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The American Apparel chain hopes its location — open since April — on the most visible corner of the University District, Northeast 45th Street and University Way Northeast, will make the Ave more visible. A store is planned for Broadway on Capitol Hill.
Hot retailer aims to recharge the buzz, and business, on Ave
Seattle Times
Stuart Eskenazi
October 22, 2005

For all the anguish over how to bring more sparkle to the Ave and Broadway, a panacea ultimately might come by way of a clothing-store chain already down with the vibe there.

Last April, Los Angeles-based American Apparel christened its first Seattle store on the most visible corner of the University District: Northeast 45th Street and University Way Northeast. Open as late as 10 p.m., the store has brought two floors of bright light to a corner that had been depressingly dark ever since Pier 1 Imports vacated four years ago.

American Apparel also just signed a lease on the corner of Broadway and East John Street on Capitol Hill. It plans to open a small store there, possibly by Thanksgiving.

"It just takes one person or one business to reinvent a neighborhood and help make a whole area strong again," said Tacee Webb, who scouts new store locations for the chain.

American Apparel, which is undergoing one of the fastest retail expansions in U.S. history, is the "it" retailer of the moment. Its stores have a knack for inspiring urban redevelopment, such as in Portland, by attracting the type of shoppers that eclectic streets like the Ave and Broadway need to thrive.

Let us label these shoppers hip indie politically progressive artsy youth, or hippays. These new hippies rebel against the corporate mainstream, and American Apparel feeds off that attitude.

They get googly-eyed over the company's well-promoted, socially conscious politics — all of American Apparel's clothes are made in a single factory in Los Angeles by workers who earn an average of about $12.50 an hour and get free massages at work.

The chain's popularity also has to do with fashion. American Apparel specializes in the basics, creamy-soft cotton T-shirts and sweatshirts in myriad solid colors, shunning the trend of emblazoning its brand name all over its clothes.

"Right now the indie kids love us because we are not selling out," Webb said. "It all still feels kind of underground."

That kind of love can be quite fleeting, however. Hippays are conveniently overlooking — or not realizing — that by the end of 2005, American Apparel will have opened more than 80 stores on four continents in only two years.

Quite a corporate achievement.

The photographs of models on the walls of American Apparel stores, such as this one in the University District, may draw comparisons to Abercrombie & Fitch stores, but American Apparel aims to draw customers who aren't attracted to malls where Abercrombie and similar retailers are common.

In Seattle, American Apparel has capitalized on $8 million worth of street and sidewalk improvements on the Ave that already were paying dividends. The city also has loosened development restrictions on both the Ave and Broadway in hope of inspiring revitalization.

The company considers urban redevelopment part of its mission, searching for streets with untapped potential, such as the Ave and Broadway, "where agents and brokers strongly advise us not to go," Webb said. "We can open in locations that are considered very daring because our profit margins are very strong."

Within the past couple of years, a handful of boutiques aimed at young women have opened on the Ave, such as Pitaya, an eight-store chain based in Indiana.

"We were excited when American Apparel moved in," said Rachel Davidson, Pitaya store manager. "We see a lot of customers carrying those bags when they come in here."

Ben Vorono, 24, of Tacoma cruised the Ave recently, browsing for used CDs at Cellophane Square, getting a haircut at Rudy's Barbershop and shopping at American Apparel. Yeah, American Apparel is corporate, he said, but it's all right to shop there because its styles are basic and its clothes aren't manufactured in sweatshops.

"I won't go down there," Vorono said about University Village. "I avoid malls at all costs."

As recently as 1990, the Ave featured mall staples such as The Limited and Benetton. But at its core, the Ave, like Broadway, always has boasted an independent, against-the-mainstream spirit.

"The Ave is never going to offer a cookie-cutter selection of stores," said Kian Pornour, general manager and co-owner of Woolly Mammoth and Five Doors Up, two shoe stores that have outlasted other shops on the Ave. "Successful retailers here tend to be small and really focused."

Days of fashion row

Back in the day, the Ave was fashion row for the 20-something set, a destination for college students shopping for pink IZODs, Jordache jeans and Famolare wedgies.

U Village, on the other hand, was an unashamedly unfashionable outdoor mall with not one, but two hobby shops. Focused on serving its surrounding residential neighborhoods, the mall offered few stores where UW students could shop for clothes.

In the early '90s, however, a rehabbed U Village began bringing in national chain stores that targeted college kids, such as The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, and young shoppers abandoned the Ave. Although a few clothing and shoe stores boldly held on, the Ave's style for almost a generation has since been consigned to secondhand clothing.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Vintage, after all, is such a dominant fashion trend that the chain stores at U Village sell new clothes designed to look like they could have come from one of the vintage stores on the Ave.

Webb said American Apparel is a complement to the vintage-clothing stores that continue to dominate the Ave, as its solid-color basics coordinate well with polyester plaid slacks or loud shirts from the '70s.

American Apparel began eight years ago as a clothing label, focused exclusively on warehouse sales. It has steered clear of opening its retail stores in shopping malls and suburbs, with a few exceptions. When the chain looked for a location near the University of Washington campus, it rejected U Village as an option, Webb said.

Looking for signs

While scouting locations for American Apparel stores, Webb looks for signs that speak to a hippay sensibility. Literal signs, such as "Loft Available" or "Vegetarian Restaurant."

In a few instances, American Apparel is an active player in bringing other retailers to a street, leasing more space than it needs and subletting to those that cater to the same demographic.

In Houston, a city of malls, American Apparel opted to open downtown, where fashion boutiques do not exist, and is negotiating for a location in downtown San Jose, Calif. Yes, San Jose has a downtown.

And in Portland, American Apparel opened a store 18 months ago among boarded-up buildings on Southwest Stark Street instead of in the nearby Pearl District, where trendy redevelopment already had taken hold.

Since American Apparel opened there, Red Light vintage clothing, a sushi restaurant and a high-end shoe store have moved in. A former low-budget hotel is being redeveloped into an Ace Hotel, which markets itself as a simple and stylish accommodation with an eclectic bent.

"The energy from the American Apparel building and the Ace Hotel will significantly change the neighborhood," said Robert Sacks, the developer behind the two Portland projects. "American Apparel fit into what we wanted to do on Stark because it's urban, it's youthful, it's gritty. Stark is less stiff than the Pearl. A little more edgy."

Raj Shah, whose retail holdings include Zebra Club, a hip fashion boutique with stores in Belltown, Capitol Hill, Bellevue Square and Vancouver, B.C.; and Cepia Dermotique, a skin-care boutique in Belltown, said American Apparel stimulates his interest in opening one or both of those stores on the Ave.

"That street has been this wonderful little jewel from the standpoint of what it used to be and what it still can be," he said. "American Apparel puts the Ave in the right direction and opens up the opportunity for everyone else. The facade they have created gives the street a fresh look."

Against the mainstream

Essential to the store's effectiveness as a catalyst for urban redevelopment is its credibility among customers who consider anything mainstream uncool — and who would bolt if they thought American Apparel was selling out.

The chain's anti-mainstream chops have much to do with its politics.

It sells its made-in-the-USA basic T-shirt for $15 and is considered edgy. The Gap sells its Third World-manufactured basic pocket T for $14.50 and got its windows broken during the WTO riots.

Urban Outfitters faced grassroots opposition — including calls of "Don't Mall the Haight!" — when it tried and failed to open a large store on San Francisco's Haight Street, which is struggling to hold onto its counterculture identity. American Apparel, on the other hand, opened on Haight — free of hate.

American Apparel stores are adorned with racy photographs of models, treading into the territory of Abercrombie & Fitch, a logo-happy chain that is arguably the hippay devil incarnate. American Apparel, however, gets a pass from hippays because its models are not airbrushed professionals but regular folk with blemishes and other supposed imperfections.

American Apparel does not market itself overtly to mainstream and suburban shoppers, but its cultlike popularity nevertheless is attracting those who also shop at The Gap and Abercrombie. While that may put its hippay-cred at risk, it does help open streets like the Ave and Broadway to shoppers who otherwise wouldn't go near them.

Elizabeth Reed was browsing at American Apparel on the Ave for the first time last month. The 21-year-old UW senior, who also works and lives in the U District, said she does almost all of her clothes shopping at U Village.

"But if there was enough of a volume of popular stores on the Ave, I'd shop here more," she said. "If there was a Gap on the Ave, I'd be there every day."