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Downtown to get clothing store that skews hip, not honky-tonk
American Apparel known for U.S. goods
The Tennessean
Megan Moriarty
July 6, 2006

American Apparel, the Los Angeles-based retailer making a splash from Chicago to Munich with its racy in-store ads and sales of made-in-the-USA clothing, is about to start building its first store in Nashville at 320 Broadway.

The 2,400-square-foot store, the chain's second outlet in Tennessee, is scheduled to open in mid-September.

The storefront for the soon-to-be American Apparel store on Lower Broadway in Nashville is papered with Calvin Klein-like photo ads of models. Many of the models for the ads are store or corporate employees with the Los Angeles-based company.

The build-out of the Nashville store is getting under way just two months after officials with the Nashville Downtown Partnership put together a retail strategy as part of a long-term plan to attract a wider variety of stores to an area now known more for discount houses and Western wear.

According to the partnership's Web site, 10 "apparel and shoe" shops are currently in the downtown area, most of them specializing in Western wear or catering to the honky-tonk crowd.

Nashville Downtown Partnership Executive Director Tom Turner said American Apparel's arrival is significant because it's a different kind of store for downtown.

Dov Charney
Standing among production workers is CEO Dov Charney. Los Angeles-based American Apparel is an $80 million-plus company that has spun its idealism into financial success and created an exception to the rule in an industry where almost every piece of clothing is made overseas. American Apparel makes T-shirts, jackets and other casual wear in this factory in downtown Los Angeles.

"American Apparel is located in educated, urban settings, focusing on demographics that are underserved by the exit-ramp economy."

Miguel McKelvey, location scout, store designer and project manager working with American Apparel, helped pick the Lower Broadway location. He sees the store fitting neatly into a downtown revival.

"So many other cities in the U.S. have had a downtown renaissance ... with a mix of housing and new businesses, and that's the kind of thing we're looking for a place where we can go in and be a part of that progressive change."

American Apparel, which started as a wholesale company in 1997 and opened its first U.S. retail store in October 2003, has more than 125 stores in 11 countries with another 20 in the works. It sells T-shirts, sweatshirts, swimwear, underwear and more all aimed at a young, urban crowd.

John Sisco, a principal with The Sisco Group the locally based real estate developer that owns 320 Broadway was instrumental in landing the retailer. Sisco's development near the foot of Broadway also has four residential lofts above the apparel store.

"I felt like it was an underserved market," Sisco said. "I believe (adding American Apparel) is a good first step in bringing national chains to the downtown area, especially as the number of residents increases."

The Nashville American Apparel store, with approximately 1,800 square feet of retail space and 600 square feet of storage space, will be smaller than the chain's average 3,500-square-foot shop. McKelvey said stores average $1,000 per square foot in annual sales, high by industry standards.

American Apparel has opened more than 20 stores in the past six months in cities including Miami; Savannah, Ga.; Chicago; and Charlotte, N.C.; as well as in Vancouver, Canada; Munich, Germany; and Tel Aviv, Israel.

"The growth has been amazing," McKelvey said. "There's a general following, which is the people who just walk by and see the clothes and think they're cute, and there's also a bit of a cult following."

McKelvey sees Nashville as a good fit.

"I knew that there were lots of cool people (in Nashville) but I didn't know if they would be interested in American Apparel or if their styles were different. But when I went there, the people that I saw (had) a diverse mix of styles and fashions and ... it really reminded me of the people that I see in L.A."

American Apparel has earned a reputation for great sales per square foot in the clothing industry, but it also has been tinged with controversy in large part because of the reputation of its 37-year-old CEO Dov Charney, who was sued last year by three female employees over alleged workplace sexual harassment.

Charney, who says he feels free to engage in consensual sexual relationships with staffers, takes many of the store's advertising photos himself often using his own employees in provocative poses, according to a recent profile in Business Week.

Interior store designs feature grainy photographs of models in various stages of undress, and in some locations the sex appeal is kicked up a notch with pinups from old Penthouse men's magazines tacked to the walls. McKelvey said the look might upset some people, but not most.

"We're in other (Southern) locations and we haven't really had a problem. I think if we're OK with 99 percent of the people, there could be 1 percent of the people who want to scream and yell that something is inappropriate. I've heard people complain about Christmas before."

Still, the store has a loyal following, and not just because of its merchandise. It also has made headlines for paying employees at its downtown Los Angeles plant above clothing-industry norms and for not shipping clothing production to overseas factories with cheap labor.

McKelvey said the company's goal is to appeal to shoppers of all ages.

"My mom can go in there and find 10 things that she loves, and my girlfriend can go in there and find 30 things that she loves, and I can go in there and find a lot of stuff that I like as well.

"And in terms of the company in general I think there is a wide appeal to the fact that (the merchandise) is made in the USA, the workers are treated well, that it's a young company that's trying to do things differently and change standards of outsourcing labor.

"There's definitely a social message behind American Apparel that's interesting and progressive. And especially in this political atmosphere I think a lot of people believe in the message that American Apparel is trying to put out there that we can create jobs in the U.S., and we can treat workers well and we can use immigrant labor in a positive way. It's all a good formula."

The downtown Nashville store is the retailer's second one in Tennessee, after Memphis.