I remember the first time I got my hands on an American Apparel shirt.
It wasn't the first time I'd seen one: I had been seeing the brand’s mannequins through the windows of its tiny shop down in the cool, college-kid part of my hometown Columbia, South Carolina for months. No, the first time I held and put on a shirt from American Apparel I was interning at Charleston Fashion Week in the public relations department and the shirt was in one of the gift bags.
It was bright teal, slightly bigger than my normal size, had a scoop neck of sorts and became my favorite tee. The next day, while wearing it, I scoured (unsuccessfully) backstage looking for extras to snap up.
In the almost decade since then, the brand has held a soft spot in my closet – and, since its 1989 founding, in the closets of Americans. Making its name in slightly jazzed-up, high-quality, made-in-America basics, it’s a brand mostly respected on the basis of its wares. But the whirlwind of issues swirling around it meant it stood little chance of living on for too long.
American Apparel got its start back in the late 1980s by Canadian Dov Charney. At the time, the premise was simple: American-made T-shirts coming out of Los Angeles-based factories paying fair wages. It was a good shtick, and the company quickly became known for their basics, with many brands choosing American Apparel shirts to print on. But lurking in the background wasn’t enough for Charney. His products were high-quality, so he aspired for more.
In 2003, Charney opened the first American Apparel stores. The move went hand in hand with an emphasis on the brand’s advertising that, while controversial, cut out a defining personality for the label. Girls, cast by Charney, started appearing in shoots wearing tube socks, sheer bodysuits, underwear, crop tops and little else.
It was risky, but it was also in line with the times. Sam Shahid was art directing at brands like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, getting Brooke Shields to admit that nothing got between her and her Calvins, while models ran naked in Bruce Weber images for the A&F Quarterly. But what distinguished AA was the candid vibe. The brand's made-in-America theme went hand-in-hand with the casting of its approachable, girl-next-door models.
Even though the images got racy, the models, who came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, were being introduced to fans. “Meet Trudy” was one famously controversial campaign. “Meet Lauren Phoenix” was another, featuring Phoenix in nothing but her tube socks.
The footprint of American Apparel swelled. In 2006, there were 140 locations in 11 countries. In 2009, there were 281. Charney had a nose for picking the right spots: he was in the Los Angeles Arts’ District before the area blew up and became the must-visit spot it is today. Even in my hometown, he selected Five Points, a college-affiliated neighborhood that at the time was up-and-coming and brimming with his target demographic.
But AA didn’t use its rising platform solely to make money. In 2008, the company launched its first campaign, called "Legalize L.A." Instead of private lobbying, it printed shirts on behalf of the 12 million undocumented working immigrants in the U.S., giving all of the net profits to Los Angeles-based immigrants’ rights groups. The shirts were accompanied by ad campaigns posted in many of the brand’s stores nationwide.
AA had meat in the game. Back then it employed 4,500 workers, some of whom were no doubt immigrants in their “sweatshop-free” factories. The company went on to launch more campaigns, like "Legalize Gay" in 2008, in response to the passing of Proposition 8, a law that banned same-sex marriages in California. But how did the company go from quality products and a progressive stance to having to fire 2,400 workers in one day and being sold to Gildan Athletics for $88 million?
Well, for one, the product. Sure, American Apparel makes great basics using premium organic cottons in America. The problem, though, is that the public’s insistence on quality, made-in-America goods isn’t all that high. With brands like Forever21 and H&M producing many of the same goods much cheaper and in the same areas, it became hard for AA to compete on product alone. What’s more, the brand’s branding was falling out of favor.
As time went on, sexed-up advertising went out of the window, and so did AA's relevance and stability in the market. In 2009, the company had to fire 1,500 workers because of immigration issues. The ruling meant the company needed to invest in hiring and training new people.
The year before, AA doled out a reported $5 million to Woody Allen for using an image from one of his films without permission in an advertisement. And while it attempted to mitigate the losses at the time with an $80 million investment from Lion Capital, 2013 brought further problems, including a distribution center that cost $15 million.
Then, of course, there were Charney’s own problems. While his brand was lovable enough, Charney proved too much of a company "bad boy," to put it euphemistically. Word spread that the sex-drenched culture of AA wasn't limited to the advertising: Charney was continually accused of being sexually inappropriate in the office.
Like his poster girls, Charney would sometimes appear in the office in his underwear for interviews and other meetings, and he was also accused of worse by those who worked with him. Eventually, these antics saw him ousted from the brand. Because he'd made himself such a vocal, visible component of AA, that was bad for business.
After Charney, the brand was never again what it once was. AA attempted to pivot with a new CEO who promised a tamer direction, but it wasn’t enough. Now, those made-in-America, high-quality basics are being sold at deeply reduced prices; finally competitive with those of AA's fast fashion adversaries only now that it barrels to a close.
It’s fitting that the legacy of the brand will end up locked away in the closets of Americans once again. Farewell, American Apparel: it's been a rocky ride, but a memorable one.
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