Label of the Year: American Apparel
Our winner is the brand that turned a sexy T-shirt/spandex leggings or skinny jean combo into the uniform of Britain's twentysomethings in 2008. Polly Vernon on the rise of American Apparel and its controversial founder, Dov Charney.The Guardian
November 30, 2008
The American Apparel store, in Camden, North London, sits directly opposite the tube. It's an inconspicuous affair, a small, discreet shop front nestling between a Footlocker and a Rymans; but it serves as a youth club for the irredeemably cool of the area. They gather there to browse the 'collection' - the Crayola-bright jersey fabric stretch leggings and mini dresses, the latex-coated leggings, the too-baggy or too-tight tees - and to hang out. The PA system plays the Cure on a loop. The young and beautiful shop assistants jiggle and lip synch along to songs they can't possibly remember from the first time around - and they sell vast quantities of stock to a loyal and rapidly expanding clientele.
American Apparel is the fashion sensation of 2008. It's the largest clothing manufacturer within the United States; it specialises in very basic, very brightly coloured, ethically-produced jersey cotton pieces. Leggings, T-shirts, mini dresses, vintage-look hoodies... It was launched in the US in 1998 by fashion entrepreneur and self-styled 'hustler' Dov Charney, a man whose joint obsession with decent business ethics and sex, have made him as controversial as he is successful - on which, more shortly. It arrived here four years ago, when the first store opened on London's Carnaby Street. Since then, it has grown. Its unobtrusive little shops have sprouted up with minimal pomp and fuss, Starbucks-style, in Bristol, Glasgow, Brighton and Liverpool. There are now seven shops in London, and branches in Manchester and Nottingham will open before the end of this year. 'We are looking at every city in the UK with a decent-sized population', says Brent Chase, spokesperson for the brand in Britain.
American Apparel's UK operation is flourishing. Turnover has increased from £7m in 2007 to £14m this year. Its aesthetic is flourishing in the UK, too. In 2007, it became the basis for the signature look of the extremely fashionable brigade: St Martins art students and Hoxton-dwelling creatives. But it wasn't until this year that it really got its claws into the cultural moment at large. You'll have seen it, even if you didn't know what you were looking at. Those gaggles of pretty boys in the lilac low-cut oversized T-shirts, bright red, super skinny jeans and white, no-name plimsolls? American Apparel customers. The cool girls with the dove-grey leotards, the patch-pocket mustard yellow flirty mini-skirts and the gold braided head bands flattening down their too-long fringes? American Apparel customers. 'I liken American Apparel to mobile phones,' says Frank Strachen, pop stylist and fashion editor of Attitude magazine. 'How did we all cope before? Simple jersey pieces in more colours than you can imagine, with eccentric bits of neon and lamé. In the last year I don't think I've done one fitting without a piece of American Apparel on the rail. You see American Apparel all over the pop landscape, from Take That to the Saturdays.'
'It's ubiquitous now,' agrees Melanie Rickey, fashion features editor of Grazia magazine. 'It's infiltrated the shopping habits of a certain demographic.' Rickey notes that Grazia's weekly Style Hunter spot - in which well-dressed members of the public are found on the street, photographed and interviewed about their outfits - is dominated by American Apparel pieces; anyone who takes an interest in such things, who visits the internet's many 'street-style blogs' - like facehunter.blogspot.com and thesartorialist.blogspot.com - would agree that AA's shiny, latex-coated leggings have, at £28, become the most-wanted item of the season.
Catherine Hayward, fashion director of men's magazine Esquire, is a big fan of American Apparel. 'I live in the T-shirts; I layer them up, short sleeve over long-sleeve scoop,' she says. 'My first experience was in the Carnaby Street store - I just happened to walk past after it had opened, popped in for a look because it was all so bright and the staff were so good-looking, and I thought: "Ooh, what's that?'" She promptly got hooked. Hayward believes that American Apparel's ascendance in 2008 'very much chimes with the credit-crunch times, because it's cheap, and gleeful. No one wants to be seen to spend huge amounts of money, but no one wants to give up on shopping completely. At American Apparel, you can go and buy one T-shirt of every colour - lots of little multi-coloured treats to cheer yourself up.'
The celebrity scene appears to agree. It embraced American Apparel in 2008 - see Cheryl Cole in a white cotton stretch mini-dress (£26) on a shoot for The Observer this October; Sienna Miller was papped leaving a New York branch with a loaded carrier bag in September, as was Amy Winehouse in August, and Hugh Grant in May. Lindsay Lohan rarely wears anything but American Apparel. When she was photographed, comatose in the front of a car while wearing an AA grey marl zip-through hoodie, concerns were raised regarding her health - and sales of the hoodie went through the roof. The presenters on T4, Channel 4's youth-oriented segment, dress semi-exclusively in American Apparel; you rarely see Steve Jones, or Rick Edwards, or Miquita Oliver in anything else. All of this, despite the fact that American Apparel has a policy of never giving freebies or discounts to celebrities.
If you haven't heard of it - that's half the point. You're probably too old. American Apparel is unashamedly concerned with dressing the urban-dwelling sixth former/early-twentysomething. To a degree, its laid-back, sporty, pretend-vintage, flirty sexiness defines that generation. American Apparel clothing is insouciant, and it is cheap. An entire outfit - say, a cotton/spandex jersey too-short tube dress in lime green (£18) a unisex fleece zip hoodie (£28); and a pair of shiny stirrup tights (£10) - will barely scrape the 60 quid mark. It is sexy (tight, short, low-cut), it is clubby, it is casual; it is the antithesis of respectable office wear.
It is flagrantly exclusive in marketing its wares to the superyoung and supercool. Its advertising campaign is a series of bald, starkly lit, un-retouched pictures of pretty boys and girls, contorted into positions that suggest yoga and outlandish sex. It's been criticised for these. The very latest of these - an internet ad which shows a model unzipping a yellow body suit to expose what can only be described as 'a lot of nipple', is a case in point. The whole thing is designed to reference porn shots.
American Apparel's reach is significant; it has begun reconfiguring the framework of popular culture. It is AA's short-sleeve, deep V-neck T range, for example, that sparked off this year's man-cleavage revival. The man-cleavage (or he-vage) was previously the preserve of a certain type of middle-aged unfortunate, but suddenly gained currency among a much younger, cooler demographic, thanks, entirely, to the escalating popularity of this £14 shirt. Johnny Borrell of Razorlight adopted the look, thousands of other young men followed.
Elsewhere American Apparel ignited the debate over whether or not leggings could be worn in lieu of trousers. Formerly, leggings had been a kind of superannuated hosiery option, to be worn under a skirt, or dress, or shorts; but devotees of the AA brand saw no reason not to wear them alone, with a top. The toss was argued on the comments boards of fashion and lifestyle blogs - most fiercely at jezebel.com - but the American Apparel approach persisted, now a legging is considered a reasonable bottom-half option.
Also: American Apparel is responsible for merging traditional straight and gay male aesthetics. A significant proportion of its collection is labelled unisex; accordingly, a significant amount of men have wound up embracing a look associated with a more flamboyant market. The bright colours, the skinny slacks, the tight T-shirts, the crop T-shirts... It's a sartorial exuberance classically indulged by gay men, but as it gained currency among everyone, those distinctions became less relevant. You could argue that it's a useful conflation of cultures, a step toward dismantling stereotypes on sexual orientation.
American Apparel has also become synonymous with the New York 'hipster' movement. Hipsters are the latest development in youth culture. They are young, good-looking graduates who work in a non-specific creative field, and dedicate themselves to the business of being as directional and cutting edge as they can be.
Their spiritual home is Williamsburg, a recently revived area of Brooklyn, rammed with organic coffee shops, tiny boutiques, galleries and independent bars. They dress exclusively in vintage, hats, designer one-offs produced by their hipster friends - and American Apparel. They're bloggers and clubbers and denizens of art parties, a kind of new-new bohemian. Hipsters are something of a joke in New York (as YouTube's Hipster Olympics video testifies); they're pretentious and over-attached to irony and they inspire vitriol in everybody. 'These hipster zombies... are the idols of the style pages, the darlings of viral marketers and the marks of predatory real-estate agents,' writes Christian Lorentzen in an article published in the New York edition of Time Out magazine, 'Why The Hipster Must Die', which references the hipsters' association with American Apparel. The hipster brand, and the American Apparel brand, are indistinguishable.
One man is responsible for everything American Apparel is, and represents; for its successes, and for its cultural impact. Dov Charney is its founder, creative director and chief executive. He is 39 years old, bearded, sufficiently slim-hipped to fit into his own designs, supremely successful, and as controversial as he is fashionable. 'I think I was born a hustler,' he told the New York Times, in 2004. 'I like the hustle.'
Dov Charney is famous for two things, as already specified. He is uniquely concerned with the ethics of his company. America Apparel's strap-line attests to the fact that the product is 'sweatshop free' and made in downtown LA, Charney pays his employees twice the minimum wage and offers them significant benefits, including full family medical insurance; he refuses to outsource the manufacturing of American Apparel. He does all this because, he says, it makes good business sense. With the same rationale, he's campaigning to change US policy on immigration (he runs a campaign to 'Legalise LA' by decriminalising immigrants; his workforce is largely composed of immigrant workers who are allowed to make free phone calls home during work hours). And he is obsessed with sex.
The signature porn-y adverts are Charney's vision and Charney's work (he takes the photos); Charney recruits his ad models and his staff from the rafts of beautiful people he encounters on the streets and in the bars, clubs and restaurants of LA. He invites a selection of his favourite employees to room with him in his LA mansion; they live there, rent free, and in return they serve as personal assistants. They're exclusively male. 'I used to have girls around, but it's easier with boys,' Charney told Portfolio magazine during a recent interview.
Charney routinely presents his female recruits with vibrators as gifts; in 2004, during an interview for Jane magazine, the journalist Claudine Ko noted that Charney began masturbating in front of her. 'I was a younger man,' says Charney, on that subject. 'The lines were blurred between paramour and reporter.' He is said to take meetings at his headquarters dressed only in an American Apparel thong, and to regularly refer to his female employees as 'sluts' and 'whores'. He has used lap dancers as fit models in the past.
Charney's approach polarises his workforce, who either adore him and write spirited defences of him (the now defunct Radar ran an interview with AA model and Charney-devotee Claire Salinda, entitled 'In the Name of Dov'); or sue him for sexual harassment. Charney's defended four lawsuits in the past three years; two of which he's won, one of which was dropped, one of which has been settled. He's currently facing another, brought by former employee Mary Nelson. Charney will only say on the subject: 'American Apparel is a sexually charged workplace where employees of both genders deal with sexual conduct, speech and images as part of their jobs.'
Dov Charney grew up in Montreal, where he developed a fascination with American culture, which he focused into designing the definitively 'American' T-shirt and underwear. By his late teens, he'd begun peddling his tees on the streets of Montreal; by 1991, he'd developed the prototype for the first American Apparel T-shirt. By 1998, while still in his twenties, he'd moved to California and launched American Apparel. He began with three stores - in New York, Montreal and Los Angeles. American Apparel now has some 231 retail outlets worldwide; as well as the US and the UK, you can visit AA stores in China, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Israel, Mexico and France.
In 2007, American Apparel merged with Endeavour Acquisition and went public; Charney became the president and CEO of American Apparel Inc. He retains absolute creative direction and despite having no formal training designs each AA piece. 'I am an intuitive designer,' he says. 'I put it on and see if it's tight or not. I love the touch of fabric... I try on all my underwear designs before they go into production.' (That, he says, should explain why he wanders round his HQ in a jersey thong.)
Charney's approach is working. Worldwide, American Apparel turns over close to $500 million, which might not make it Gap, but is still not to be sneezed at. Charney's unorthodox approach to business lends the well-made but unremarkable clothing a youth-snaring edge; the odd lawsuit can only compound that, while the ethical subtext of his operation means that Charney is less likely to suffer a Russell Brand-like fall from grace.
'Oh, the future is definitely very bright for American Apparel,' says Catherine Hayward. The fashion sensation of 2008 may well end up being the fashion sensation of 2009, too. Gold spandex stretch leotards for all.
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