updated 3/24/2004 5:24:17 PM ET 2004-03-24T22:24:17

The clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is known for a lot of things, including an ability to get people mad. 

No stranger to controversy, its sexy ads have raised the ire of many a parent.  In 2002, a line of T-shirts depicting stereotypes of Asians were deemed racially insensitive and eventually it pulled them from the shelves.  Abercrombie & Fitch‘s popular catalogues have included naked models, suggesting to many readers risky sexual behavior among teens. 

A public awareness campaign and boycott was launched against the chain last Christmas.  It discontinued the catalogue.  Well, now Abercrombie & Fitch is selling a T-shirt that has the West Virginia governor really teed off.  The shirt spoofs a West Virginia stereotype as a haven for incest with the slogan “It‘s All Relative in Virginia.” 

Governor Bob Wise fired off a letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch demanding that it stop selling the T-shirts at once. 

West Virginia Governor Bob Wise joined ‘Deborah Norville Tonight’ from the capital city of Charleston.  Abercrombie & Fitch declined our invitation this evening. 

DAN ABRAMS, SUBSTITUTE HOST FOR DEBORAH NORVILLE:  All right, so what‘s the problem with the T-shirts? 

GOV. BOB WISE (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Well, the problem is, I live in a state, a great state of 1.8 million people.  And we have a major company, a company that makes quality apparel that doesn‘t need to stoop to these kind of things that has launched a T-shirt with a slanderous, totally unfounded and untrue stereotype, at a time when we‘re making great strides.

Over 20 million people chose to visit West Virginia as tourists last year.  We have the lowest violent crime rate in the nation.  We have the highest rate of home ownership.  We have an incredible amount of things going for us, not the least of which is one of the largest percentages of men and women wearing the uniform of our country.  And so there is a time at which we say we don‘t have to take these kinds of unfounded stereotypes anymore.  Let‘s talk about what is positive about West Virginia.  Abercrombie & Fitch could do a lot that way.

ABRAMS:  Well, let me ask you.  They would say, “this is a joke.  We‘re just kidding around.  It‘s not to be taken seriously.” Who is actually going to take it seriously?  Your response? 

WISE:  A lot of people take it seriously.

For many states, and particularly small states, the only contact that millions of Americans have is often through mass media marketing.  So for a lot of contact that people have with my small state, it may be in a T-shirt that they are picking up at a Western store someplace.  And so that‘s not what we want out there.  We have a positive story to tell about men and women in uniform, about the low rate of crime in West Virginia, about a great place to raise and bring up children. 

That‘s the story that we want to be telling and not having to deal with unfounded stereotypes, which, incidentally, if it were some other state—and which we have seen Abercrombie & Fitch unfortunately has pushed the edge before, the catalogue that they had to withdraw at Christmas, for instance, the T-shirts you talked about that offended Asian-Americans.   Well, this is simply the latest episode.  They don‘t need to do it.  In fact, I would be glad to work with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about a positive campaign.  They could sell their T-shirts and at the same time get a positive message out about the real things and that are happening good in West Virginia. 

ABRAMS:  But what could you do that would be funny?  Give me an example of something really funny about West Virginia that they could put on a T-shirt that they would say, oh, the governor had a good one there? 

WISE:  Well, that‘s what I‘m happy to sit down with them about.  They have got great mass marketers.  Obviously, they are a quality company.  Look at their stock rating, and so I‘m sure we can work something out.  But this is too good of a company to have to stoop to this kind of—in many ways, almost character assassination, when there‘s so much good that is happening in my state and in a lot of other places, too. 

ABRAMS:  Let me read you the statement from Abercrombie & Fitch: “We love West Virginia.  We love California, Florida, Connecticut, Hawaii and Nebraska, too.”  They sound like Howard Dean.  “Abercrombie & Fitch was born and raised in the USA and we honor all 50 states in the Union.”

There was another shirt spoofing New Mexico, that read, what is it, “40 Million Squirrels Can‘t Be Wrong.”  They were just kidding around in that one and they are kidding around in this one, they say.

WISE:  But, unfortunately, with what they chose to put on this T-shirt isn‘t something that most people kid around with.  The allegations deal with domestic abuse.  It is a serious situation in homes across all of this country.  It is not something to kid about.  It‘s not squirrels.

And so therefore, and simply admit you are wrong.  They have done it several times before.  The public accepts that and we‘ll move on.  And maybe we can work together and design a funny T-shirt that is a positive statement. Abercrombie & Fitch ought to take this challenge up and say, “OK, let‘s see what good we can get out of this.”

ABRAMS:  How did this stereotype start about West Virginia?  It has been out there for so long.  I have no idea where it even came from.  Do you know where it came from?

WISE:  Well, it‘s a stereotype I think that really applies to much of rural, whether Appalachian or indeed the entire country, about rural areas.  And it comes from people who don‘t know. And yet the innuendo that is on this T-shirt is unfortunately a problem that is in urban areas as well.  The fact is, it‘s a very serious matter, wherever it is.  It ought not to treated so cavalierly.  That‘s why I‘m offended by it.  It‘s not just West Virginia.  Yes, I‘m offended by that, but I‘m also offended that it would be so cavalierly tossed about.  Abercrombie & Fitch is too good a company to have to be stooping to this. 

ABRAMS:  Governor, are your constituents, are most of the people you are talking to genuinely upset about this?  Or do they say, ah, come on, just one of those dumb comments?  Are they really bugged by this? 

WISE:  I‘m a West Virginian.  I was brought up here.  I‘m irritated, I‘m upset by it.  And I know a lot of others are, too.  Our phones have been ringing off the hook on it. 

It gets too easy just to step aside.  Listen, there are 1.8 million people who get up every morning, work hard, are in the armed forces of our country, are doing everything that society asked them to do, working hard at raising their kids.  And to just have this kind of stereotype continually put on you, it‘s time you say “enough is enough.”  Abercrombie & Fitch doesn‘t have to make maybe doing this kind of unfounded statement.

ABRAMS:  And West Virginia very often has some good college sports teams as well.  I follow college sports.

WISE:  We have great college sports.  But we also give every student who makes a B average in high school a promised scholarship to any college or university in our state.  We also, for instance, as I say, have tourism, our fastest growing industry.  Millions of people have found West Virginia to be the kind of place they want to come and visit and come back again.  That‘s what Abercrombie & Fitch can help us promote.

ABRAMS:  All right, well, I may want to come visit one of these days.   I‘m going to give you a call, Governor.  Thank you very much for coming on.

WISE:  We want you.  And we got plenty of good T-shirt for you. 


ABRAMS:  Thanks a lot, Governor. 


Discussion comments