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Hip, sexy -- and U.S.-made
Sun Sentinel
Doreen Hemlock
November 30, 2004

Fashionably dressed in tight jeans, high heels and a low-cut top, Nicole Anello didn't even glance at the sign in the store window announcing a "sweatshop-free" company that aims to become a "social success." The 24-year-old glided into the first American Apparel outlet in South Florida, because "the clothes look very comfy."

One trip to the dressing room later, Anello walked out with two V-neck cotton dresses and two similar shirts -- all for less than $100. When told her new baby-soft basics were all made in the United States by some of the highest-paid garment workers in the country, she felt even hipper with her spur-of-the-moment purchase.

"I like to contribute to business with a conscience," said the visiting Manhattanite, who works as cosmetics buyer for a national department store. "But if I didn't like the quality, I wouldn't buy it just because it's American."

Clients like Anello are precisely what American Apparel is banking on -- mainly youthful buyers seeking quality cotton basics who don't mind spending a bit more than they would at discount chains, especially to support an innovative business that keeps jobs in the United States.

The Los Angeles-based company has earned quite a following in only seven years in business -- first as a supplier to others who printed designs on its T-shirts and jackets, and since last year, as a retailer with stores now open in major cities in the United States, Canada and Europe. It expects total sales to top $160 million this year.

On the retail side, the chain is mushrooming, from a few outlets started late last year to more than two dozen slated by New Year's Eve. And plans call for opening at least three more each month in 2005, with retail sales alone set to exceed $60 million next year, said Michael Pozner, who heads up retail development.

In South Florida, American Apparel launched its first shop at 720 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach this month and plans to debut in December on Ocean Drive, also in South Beach. The company also is eyeing sites for lease around Fort Lauderdale and in other parts of South Florida, Pozner said.

The quick expansion is drawing the attention of retail analysts and youth marketers. Many give American Apparel high marks for good products at reasonable prices, speedy turnaround from design to store, hip and sexy marketing, as well as socially conscious appeal -- even suggesting American Apparel could be the next Gap.

Yet retail consultant Kurt Barnard sees a risk in targeting the young and sexy -- even with such cotton staples as solid-color T-shirts, camisoles and sweat pants.

"The kind of people who are their customers are very fickle," said Barnard, who heads up Barnard's Retail Consulting Group of Upper Montclair, N.J. "Today, they may love wearing the basics, and tomorrow, they may change their fashion tastes completely."

But bustling sales at the Lincoln Road store show diverse shoppers are mighty happy -- at least for now.

University of Miami accounting student Jenni Cruise came specifically to shop at American Apparel on Sunday, her second visit this month. She first heard of the company in May, when she bought a jacket printed for a rock band at a concert in Palm Beach. Cruise liked the jacket's soft cotton and then, liked what she read about the company's progressive business practices in her college newspaper.

"I think it's kind of cool," said Cruise of the made-in-USA pitch at a time when most clothes sold in the United States are made overseas, increasingly in China. Yet the big draw, said the 20-year-old who wore a college T-shirt, frayed jeans and flip-flops, are versatile items she can dress up or down -- and buy at reasonable prices.

Ron Minutella, a 46-year-old publishing exec from Manhattan wearing a stylish beige cap and black tank-top, stopped in after reading about American Apparel in The New York Times fashion section last week.

"I'm always looking for the perfect T-shirt, and these seem more fitted," Minutella said, as he readied to buy a long-sleeve white top. "It's great that it's produced here, but that's not enough. It's got to fit right and look good."