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Mass Appeal
Words: Mary Choi
Photo: Ye Rin Mok

American Apparel is a rebellious company-it says so right on the back of their catalog (in Spanish to boot). For anyone unfamiliar with American Apparel (and the tan-lined glands made famous by their ads), the company that specializes in blank clothing is the downtown Los Angeles-based, eight-year-old brainchild of Dov Charney. Dov, who was previously the US connect for Hanes Beefy Ts, was inspired by the Canadian demand for blanks and wanted to make the dang shirts himself. While selling his own shirts stateside, he unlocked the ancient paradigm that has mystifi ed every genius promotions department the nation over: in an epiphany, he decided to make girls T-shirts. Simple, eh? What started out as a damn good idea and one blank girlie T is now a 350,000 square-foot compound that employs 1,500 with a full roster ranging from ladies thongs to onesies for babies.

With all the permutations of cut, color and fiber ranging from blue stretch cotton yoga pants to red fleece miniskirts, it would seem that senior product manager Merrily Lupo has her work cut out for her. But if you figure she can just snip a sleeve and skate away with her slick salary you figured wrong. The 24-year-old former Pasadena Art Centre student who was initially hired to redecorate Dov's new workspace is now a designer of clothes. "It's all about nailing down the right one; nailing down the right pocket, the right fabric," she says of laboriously creating the numerous variations. "Oh boy, it takes about twenty incarnations at least for each [garment]. And sometimes we'll put it in the catalog...we'll put it in stock and then we'll change our minds!"

Of the near impossible task of perfecting everybody's everydays-aka the T-shirts, shorts, cheerleading uniforms and Hooters crop tops worn by American Apparel customers-Merrily says, "We try to only make things that are commodities-things that are going to last and have a six-year lifespan. But we're always a little doubtful. Just because we want this [cut] doesn't mean hundreds of people are going to want it. That's why we talk to customers all the time." She also gives out freebies in the name of research. "We'll make ten to twenty pieces and we'll pass them around to our friends. We'll make a few changes... We'll think something's done, [Dov] will be out of town, come back, try something on and hate it. I'm beginning to think he's just doing that on purpose to be really arrogant," Merrily says with a laugh. "Nah, actually, he knows what he's doing."

The company that fosters growth devotes a section of the factory to "experimentation"-items that may eventually be seen in stores. Dubbed the Pink Label, this is where Merrily lets her hair down by way of creating baby-butt-soft-sheer-jersey-spaghetti-strap chemises with matching comfy T-back thongs, athletic mesh race car driver jackets with matching skirts and terry cloth tube dresses-a la Juicy Couture but without the Paris Hilton price tags. The company is particular with pricing, careful to avoid unnecessary markups. A noble qualm considering the overhead of a large, sweatshop-free company with not only higher wages for workers ($12-18 an hour) but also ready-to-go masseuses wandering around to quell any potential muscle spasms, $8.00 a week health insurance plans, free phones and subsidized lunch and transit. Also slated for the coming years is the phasing in of environmentally responsible organic cotton in recognition of the fact that cotton harvesting represents a quarter of US pesticide consumption. The company is further blessing the masses with eight new colors, among them the melange series, which perfectly mimics the heathered, well-worn softness of twelve-year-old summer camp Tshirts and three new fabrics like the micro-waffle-soft thermal that Merrily claims they can't keep in stock. "It's lightweight with a soft poly-cotton blend so it doesn't shrink so much," she explains. It's a refreshing change from the chest flayingly-rough, almost breakfast cerealsize waffling of bygone thermals.

Another thing to look out for from the company with uncanny instincts and timing is length. Anyone who has found themselves plumbering out of rapidly diminishing, low-slung denim can find sanctuary in their longer cut shirts that fit all the way down. An important reminder for some ladies who may have forgotten crack kills. Word to Atkins.