For over a decade, American Apparel was a byword for cool. Simple T-shirts in technicolour prints, crop tops and high-waisted jeans – the uniform for those in the know. But as this look grew popular, the company became what it didn’t want to be: mainstream. Now, after years of scandals and falling sales, the company has filed for bankruptcy.
American Apparel’s aesthetic is built on the high school uniform of US jocks and cheerleaders of the 1970s and early 1980s. Knee-high striped sports socks, 1970s running shorts in binary colours and gold lamé bikinis created a certain modish student style.
Much of the company’s advertising was cannily placed in Vice magazine and it became de rigueur for a certain type of wearer – creative, young, hip and thin. That much of its stock is, bafflingly, one size fits all, helped crystallise its hipster status: if you could pull it off, then you had to wear it.
American Apparel arguably brought this look to the UK high street, inspiring heritage brands such as Adidas Originals and Gap to revamp their basics. But the chain also created a monster, as super-cheap shops including Primark and Forever 21 churned out the same style for half the price; the American Apparel aesthetic was tarnished by its own simplicity.
However, part of the problem is that the clothing has not evolved. While stock is still updated to meet current trends (recent additions include pinstripe cotton, pleather scrunchies and rose gold jewellery), the core look has remained unchanged for years.
One of the company’s saving graces has been its political stance, often printing T-shirts with pro-immigration or gay rights slogans – it currently sells a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Free Iran’. This tapped into a student mindset, which sat somewhere between having a social conscience and looking good. Equally, there is no discernible branding, which proved ideal for those readers of AdBusters and Naomi Klein’s No Logo (American Apparel’s popularity soared just before the book came out).
But as much as young people like to think they care about wearing their political leaning on their sleeve or who made their T-shirt – the company famously manufactures all its clothes in the US, in contrast to Forever 21, for example, which subcontracts factories all over the world – it is also skint.
Despite American Apparel’s revamped approach to working practices and advertising – it is currently holding open castings for models of all ages and sizes at the request of newly appointed chief executive Paula Schneider – wearing its clothes still feels like you are buying into the brand’s hyper-sexualised mentality, particularly given the reputation of its founder and former chief executive, Dov Charney.
Charney founded American Apparel in 1998 as a T-shirt wholesaler, before expanding it into a global business. He was fired by the company in December 2014 following a barrage of scandals, including allegations of sexual misconduct. Charney allegedly exposed himself to a female journalist and sexually harassed staff. It is thought the allegations were so frequent, the company could no longer afford to pay costs for the ongoing and potential lawsuits filed against him.
His position was terminated in December 2014. He has denied the sexual misconduct allegations and launched a number of lawsuits against American Apparel, including breach of contract and defamation.
The sexualised advertising, the use of seemingly young models and Charney’s reputation as a mainstream bogeyman have all contributed to American Apparel’s downfall. That it is no longer at the vanguard of style proved the final nail in its spandex coffin.