American Apparel Goes Global

Can the sexed-up brand replace the Gap?

One recent afternoon, as I combed the racks at American Apparel, I realized that I owned a substantial portion of the collection—in 1981, at the age of 11. I was a committed jock: Even when I wasn’t headed to gymnastics or tennis lessons, I favored athletic-inspired fashions. I also grew up in New Jersey. A typical childhood outfit for me is easily approximated with items from the rapidly expanding chain store. For example: the Interlock Running Short in kelly green and white ($22); Unisex Calf-High Tube Socks, also in kelly green and white ($8); the Sheer Jersey Shoulder Tie Tube Top in pastel rainbow and white ($14, reduced from $28); the California Fleece Track Jacket in navy and white (Men’s Department, $44); and the Flex Terry Headband ($6)—Bjorn Borg was my hero and locker poster boy.

Most but not all items at American Apparel are made of 100 percent cotton, whereas the fabrics back then were less wholesome. (Surely my “jogging shorts” were 50 percent polyester/50 percent cotton, while my “warm-up jacket”—as we used to say in the days before hoodie and tracksuit entered the lexicon—was definitely nylon.) But the basic cuts and shapes were identical.

When I look at photographs of myself from that period, I tend to find my outfits laughable, even piteous. The explosive success of American Apparel, however, suggests that twentysomethings and other members of the youth culture (who smartly managed to sit out the actual early ‘80s) seem to find my prepubescent sensibility cool. The company’s 2006 sales were estimated at $300 million. And in December, American Apparel was taken over by Endeavor Acquisition Corporation, which plans to open 800 new stores around the world, in addition to the 145 that are already in existence. (Controversial A.A. founder Dov Charney—famous above all, let it be said, for masturbating during an interview with a Jane magazine reporter in 2004—walked away with $200 million in shares.)

But can a retailer renowned for its outré image—as well as its sweatshop-free, American-made labor practices—go mainstream without losing its aesthetic and political edge? In recent years the Gap, once famous for workaday yet stylish basics in an ice cream parlor’s worth of colors, has foundered. Meanwhile, the latest wave of chain stores (H&M, Zara) specialize in high-fashion knockoffs. Arguably, there’s an opening for a retailer who can capture the Gap’s early magic—and become America’s T-shirter of choice. Whether American Apparel can handle the job remains open to debate.

As I examined the store’s offerings, it struck me that there are actually three American Apparels. There is the ironic, nostalgic, Three’s Company-inspired retailer of “hideous” clothes made hip again. (See first paragraph. See also: the truly gnarly Mesh Boy Brief for girls, in 100 percent polyester ($10).)

There is also the risqué promoter of “advanced,” body-conscious fashions for people who are younger than you and who get laid more often—as immortalized in the company’s print advertisements, which are derivative of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark and feature slightly spaced-out, “real”-looking models revealing their multi-ethnic origins, as well as (frequently) their breasts, crotches, and asses. This is the American Apparel of the terrifyingly form-fitting Cotton Spandex Jersey Criss-Cross Short Sleeve Unitard ($38); the ridiculously short Cotton Spandex Jersey Double U-Neck Dress ($30); the disco-scary Lamé Halter Bodysuit ($30) in gold, copper, and silver—as well as the matching Lamé Leggings ($36). Maybe I’ve missed something and girls today all love the way their butts look in spandex. Even so, I have trouble imagining many unitards selling this year. Never mind copper lamé bodysuits.

Finally—and this is where Endeavor may be in the money—there is the boring but reliable and even patriotic purveyor of wardrobe basics as luxury objects. (See: the Fine Jersey Short Sleeve T, available in 30 colors, for men and women ($15); the Fine Jersey Short Sleeve Leisure Shirt, in 37 colors, for men ($32); and the Unisex California Fleece Zip Hoody, in nine colors ($41).) Here, the hems are all straight. The zippers work. The cuts are good, if not perfect. The collar of the Short Sleeve Leisure Shirt is just the right length (i.e. longer and leaner than it would have been on a comparable shirt in the ‘90s). The short sleeves are longer and narrower, too. Most importantly, the shirt is cut slim in the shoulders and around the rib cage—but subtly, so as to avoid looking too “gay” (= skintight).

Whether American Apparel pays Endeavor’s bills would seem to depend on how many people are willing to shell out $41 for a sweatshirt. On the one hand, a $41 sweatshirt might prove too expensive to become a staple. On the other hand, it might prove just expensive enough to forge a nifty profit.

The answer comes down in part to how much more consumers are willing to pay for a piece of clothing simply because it was made in the USA. Just the other day, I bought a perfectly functional white cotton hoodie at Target for $12.95 (reduced from $17). It was made in China. No doubt my purchase helped finance another outsourced manufacturing job whose conditions and salary were substandard. But isn’t it also possible that some poor Chinese person would have been even poorer without the job? What’s more, I was secretly tickled to be succeeding at what all consumers are taught to do—namely, get a bargain. I wonder how many others who bought the same sweatshirt felt just like me.

In the end, American Apparel may be best summed up by its skivvies. Underwear of all sorts appears prominently in the company’s ads. But $12—the price of the Baby Rib Men’s Brief—is a lot to pay for a single pair of shorts when you can get a three-pack of Hanes for 10 bucks. The BRMB comes in 30 colors, including three shades of pink alone (fuchsia, pink, and fluorescent pink). How many men actually wear pink underwear? Sales stats—even if they were available—would be misleading, as anecdotal evidence suggests that females may be the biggest purchasers of the BRMB, its genital pouch notwithstanding. A young woman friend recently reported that the BRMB is the perfect pair of underpants to put on when you “have your period or just want to climb into bed and vegetate.” It’s also cool in the our-generation-is-so-past-gender way that American Apparel “does” cool.

Still, it’s hard to believe that an empire can be made out of cross-dressing women. Moreover, underwear, even when worn by the highly promiscuous, makes a poor advertisement for the brand. It’s American Apparel’s all-American basics, not its androgynous underthings, that could slingshot the company to massive retail success. Which may make this the one case in which less sex sells.