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American Apparel comes to town
Boston Phoenix
Shannon McMahon
December 24-30, 2004

If you bought a screen-printed T-shirt at a rock show or a DIY crafts fair recently, your purchase was more than likely manufactured by the sweatshop-free clothing company American Apparel. A kind of Hanes for socially conscious hipsters, the LA-based company is especially well known for its Classic Girl line, a multicolor array of simple, cap-sleeved, formfitting girlie T's that have won the loyalty of sundry young women because they actually fit. In the past couple of years, American Apparel retail locations have been spreading all over North America: New York has eight, San Francisco has two, and even Ottawa had one. But here in Boston, the only way to order American Apparel goods was either online or through a middleman retailer.

No longer. Boston's first American Apparel store opened this past Sunday on Newbury Street, after six furious days of preparation. "Record time," says Sharon native Jared Rubenstein, who came in from New York to set up the store. On Tuesday, the kinks in the two-level space hadn't all been worked out: the glass storefront wasn't completed; white shelves in the foyer were still empty; upstairs, the temperature was 80, while it was more like 60 downstairs. But the white-walled, gray-carpeted store was amply stocked with American Apparel's much-adored garments, including multicolor ringer T's ($16), baby-blue terry-cloth pants ($43), zipper-down hoodies ($26), and even a bin of hip dog T's ($14).

"Layering is the key these days," explains Jessa Blades, another organizer from New York, motioning around the Newbury Street space. Which is why in the middle of the winter, on a day with a wind-chill factor of minus 14, there are as many short-sleeved shirts and sleeveless tank tops on display as there are long-sleeved shirts.

American Apparel's locations aren't intended to function only as shops, but also as galleries. The seven-year-old company employs an actual in-house "art team" — aesthetically minded staff members who arrange found images of '70s-era men, with too much hair, beside enlarged photos of sexy, hip-looking women showing off the company's products. The American Apparel girls are a bit of controversy. Although the business boasts that its models aren't professionals and that the original photos are never retouched, the young women are scantily clad and scrunched up on couches — kind of like Fiona Apple in her infamous "Criminal" video. Nevertheless, the ads are all over the Boston store, juxtaposed with Penthouse and Oui magazine covers; grainy mug shots of female criminals, supposedly recovered in a Palm Springs secondhand store; and digital photos of a Hasidic-goods store in Montreal, where American Apparel owner Dov Charney bought a "full Hasidic suit, including fur hat." Strange, but somehow it works.

Founder and CEO Charney is a presence in his stores. An enterprising 35-year-old whose sideburns-merging-into-mustache facial hair makes him look more like a '70s porn star than a clothing mogul, Charney has been heralded as a "genius" for managing to pay his employees a living wage while growing his business rapidly in just seven years. He has also figured out how to make his employees friendly without being annoying. "We want to hang out with customers," says Rubenstein, a former Fox Kids Club member now trying to make it on Broadway. "We don't want this to be like your grandparents' house, where you can't touch anything." So staffers don't give you the evil eye when you're feverishly digging into a pile of neatly folded shirts — they hang around and offer to get a size if the one you need is missing.

And they definitely aren't uptight. Blades, a part-time makeup artist with long blond hair and a purple Classic Girl T, decides to show off how American Apparel's scarves can double as "96 different things." Grabbing a burnt-orange one from a bin and unraveling all 93 inches, she says, "Let me show you my favorite: mermaid tube top." Pulling it around her bust, she pulls, tucks, and stretches the scarf into a tight-fitting dress over jeans, while somehow managing to greet customers. Blades examines herself in a fitting-room mirror. "I think it's gorgeous."

People seem to like this laid-back, friendly attitude. A middle-aged woman buying clothes for her twentysomething daughter overhears Rubenstein saying he's visiting from Manhattan. "You're from New York?" she asks. "I knew you couldn't be from here. You're too good at your job."

American Apparel, at 138 Newbury Street, Boston, is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Call (617) 536-4768.