.S. retail. Even after the government sent consumers $100 billion in extra buying power through tax-rebate checks, last month same-store sales for specialty retailers declined 1.5 percent. The numbers were even worse for Who.A.U.'s niche. Both American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch fell off 7 percent, and A&F's Hollister line was down 11 percent. Retail vacancies hit nearly 12 percent in the second quarter-the highest rate in four years. Who.A.U.'s two East Coast malls have seen closures this year by retailers such as Sharper Image, Domain Home, and Talbots, which downsized or filed for bankruptcy.

Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman's retail leasing and sales division, represented Who.A.U. in its U.S. expansion and says the company isn't entering the market blindly.

"They've studied the U.S.," she says. "They know exactly which malls they want to be in." Targets include cost-effective suburban malls popular with teens, rather than prestigious locations such as Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive that can rent for five times the price.

The popular Japanese brand Uniqlo tested a similar strategy in 2005. It opened three stores in East Coast shopping centers in 2005, but closed all locations but its flagship store in Soho by 2007. "After opening suburban and urban locations, we found that urban locations were a more efficient way for the brand to reach a large audience," says Uniqlo public relations manager Linda Faello.

It's certainly an advantage that Who.A.U. can draw on the resources of its conglomerate parent. E.Land Group's holdings include a Korean pizza chain, a construction business, several Chinese retailers, and an established manufacturing network. "They have very deep pockets," Consolo says. "They could expand as fast as they wanted to, but it's picking the right location." Which means that, coming soon to an upscale suburban mall near you: new lines of distressed denim and board shorts-made in South Korea, of course.

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