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Pedestrians walk past the new location for American Apparel, 115 E. Grand River Ave. The clothing retailer is known for not outsourcing to sweatshops.
'Racy' retailer plans to open E.L. location
Fair-labor apparel store could create competition in city
The State News
Scott Cendrowski
October 18, 2005

A Los Angeles-based fashion retailer, known for its sweatshop-free manufacturing operations and worldwide locations, is moving next to Urban Outfitters, 119 E. Grand River Ave., by early next year.

American Apparel will fill more than half the space at 115 E. Grand River Ave., formerly Tower Records, Jacobson's Furniture and most recently a discount book store, said Brian Gordon, president of Gordon Reality, which handles the property.

Gordon is talking with three other retail stores and restaurants to fill the remaining 4,000 square feet still vacant at the 10,000-square-foot location.

American Apparel makes plain, non-screened T-shirts, polo shirts, socks, underwear, tank tops and sweatshirts under fair-labor practices at its Los Angeles factory, said Mathew Swenson, fashion media director.

Fair-labor practices means the company pays its workers a living wage.

A typical short-sleeve T-shirt costs $15-$20 and sweatshirts and jackets are between about $40 and $60 at the store, which has locations in Paris, London and Tokyo.

"At one point we're a fashion company … in the end, we sell sweatshirts and T-shirts," Swenson said. "My mom could wear us."

He said the location will have a casual, yet racy, atmosphere.

At its other stores, including one in Ann Arbor, pornographic magazine covers hang next to fitting rooms, risquè advertisements featuring scantily-clad models adorn walls, and pictures from around the local community are placed throughout. Employees will be able to use an in-store camera to photograph shoppers as amateur models and capture East Lansing landmarks, Swenson said.

Members of Students for Economic Justice, or SEJ — a student group that has protested unfair MSU apparel labor practices — said they're encouraged by American Apparel's move to East Lansing, but are skeptical after May lawsuits accused its CEO of sexually harassing employees.

Jim Ridolfo, an SEJ member, said even with American Apparel's purported fair-labor practices, he doesn't plan to shop there.

"I support any company that pays its employees a living wage, but in the case of American Apparel there remains disturbing questions regarding how (its) CEO mistreats many of his female employees," he said in an e-mail. "It depends on how you balance the good and bad of the company."

Average American Apparel customers are progressive, street-smart 16- to 30-year-olds — much the same market Urban Outfitters already targets in East Lansing, Swenson said.

But competition actually helps retailers, said Jim van Ravensway, East Lansing planning and community development director.

Swenson said it creates a shopping hub, attracting Michigan shoppers who wouldn't otherwise travel to a stand-alone location.

Urban Outfitters might have some customers lured away when American Apparel moves in, said Matt Cochrane, an Urban Outfitters store manager, but that's OK.

"We have a wide variety of items that play off of each other," Cochrane said.

He said many American Apparel customers layer their clothing with an assortment of plain shirts. Urban Outfitters customers do the same with its screened prints, T-shirts and sweaters.

Urban Outfitters even carries American Apparel T-shirts emblazoned with its own screen prints, he said.

"It will pull in more business in general; how it will even out, we'll just have to see," Cochrane said.

The store's location has been notorious for quick business turnover during the past five years because of its size, van Ravensway said. Swenson said some American Apparel locations are bigger than the East Lansing store.

American Apparel's position next to Urban Outfitters is a luxury other stores on Grand River Avenue don't have, van Ravensway said.

"Part of the problem I observed with the Gap, for example, is that the isolated store needed more support — comparable retail so people have more than one shopping option," he said.

Van Ravensway said he wants "to have East Lansing viewed as a retail center so people want to shop down here, compared to everywhere else."