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Jersey City
Do You Live in Layers of T-Shirt Fabric? You're Not Alone. Eviana Hartman Considers the American Apparel Effect.
Eviana Hartman
October 2006

From the vantage point of the 10 Freeway, the American Apparel factory in downtown L.A. stands out as obtrusively as one of the company's crotch-shot billboards. Its massive façade is painted an electric peach-melba shade and bears solar panels and a banner reading LEGALIZE LA. Up close, it's dizzyingly vast, like a mall or an airport. On the 5th floor, it's lunchtime, and a tide of workers - half male, half female, all speaking Spanish, and some wearing T-shirts with AA's signature font denoting their department (CORTE, LIMPIEZA) - floods the catered lunchroom (a one-week meal pass costs a very reasonable $15) for their half-hour break. On Corte, the cutting floor - generally regarded as the prime gig - an eye-thrilling maze of stacks and rolls of freshly dyed fabric in every shade of the spectrum, sandwiched between layers of plastic wrap, await their fate. As the local salsa radio station blasts, a computerized pattern-cutting machine with a surface similar to a giant air hockey table vacuums in the fabric to prevent any cutting errors. Meanwhile, a collar-making machine resembling a giant kitchen mixer sucks a tube of red jersey skyward, spitting out a ribbed ribbon. The sewing floors are less chill. There, teams of six or so, each producing one silhouette in one color, which makes for a cumulative visual effect that is almost psychedelic, work so shockingly furiously that the mere presence of an interloper could throw off the whole system. One person attaches a collar, the next hems the bottom, and so on. The more they sew, the more they earn - usually in the range of $14 to $18 an hour. The average time it takes a team to make that beloved T-shirt is 11 seconds.

With more than 3,000 workers sewing full-time, that's a lot of T-shirts. And T-shirts are only the beginning: AA has introduced hose, dancewear, wallets, cable-knit sweater leggings, mesh bodysuits. Though the company has undeniably changed the way clothes can be made - and laudably persuaded otherwise self-absorbed fashion types to pay attention to labor and environmental issues - it's also, slowly and surely, changing the way some people dress. Just as the Juicy tracksuit did - albeit briefly - before it, AA has perfected a wardrobe of quintessentially Californian comfort, bringing what was once unthinkable beyond the Jazzercise studio onto the streets. (That other companies doing this on a boutique scale - Ella Moss, Anzevino and Florence, C&C California - all seem to be from L.A. is hardly coincidental.) And just like those '80s mix-and-match clothing modules called Multiples and Units, designers specializing in jersey loungewear have turned getting dressed into an activity we don't have to think about. It's not quite fast fashion, because it's not really about runway trends but rather opting out of consciously following them: Call it, if you will, prefab fashion.

And, in a curious twist, the fall runways seem to reflect some of prefab's principles, at least in spirit. Soft, comfy layers dominated at Marc Jacobs and Missoni; leggings were everywhere, even Versace. As for the booming cottage industry of small artist-run companies creating elaborately screenprinted shirts and totes - which barely existed a few years ago - it's impossible to overstate American Apparel's role in making it happen. (There's even a rival blank-T company for screenprinters called Alternative Apparel.) Whether American Apparel has spawned a zeitgeist or simply captured and marketed one is beside the point: Whatever they're doing, they're definitely onto something. The company now has more than 140 stores worldwide, with new locations opening at a Starbucks-like rate; kids are wild for it in places such as Japan and France, where it isn't even cheap.

"Everything we do is based on intuition," says Dov Charney, the company's infamous founder (to recap what newspapers have printed in the last two years; yes, he shoots some of the ads himself; yes, he's a bit eccentric; yes, he likes the ladies). We're back in New York and headed to Katz's Deli, a block from the Lower East Side store on Houston, "where meetings used to take place in the schmatte business!" he says, clearly amused by his own Jewish-garmento roots. Charney speaks with a childlike energy and tends to gesticulate as pronouncedly as would a professional mime; he resembles, when his signature Empire-Carpet-Guy glasses are off, a hirsute Andre Agassi. But before we sit down, he has to take a call: Apparently, the Lower East Side store needs more deep-V Summer Shirts in black, and they need them five minutes ago. He steps aside, shrieking into his cable-operator-style headpiece. Pairs of neighborhood girls walk by, nodding and staring in recognition. "We're like high school: everybody wants the popular girl," he says, referring to the company's system for instantly reordering styles that sell well, thus shaping its stock daily according to consumer demand. "You can write that down."

It's one of the hottest days of one of New York's hottest summers, and Charney is feeling feisty. To tell the story of how he created his bestselling men's briefs - no fewer than 175 prototypes were scrapped before the final design was chosen - he produces a pale aqua pair, presumably his own, from his tote bag, and proceeds to first wave them at me and then leap up from the table and perform a series of sweeping bodily movements that wouldn't be out of place onstage at Shakespeare's Globe. Elderly patrons stare over their pastrami.

Charney certainly has an eye for silhouette, but, revealingly, he claims he doesn't read fashion magazines. "No one uses the word 'designer' here," he says. "There are about five or six people who influence what we make. It's very disorganized, but that disorganization allows things to happen." So a graphic designer might suggest a henley onesie, or a vintage '80s magazine might spark the idea for a Hans and Franz-ish weightlifter bathing suit. "I believe fashion is something that spontaneously combusts in lots of places at the same time," Charney says. "Like if one guy hadn't invented peg legs, someone else would have. Or maybe 10 people do it at the same time. If there was no American Apparel, things would have gone in the same direction, without a doubt. I think also that things reflect on each other and influence each other. If there is a population surge of young people, then things get sexier because younger people are hornier."

For propriety's sake, we'll move along. Prefab fashion works on a number of levels, not least because the fashion game is, for many people, beginning to get exhausting. Vintage stores are often picked over, and their wares might require alternations; fast-fashion knock-offs are easy to spot and easily dated; meanwhile, even Ashlee Simpson has started to dress like a Parisian stylist. If it's impossible in 2006 not to have clothes that resemble other peoples' clothes, you might as well keep it simple. Says Zoe James, a 27-year-old advertising copywriter who lives in Brooklyn and shops at American Apparel every week: "It's basic enough that I can wear it in totally different ways than anyone else. It's stylish without making you look like you're trying too hard."

And in an era when cars give talking directions and apple slices come packaged in plastic, not only do we not want to look like we're trying too hard, we really don't want to try too hard. American Apparel offers something the fashion world has never seen before: It's quite literally a convenience store of cool. City-dwellers can pick up a hot little dress or a last-minute change of underwear - neatly polybagged and arranged by color - late on a Saturday night, after a movie and before bar-hopping. That, in light of the company's ethical practices, makes it the sartorial equivalent of grabbing a salad (maybe even an organic one) at the drive-thru instead of McNuggets. Charney has hit upon a significant and lucrative truth: We want life - and looking and feeling good - to be as easy as possible. That's the American, and the Californian, way.
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