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The conflicted legacy of American Apparel


As American Apparel continues to shutter its stores, the brand will likely be remembered as much for its tribulations as for its successes.

Former retail giant American Apparel has steadily been shuttering its two hundred-plus stores, marking the end of an era of the polarizing brand’s now iconic status as purveyor of made-in-America wares. The beginning of the end commenced earlier this year, when Canadian wholesale retailer Gildan agreed to shell out 88 million dollars to purchase the intellectual property and equipment of American Apparel. Then, according to a New York Post article from April, American Apparel began manufacturing its goods in Gildan’s factories in Central America.

As the brand continues its steady demise, it leaves behind a uniquely conflicted legacy. Its sexually suggestive advertising frustrated some, giving way to more damaging accusations that the brand’s founder Dov Charney serially sexually harassed his employees. This led to his ouster, and he was replaced in January 2015 by veteran retail insider Paula Shneider, who had a company on her hands that was burdened by massive debt and actively hostile former CEO Charney, who attempted to wrest back control of the company. Besides being embattled internally, it had trouble recovering from changing tastes, a depressed economy, and a shifting retail market that increasingly favored the internet. It had serious issues related to mismanagement. Shneider unsuccessfully attempted to correct course. She ended up leaving the brand in September 2016, and the brand continued a slow decline.


For all its problems, American Apparel was also a uniquely American trailblazer. Charney started off making and selling t-shirts out of his dorm room at Tufts, and became a self-made success story, taking retail chains worldwide while also selling wholesale. Up until the end, the brand manufactured its clothes in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. It promoted pro-LGBT messages and advocated for immigrants’ rights with its “Legalize Gay” and “Legalize LA” shirts. This set it apart from the other major hipster-minded brand, Urban Outfitters, whose CEO donated to Rick Santorum, a promoter of an anti-gay political ideology. Despite the relative high cost of American Apparel’s clothes, the brand managed to appeal to the same age demographic who shopped at cheap retailers like H&M. American Apparel did not chase trends, instead opting to make high quality basics like t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies.

Nearly 30 years after its founding, and almost fifteen after its first retail location, what the brand did may not seem revolutionary. Yet one would be hard pressed to find another company that did what American Apparel did on the same scale. They took ethical production of well made basics and not only made it successful, but they made it cool. Increasingly, consumers are looking into where and how the clothes they buy are made. This has led to the success of another California brand which focuses on transparently manufacturing basics, Everlane. New York brand NOAH, started by a former affiliate of the cult skate brand Supreme, makes very expensive but sustainably-centered clothing. While these and other brands may not necessarily have drawn direct influence from American Apparel, they owe a debt to the brand, which in its relatively short history leaves behind a massive cultural legacy.

Jonathan Zavaleta