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Anti-Label from Downtown Los Angeles
Financial Times
Thomas Hillenbrand
July 11, 2006

American Apparel, a manufacturer in California, is known for the generous wages paid its employees. The company also does without any visible logos or expensive advertisements. That is why its products are such big sellers.

Dov Charney is incapable to sit still for any length of time. The scarcely dressed boss of American Apparel jumps up from his sofa and runs through his living room, which is stuffed with photos, records and all kinds of knick-knacks. Charney's broad sideburns, his moustache and the exposed hair on his chest give him the aura of a porno star, anno 1976.

"I believe in Adam Smith; I believe in the invisible hand that regulates the market", he exclaims as he looks out the window at the skyline of Los Angeles. Charney throws his arms up into the air. When he moves, this wiry man reminds you of an animal, of the drummer of the Muppets band.

Embodiment of cool understatement.
Charney has accomplished what has long been likened in the textile industry to squaring the circle. His label, with its retro designs, is regarded by the young urbanites in New York and Berlin as the embodiment of cool understatement. At the same time, American Apparel has managed to create an image for itself, which attracts customers with a social conscience. All its merchandise is manufactured in California, the land of high wages, not in the sweatshops of Third World countries. Charney's mostly Mexican workers earn approximately 13 dollars per hour in American Apparel's factory in downtown Los Angeles. A Pakistani sewer earns only about 23 cents per hour.

The fact that Charney's products are "Made in America" is not the main argument he conveys to his customers, but merely an additional attraction to buy his clothes. More important is the company's marketing approach, which might just as well be considered an anti-label strategy: American Apparel does without any logos. Charney believes that the era of crests, such as those from Lacoste and Gucci, is passť. Yet, connoisseurs have no problems recognizing American Apparel's products. Indications, other than not having any visible labels, are an especially densely knitted cotton and the figure-hugging cut that Charney favors.

Advertisements without celebrities.
CEO Charney, who also has the last word in advertising and design in his company, has a weakness for T-shirts, especially for those from the late seventies and early eighties. This may go back to the days, when, as a teenager, this now 37-year old Canadian smuggled the plain American "Hanes"-shirts over the U.S. border. "You could not get these shirts in Canada, and they were the best at the time". When Charney meets someone for the first time, it has happened on occasion that he finds the style of that person's vintage shirt more interesting than the person himself. Apart from T-shirts with curly bands, this Jewish "shirt peddler" (as Charney likes to call himself) helped several styles and materials to a come-back from oblivion. Some of them had disappeared not without good reason (such as the terry polo or the leotard, a jersey from the aerobics era which was much too tight).

Another characteristic of American Apparel is that the company makes do without any stars in its advertisements. "I don't think it is a good idea to use stars in advertisements. I have no interest in their promoting our products", says Charney. American Apparel is using amateur models instead. "They look like and are real people". They also happen to be less expensive. Other than fame and honor, they receive only 50 dollars per shooting. American Apparel is especially favoring young girls who are usually posing in scanty panties and skirts. Often, these models loll about lasciviously on sofas or rumpled up beds, which cost Charney already quite a bit of trouble. Some critics find that the girls are too young and the photos too frivolous.

Rumor has it, that the maestro is selecting the models himself. Charney, who has been compared by the New York Times to the early Playboy boss Hugh Hefner, is notorious for his constantly changing affairs. Even when deciding on new styles his libido is the decisive factor. When a girl is modeling a good design, "I can feel it in my heart and in my pants," he remarked recently. Due to such patter, Charney has had law suits because of sexual harassment at the work place. But so far they have been dismissed or settled.

Nevertheless, there is no stopping this bundle of energy. Not too long ago, he had his photo taken from aback, wearing nothing but a T-shirt imprinted with the message "Legalize L.A.". Anyone voicing critique about his way of conducting business is in for a rather rough response. Reacting recently to a reporter of the venerable London Times, he quipped: "My detractors are a bunch of liberal fairies. Let me see their sales figures."

The customers of American Apparel are apparently not disturbed by this; just the contrary. The image sells well. Sales turnover rose from 20 million dollars in 2001 to 250 million dollars in 2005. And since other U.S. fashion chains are outsourcing their production overseas, Charney can now boast to be the largest textile manufacturer in the USA.

Urban Clientele.
Customers. American Apparel concentrates on an urban clientele between the ages of 20 to 35 years. Its outlets are mostly located in areas considered to be "in" - such as the Paris Marais; the area around the Hackesche Hoefe in Berlin; or Huston street in New York's Manhattan.

Products. A Charley-O shirt made from terry costs 24 euros; a cotton bodysuit is about 36 euros.

Testimonials. Since company founder Dov Charney is betting exclusively on young fresh faces in his advertising campaigns, American Apparel works exclusively with non-professional models; although celebrities such as Ewan McGregor have been spotted wearing American Apparel outfits.

Translation: Eva Sokolow

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