It is hard to know whether the brain trust at Abercrombie & Fitch ( ANF) is inept or brilliant. The latter, and a calculated move to maximize publicity, might be the only explanation for some of the hard-to-believe ways the company has responded to controversy. Back in 2002, the retailer was under fire for T-shirts seen as reinforcing negative Asian-American stereotypes. One shirt shows cartoon Chinese laundry worker caricatures -- complete with slanted eyes and conical "rice-paddy" hats -- with the slogan "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White." Amid charges of racism and nationwide protests and boycotts, the company finally offered an apology -- sort of. "We're very, very, very sorry," a spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's never been our intention to offend anyone." Then came the head-scratching coda: "We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt." The response to a later controversy -- selling thong underwear for children adorned with images of cherries and the words "kiss me" and "wink, wink" -- had the same bizarre mix of contrition and glibness. The official statements to the media included such gems as "It's not appropriate for a 7-year-old, but it is appropriate for a 10-year-old" and "The underwear for young girls was created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute; any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder." Laying out its case for what age it is OK to start sexualizing young girls was scurrilous enough, but the kicker accusing critics of harboring their own dirty thoughts broke just about every PR and crisis control rule ever written.