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American Apparel, a new clothing shop, is now open on East 13th Avenue.
Progressive-minded store a fit for Eugene
An alternative clothing store opens near campus, selling clothes made without using sweatshop labor
Oregon Daily Emerald
Eva Sylwester
January 9, 2006

A company known for making all of its colorful knit clothing in the U.S. without the use of sweatshops now occupies an often-vacant spot on East 13th Avenue.

American Apparel moved to 860 E. 13th Ave. in mid-December. The company, which already has two stores in Portland, was founded eight years ago as a wholesale retailer, and has opened more than 100 stores worldwide in the past two and a half years, American Apparel spokeswoman Alexandra Spunt wrote in an e-mail.

"I kind of like it here. I think it's nice," Eugene resident Priscilla Mills said while visiting the store with her adult daughter. Mills added that while she thought the store was aimed at a younger crowd, she wouldn't mind buying clothes there.

The company is enthusiastic about Eugene's reputation for socially conscious consumers.

"Eugene, I think, is such a fantastic area for American Apparel," American Apparel project manager and site selector Tacee Webb said. "It's the quintessential ideal of what American Apparel should be and where American Apparel should be."

While many store chains might ignore Eugene, Webb said Eugene—and more specifically, the University area—was chosen because it's progressive-minded and has a large concentration of the mainly young "creative class." Marian Friestad, associate professor of marketing and associate dean of the graduate school, said American Apparel's uniqueness in the campus neighborhood will make success more likely for the store.

"It's not another restaurant or another coffee shop," Friestad said. "It doesn't have any direct competition in the immediate area."

The location has had many different tenants before American Apparel.

"That space has obviously had problems finding itself," Friestad said, adding that she last remembered 860 E. 13th Ave. as a Philly cheese steak restaurant a couple of incarnations ago.

University Bookstore General Manager Jim Williams, who has been in management at the bookstore and observing the changing neighborhood for 34 years, added that the building has also been home to a stereo equipment store, a music store and many other restaurants over the years. He wishes American Apparel well.

"As a business person who thinks a dynamic retail district in the campus area is a good thing, I hope they succeed," he wrote in an e-mail.

Webb said the store is already doing well in sales.

Lynn Kahle, professor of sports marketing in the Lundquist College of Business, said American Apparel's sweatshop-free methods could appeal to two groups of people: those who are in favor of buying American-made products to support the U.S. economy and those who are politically active in their opposition to sweatshop labor.

"I think awareness of that is stronger in university communities than in the public at large," Kahle said.

Spunt wrote that the strategy of keeping all manufacturing within the company's Los Angeles headquarters serves multiple purposes.

"First of all, it is much more efficient to do all your manufacturing in the same place," Spunt wrote. "You can turn things around much faster, while ensuring quality. Secondly, a positive workplace is a more productive one, and we set out to prove that you can treat your workers well, pay them fairly and still turn a profit."

Even with pay for manufacturing employees at an average of $12.50 per hour, according to the company Web site, American Apparel is able to keep clothing prices comparable to those of other retailers, with basic T-shirts selling for $15.


Racks of American Apparel clothing sit in a local building that has housed many business incarnations.

Kahle explained that at other clothing manufacturers, articles of clothing change hands four or five times on their journey from raw materials to finished and sold product. Each of the four or five intermediate layers needs to make a profit, driving up prices at each step of the way, but because American Apparel does all its own manufacturing and marketing, only one party needs to make a profit.

Spunt said another advantage of controlling the manufacturing process is that stores can test new styles in small quantities and gauge customer response before adding them to the year-round lineup (swimsuits are on the racks even in January), rather than risking a huge run of a potentially unsuccessful style.

Since its opening 11 years ago, West Moon Trading Company at 840 East 13th Ave. has been the only clothing store on the block, but owner Jamie Decker said she doesn't see her store's new neighbor as competition. While American Apparel focuses on basic cotton clothing, which West Moon sold in the past, West Moon focuses on shoes, jewelry and gifts.

"I really think we'll complement them," Decker said. "We're thrilled to have another retailer to draw clientele."

Williams wrote that decades ago the strip just off campus featured more formal clothing stores.

"They left campus when the students dressed less formally," Williams wrote.

Shopper Shelly Naftel said she liked the store's ethic of getting away from corporate labels.

"I was kind of sad that they weren't union, but what are you going to do," Naftel said.

Webb said American Apparel workers have freely chosen not to unionize because they already receive progressive benefits—low-cost health care, free English language classes, massages and paid days off, according to the company Web site—and that criticism about the union issue "hurts (company founder Dov Charney's) feelings."

"He listens to his workers and they have a voice at American Apparel," Webb said.

Spunt added that a union recruitment drive at the company failed more than two years ago because many employees had negative experiences with unions at previous jobs, but that if workers asked for a union, management would welcome it.
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