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American Apparel
Over customised everything and want great, simple pieces instead? Look no further than LA-based company, American Apparel. Cornering the market on 70s shorts, skimpy tanks and perfect tees, combining must-haves with ethics, Meg Mason gets down to basics.
Meg Mason
April 13, 2006

When you come out of the subway at Spring Street in Soho, there is a store, near the corner of Greene Street, called American Apparel. Inside is a white interior decorated with 80s prom photos, polaroids of customers and everywhere, grainy, oversize photographs of girls who look like Chl÷e Sevigny - had she one Hispanic parent - lounging around in tiny running shorts and Japanese schoolgirl socks. Nearly everyone who walks in walks out with a giant sack of T-shirts. Perfect, perfect T-shirts.

American Apparel is knit jersey nirvana, if to you paradise means a drawer full of clean shirts that are exactly the right shape, in every buttery, swampy, watermelony colour imaginable, without logos or writing or dodgy illustrations. And it's cheap. My last mission, I hauled in six tank tops, four T-shirts and three pairs of yoga pants for US$266.

I'm not busting out Manhattan's best kept secret though, because here is the thing with perfect: if you make it they will come. For 2005, American Apparel expects to turn over US$250m from its tees, better-than-Juicy sweatpants, tank tops, tiny stretch skirts, 70s running shorts, men's and babies' tees and hoodies for dogs. There are already six stores in Manhattan (including a Broadway flagship that, alone, moves up to $30,000 worth of stretch on a good Saturday) and dozens more across the US. There are stores in Dusseldorf, Seoul, Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and London. An empire built on the $15 Classic Girl T.

That makes for some busy sweatshops in Taiwan, you'd think. But you'd be quite, quite wrong because here is the other reason to feel especially tricksy in your Rib Boy Beater Tank. American Apparel doesn't do sweatshops. One million garments a week are knitted, dyed, cut and sewn in a bright pink factory in downtown LA. Some 3,000 mostly Mexican textile workers are paid an average $12.50 an hour (which doesn't sound much except that competitors typically pay less than $1per hour) and receive health insurance, English lessons, free bicycles and massages. The foxy ones, of which there seems to be a disproportionate number, also appear in the advertising.

It's like a beautiful stretch socialist utopia, or as the sign out the front of the factory reads, "The Sweatshop-Free T-shirt Kibbutz". Its chief rabbi is Dov Charney, a 36-year-old Canadian who started out importing Hanes Beefy-T tees, which he bought retail from Kmart in the US, to Canada during his first year at university. (He left the following year to start AA).

Charney has been described as an industrial revolutionary, a Yiddish hustler, a gifted marketing man and a Vincent Gallo lookalike. He has appeared in AA advertising, too, sporting the Melange Jersey Gym T and a naked butt, and he doesn't mind if staff hook-up, as he says it encourages them to come to work. I ask if he has been doing much else besides work in the two years since he started opening stores. "We mix it up, it's a lot of fun. That's why it's worked, I guess, a good bunch of people working together in LA and now we're spreading to other spots," Charney says.

And although he downplays the whole $250m, 4,000-employee thing - "You walk around, you see a store for rent, you call the landlord, that's how it starts" - he has some serious ambitions, too: to bump Gap out of position and open new stores at a rate that makes Starbucks look sluggish. He also plans to pay US-dollar wages to every AA employee, irrespective of where they work, which is a big deal if you're staffing a store in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

In the meantime, Charney stays obsessed with stretch, living above his store on the Lower East Side, carrying a digital camera everywhere he goes so that if he sees a California Fleece Zip Jogger sitting funny on a girl in the street, he can send changes back to the factory and have a better version in store five days later.

"We are totally focused," he says, "on the emerging generation of international, contemporary and metropolitan adults. Most manufacturers are still directed at boomers, but we get these products out and they speak to the sensibility of 25-year-olds. The fit, the texture, it's what they are looking for, so they get excited, and we get excited. It's like the Woodstock for this generation, you know."

American Apparel is available in Australia through Zimmermann and Belinda. You can also buy online at Delivery is free on orders over US$100.