53,000,000 garments sewn per year;
66,400 pounds of cotton yarned per day;
499 styles being manufactured;
614 color in current product line;
… and 2 minutes to sew a basic plain T-shirt.
Welcome to Dov Charney’s 74,000 m2 vertically integrated manufacturing plant in Skid Row of Los Angeles, where it produces award-winning American Apparel products, marketing campaigns as well as entrepreneurship.
Not a lot of people know about American Apparel other than their plain products with a wide colour range. But if you think Charney made it to the Los Angeles Times list of 100 most influential Southern Californians in 2009 solely by selling white T-shirts with two letters on them, you are mistaken.
American Apparel was probably bigger than Obama in California in 2008: with Proposition 8 going through legislature, Charney and his brand showed their support against the ban of same-sex marriage by giving out products with the logo ‘Legalize Gay’ printed on it. Soon, their shops were filled with such merchandises, and a strong LGBT fandom followed.
Apart from homophobia, American Apparel also stands against many other things, ranging from labor rights to body discrimination – all the vices that the fashion industry has been accused of: that AA white T-shirt carries an immense weight.
American Apparel has not by any means, however, had an easy time of it. You might ask in hesitation – what went wrong?
Dov Charney’s business model is nothing short of peculiar. In a world where Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss use the same factories in Bangladesh as Gap and Wal-Mart, American Apparel chose to keep their production line in L.A. and L.A. only. Designs are created in the same building where yarning, sewing and shipping are also performed. Such an approach is more ethical: it provides jobs in the States, and saves money and energy on shipping.
As noble as it sounds, this is also a failing model. It might benefit from its integration and have a significantly high profit margin of above 60%, but it is also a direct result of its high retail price: a £40 plain cotton shirt with a lazy cut and no branding is simply not going to make it. It is nowhere near money for value.
It also loses political appeal when it moves eastwards from California. Despite being desperate to be a popular brand – which started as a niche – American Apparel still clings to its diverse, but also painfully 80’s colour theme. In terms of production, 614 colors are just too many to handle; in terms of style, it is outdated and it is losing new customers to the likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Forever 21. American Apparel has been losing customers as it makes no effort to accommodate to trends and conventions.
Although American Apparel claims to be paying much higher salaries to their workers than those in developing countries would ever get, American Apparel has also been caught hiring illegal immigrants in several accounts. This has certainly not helped the share price of AA, which has dropped over 90% from a high in 2007 to a new low this February. It is currently borrowing on an 18% interest rate.
Some might cast upon its marketing and PR campaigns with more positive light: as a brand that advocates a cause against body and size discrimination, it uses amateur models for billboard advertisements; recently, 62 year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy was picked as its latest underwear model. American Apparel also showed strong support for the LGBT community for launching its P6 campaign during Sochi 2014, which was warmly received.
But more well remembered by people are its scandals. Ads consisting of sexually explicit images of models that look younger than 16 are banned in many European countries, not to mention its widely condemned ad featuring director Woody Allen’s face and Yiddish writing: it led to public uproar and a compensation of $5,000,000 to be paid.
Controversies are also found within the company. Not long after its success in 2008, it was revealed that interviewees had to send in full body pictures to be accessed by the recruitment team; the same also applies for promotion. It was also reported that the CEO requested photos of shop staff – ‘full body head to toe’ – to be submitted for inspection. For a brand that insists to be on higher moral ground than others such as Abercrombie & Fitch, AA’s treatment of staff is jarring.
In American Apparel the public finds plenty of irony and contradictions. No matter what the future of AA should be, it has left a grave mark in the world of fashion – an unforgettable one for years to come.
by Justin Chan, Razz Fashion Correpsondent