The Call of U.S. Brands' Cachet

The U.S. embassy on Grosvenor Square here is still ringed with concrete antiterrorism barricades, and in Britain it's as fashionable as ever to decry...

with contributions from Tosin Mfon
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LONDON — The U.S. embassy on Grosvenor Square here is still ringed with concrete antiterrorism barricades, and in Britain it's as fashionable as ever to decry President Bush's foreign policy. Whatever their views on U.S. politics, though, it seems the Brits — and many of their European counterparts — keep grabbing a venti latte in Starbucks or stockpiling American Apparel's rainbow-colored T-shirts.

Public opinion in the U.K. continues to be vehemently opposed to the British government's cooperation with the U.S. in the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, a German Marshall Fund poll published in September found 77 percent of the Europeans surveyed disapproved of Bush and his international policies. One of the British newspapers' most famous satirical cartoons of the past few years featured former British prime minister Tony Blair caricatured as Bush's pet poodle.

Nonetheless, say shoppers, branding experts and American fashion executives, the political opposition typically is not coloring people's view of American goods. "In a consumer society, how you look and how you feel rules over everything else," observed Isabelle Szmigin, a marketing professor at the University of Birmingham. "Buyers of fashion brands have been found to be very nondiscriminating as to the source of their clothes. If you look at Gap's recent situation, it just doesn't matter that much," Szmigin said of people continuing to shop there, despite reports in the British press in October that child laborers in India were making Gap clothes, a problem the retailer said it is attempting to remedy. "People shift between different segments of their personality."

For example, Nancy Hewitt, a 46-year-old designer shopping in Gap's Covent Garden store, said only explicit American branding would put her off products from the U.S. "There's no way I'd buy a T-shirt with stars and stripes — but I wouldn't wear anything that had free advertising for a brand on it," she maintained.

Georgina Copeland, a 28-year-old writer interviewed outside an American Apparel shop on London's Carnaby Street, said, "I don't think politically about what I buy. It is really hard to avoid American brands. If I thought about it that way....I would have to stop using Fashion Fair and Mary Kay [makeup], and I don't know how I'd relax my hair."

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