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American Apparel: The Editors Say Goodbye (and Good Riddance)

American Apparel: The Editors Say Goodbye (and Good Riddance)

American Apparel's buyout has stirred some emotions and a good deal of nostalgia amongst those of us who came of age with the brand, inspiring a number of think pieces, as well as practical guides to all the basics we should be hoarding in our (freshly-dug?) nuclear fallout shelters. (What will this world be without AA's 50/50 heathered T's?!?) The company that sparked a resurgent interest in "Made in America" in the early 2000s, however, was perhaps also one of the most controversial and ethically-compromised of the many mall brands that are increasingly fading into obscurity. A great many others are therefore eager to kiss the company, its scumbag founder, deplorable labor practices, and all the other sordid controversies goodbye.

Below, some of the FSJ editors share their memories, misgivings, and their overall ambivalence about American Apparel's slow demise.

(Putting controversy aside for just a moment though, man oh man, were we surprised to discover just how much ennui the company's thigh highs and hot pants could stir in us once we set about this project. In its wake, the company leaves behind not only a landfill's worth of throwaway fashion, but also innumerable bad relationships and former, more insecure, selves.) 

Have your own reflections or criticisms to share about American Apparel or any of the other shuttering mall brands? Write to us at info@fashionstudiesjournal.org and we'll share your story with our community!


I’m an Elder Millennial, which is an identity I totally love. I just squeak into the demographic by a couple of years according to official contest rules, and I have to say, it makes me feel extremely powerful. It’s great to watch the youth do better than us while still feeling like we have a right to some respect for our experience. Being my age means that when American Apparel first entered my consciousness, I was in my early 20s. I partied on weeknights, occasionally stole from my job, interned at Vice, my shitty boyfriend sold weed, and my bod was slammin'. The brand couldn’t have felt more targeted to me. It’s not exactly that I modeled my version of basic straight sexuality on my peers in the ads; it’s that we were already in the same pool, working with the same references. Sometimes we were even sleeping with the same gross, undeserving dudes.

For a couple of years, my friends and I were in a band. Looking back, I don’t really know what combination of sincerity and irony we were working with, but those were the days! In 2007 it was still okay for someone to wear a fedora! [1] We were an objectively bad band, but the shows were fun as hell. Prepping for them was some of the best dress-up fun I’ve ever had. Sequins! Hot pants! Heart-shaped pasties made of red electrical tape for when I stripped down to just panties and suspenders! Looking back on the photos from that time, I’m wearing at least one piece of American Apparel in almost every show outfit. On a 22 year old bon vivant’s budget, it was the perfect source for the tiny, tight, slutty looks I was wearing to declare, in the most generic possible way, "I’m a grown up! My parents can’t tell me what to do! Look at my tight ass!"

Now that I’m in my 30s and pregnant with my second child, I’m glad I appreciated and took advantage of what I had, physically speaking, while I had it. I always knew it wouldn’t last forever and I squeezed the life out of it, but seriously, you couldn’t pay me to be 20 again. I’m so relieved to be on the other side of that naivety disguised as freedom. I’d be perfectly happy never to go to work hungover or drunk dial my boss at 3am ever again (hahahaha!). Stealing from your job is only ok if you work for a big dumb corporation, not a small business. That shitty boyfriend ended up physically abusing me one night while drunk and high. And I know now that a slammin’ bod is a state of mind; one I can still access once in awhile, even though my thigh gap’s gone.

I think that American Apparel saw and understood a pretty small group of us just as we were, right then. They never saw everyone, and didn’t pretend to (their fuck-you sizing made that pretty clear!), and that kind of exclusivity doesn’t fly anymore. Young millennials are too woke for that shit! AA banked on there being enough of us to keep them going, but then failed to change with us as we grew up. You can’t target a demographic with such surgical precision and then just hope that the kids coming up behind them will still be into the same thing 5, 10, 20 years later. We’re still here, us old millennials. We’re still buying clothes. Lots of us are still wearing crop tops and leggings and looking great doing it. But it’s so boring to do that in ways that look backwards at youth.

Seeing AA close gives me absolutely no feelings of regret. The clothes were always poorly made and horribly sized, the ethics were always dubious, and Dov Charney was always a piece of shit. I can conjure a certain amount of fondness for an innocent time in my own life when it felt so safe to share so much of my body with the world. But I was clueless and partying my ass off at the edge of a cliff, and that’s all I see now when I look at those stretched-out cotton-spandex relics or the dead-eyed ads that we sometimes misread as “empowering.” I’m so happy to cede that feeling of being directly in the center of culture to the younger people who will do better, more inclusive, more radical, badass things with it. Enjoy your tight asses while you can, but don’t let anybody tell you what to put on them or how to show them off!

—Laura Snelgrove, Editor-at-Large


A friend once referred to 2008 as the year "everyone went as American Apparel for Halloween." It was particularly relevant because it was said in reference to a queer Halloween dance party at which we had both danced in a sea of gold lamé bootie shorts, body con dresses, and shimmering leggings-as-pants. As I reflect on the closing of American Apparel (but not the end of Dov Charney’s vision/business), I think of this certain time and place in my mid-late twenties in which AA clothed most of the queers and questioning for every dance and party occasion in my home city. However, my thoughts about American Apparel have always been and continue to be conflicted at best.

A Canadian entrepreneur opening a chain called American Apparel wasn’t the best start, yet paying LA-based garment workers (mostly women) fair wages to alleviate exploitative labor practices was something I could get behind. So why did they have to fuck it up by insisting on exploiting women in other ways? From early on, there were vintage nudie magazines hanging uncomfortably in the dressing rooms. Then there were the notorious advertisements that were likened to kiddie porn, and which would define the company in the aughts. More recently, Charney’s predatory sexual behavior would help oust him from the business altogether—life imitating art, perhaps.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-porn and I am pro sex workers' rights; the feminist conundrum I’m trying to articulate here, however, is a question of trade off. Is some exploitation better than other exploitation? What does it mean to consume clothes from a store that alienates its main customer base? And why should I feel the need to compromise some of my values in order to support fair wages?

Here is where I stand now: far from a business embodying “freedom, sex and rebellion” as it was once touted, American Apparel inevitably just became another failed male supremacist capitalistic business. In the end, it is a legacy that is perhaps best captured by the materiality of the clothes themselves: poorly made and basic as hell.

—Colleen Siviter, Columns Editor


My default outfit for most of the aughts was an American Apparel jersey “pillowcase dress.” I owned one in black, grey, eggplant, navy, and hunter green. I never wore one as a dress. They were too short for me, or maybe I just wasn’t brave enough. Instead, I paired it with denim. Always denim. It felt safe. It was my uniform.

Back then, I used to be the regular “merch girl’ for my then-boyfriend’s (later husband, later ex-husband’s) band—selling t-shirts to concert-goers on a little fold-out table in the corner after a rock show at some venue like Mercury Lounge or Union Hall or the now-closed Southpaw (wearing my uniform, of course.) The boys in the band would play their music, and I would sell their American Apparel screen-printed shirts. Like Dov Charney’s relationship with his female employees, the power roles were clearly defined. I wasn’t at those shows to have my voice heard. I was there to help a band sell their product.

American Apparel rose to popularity around the same time as my relationship with my ex flourished. And imploded at roughly the same time, too. By then, I had given up on American Apparel. The clothes never fit me correctly. They were too sexy, too obvious. I guess I could say that in some ways my marriage fell apart for much the same reasons.

At American Apparel’s closing store on Broadway and 19th Street last month, I picked through the ill-fitting dresses and oddly cut bodysuits and I felt empowered because I did not want a single piece of their clothing—discount or no. I closed the door to the shop and felt hopeful. I now see so clearly what fits and what doesn’t suit. 

—Pamela Roskin, Chief Copy Editor


I think that American Apparel saw and understood a pretty small group of us just as we were, right then. They never saw everyone, and didn’t pretend to...and that kind of exclusivity doesn’t fly anymore. Young millennials are too woke for that shit.
— Laura Snelgrove

I used to be skinny.

I don’t say this in a “woe is me, I don’t feel beautiful” way, but just as a matter of fact.

I remember, back when I was still a size 4, venturing into American Apparel for a pair of denim shorts. I have no recollection of what motivated me that day, but there I was. I tried them in a small. They didn’t fit, but it was no biggie. I tried the medium. I thought it was suspicious that they barely felt larger. I tried the large. They. Still. Didn’t. Fit. “I am a size 4,” I remember thinking to myself, “an extra-large cannot possibly be the right size for me.” And it wasn’t. The extra-large didn’t fit either.

I had a lightbulb moment: these denim shorts were not made for me. It didn’t matter how high the sizes went because there would never be space where I needed it, at least not until every other area was too large. Something about them was inherently incompatible with my body shape, my hip-thigh-butt ratio, my distribution of curves. Because I was a size 4 and “knew” I was “skinny,” I didn’t take it to heart. I just decided that American Apparel wasn’t for me.

I’m quite thankful that I learned this lesson early on: before my metabolism slowed down; before my exercise routines fell apart; before I learned to look at my body with suspicion and disappointment. Because, nearly a decade (and several sizes) later, I have this experience over, over, and over again. Whenever I come across a brand whose sizes don’t seem to accommodate my body, it’s tempting to blame myself. But I think back to that American Apparel experience and I realize that it doesn’t matter if I’m a size 4, a 14, or somewhere in between, there will always be brands that don’t fit. But you know what? I will always find a brand that does.

Adelle McElveen, Social Media Editor


As with most things, Kansas City was a bit late getting its first American Apparel store. Thus, when I went to Denver the summer after high school to visit an older skater boy I had a crush on, AA was high on my list of must-do's. It was my first unchaperoned trip, the first time I drank with any conviction, and the first time I tried to fill a post-breakup hole in my heart with some good old fashioned bad (bad!!!) decision making.

Fittingly, the Denver American Apparel was the first place The Skater Boy and I went after he picked me up from the airport. Consciously or not, he was taking me there so that I could trade out my wholesome vintage and thrifted wardrobe for a neon rainbow of stretchy, body-hugging dresses, hoodies, boy short panties, and "wife beaters." I remember him having me try on a dayglo orange tube dress for him—you know the knee-length one, with the ruching at the cleavage? I felt (perhaps for the first time) like a Manic Pixie wet dream in it.

In an elaborate restaging of one of those 80s movie scenes in which the valedictorian leaves home in a chaste dress to appease her parents, but swaps it out for a miniskirt and a skanky tube top once she’s out of the house, I traded the good girl clothes I left Kansas City in for bad girl clothes to impress The Skater Boy. Perhaps I thought he wouldn’t remember me as the introvert honor roll student and varsity athlete who had only ever once sipped a screwdriver. But with him there shopping with me, he was also implicit (nay, instrumental) in fashioning a more reckless version of myself, bringing me more in line with those jobless MySpace hotties he hung around with.

Throughout that week, my skintight cotton-spandex blends were a sort of armor, or better, a disguise. I was able to temporarily reinvent myself as an exotic cool girl from a few states away, equipped with a kit of all the sickest AA shit. I remember one art school girl even looked at my black leggings and gawked at my pantslessness. She had never seen anyone wear leggings-as-pants before. I did not just blend in; I was on the verge. (Side note: Someone stole all of my vintage and indie jewelry one night at a party, to my utter devastation. I suppose those kinds of things just come with the territory when you’re a trendsetter.)

Less than a disguise, it was all just a costume, however. This stuff that I had spent so much money on that day never made its way into my regular rotation. It was far too tight, far too revealing, and far too...neon. Clothes made for self-destruction, and little else. In retrospect, the summer of 2006 was perhaps my first foray into throwaway fashion (as well as perhaps the first time anyone had ever worn leggings-as-pants in Denver, Colorado). However, as I would go on to enjoy the (parent-sponsored) semi-independence of college life, American Apparel would be a disposable wardrobe staple at frats and theme parties as I continued to dabble in adult-ish activities.

A lot has changed since then though. After graduating, I quickly outgrew American Apparel (both literally and figuratively...hah!) as my relationship with dress and with myself became more stable. However, in its time, American Apparel produced the perfect raw material for figuring out who I was throughout my late adolescence. I could buy stuff cheaply (on my parents' credit card) and then give it away to my roommate (hey Zoë!) as I tried on different versions of myself (which in retrospect were all just slightly different iterations of this sorta slutty, jersey-clad party girl that I wasn’t).

I don’t feel overly sentimental about American Apparel’s closing as I’d ditched the brand and its founder’s sketchy ethics long ago, but I do have to admit I felt a little pang of nostalgia when I realized that my local branch in Stockholm had completely and unceremoniously shuttered only two weeks after the announcement that the company had been bought out. Perhaps my relationship with American Apparel runs much deeper than I’d realized. Now living in a foreign land, the store—which I never so much as entered, let alone bought anything from—somehow anchored me to home (the word “American” lit up in neon tends to do that). I suppose it also connected me to my past selves in this—a moment of self-reinvention in its own right.

—Lauren Downing Peters, Editor-in-Chief


American Apparel, I love you. Good riddance.

It actually began with a GQ cover: Gisele coyly eyeing the camera from a tumble of white sheets, dressed in nothing but navy and white stripe knee socks. It evoked soccer and middle school, hipness (because there’s nothing like wearing uniform garb ironically), and sexiness. Not that I’d ever played soccer. I’d also hated middle school. But I had to have those socks. The credits read American Apparel.

I was in graduate school at the time and, as luck would have it, American Apparel squarely faced my department. I started with those knee socks, and progressed to their bralettes. Semester in and semester out, I rotated between their white, taupe, and charcoal raglan tops.

I bought into the cheeky Lolita vibe until I learned that they played the Lolita card just a bit too thoroughly under CEO Dov Charney. I touted the Made in U.S.A. tagline to my friends until news of their outsourcing production to L.A. sweatshops post-Charney began to leak.

In her classic essay on the “male gaze,” Laura Mulvey develops the psychoanalytic idea that the representation of the female form threatens the male psyche in the context of mainstream cinema. [2] Women’s threatening power is therefore contained by way of two key mechanisms—voyeurism, wherein the “original trauma” of women’s sexual difference is reenacted but, crucially, punished by a man (think film noir), and fetishistic scopophilia, wherein women are idolized as erotic objects, reassuringly inert, pleasing and possessed.

The pleasure we all derive from cinema, Mulvey argues, is fundamentally male-identified. And so, she concludes, “Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used…cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret.” [3] What she said, American Apparel.  

—Elena X. Wang, Weeklies Editor

 


Notes

[1] I swear!

[2] Lura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 803-816.

[3] Ibid., 216.

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