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Form and Function

Coming clean about American Apparel

Some of my friends—the ones that consider themselves “in the know”—are all abuzz about American Apparel. They think the Los Angeles-based retailer, which has been raising its profile of late, is hip and happening.

“The clothing is inexpensive and basic, but very cool,” one pal said. “It’s what Gap used to be.”

Another friend, this one in the industry, expressed surprise that I hadn’t written about American Apparel, as much for its business success as its social conscience.

“It seems like your kind of company,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the next ‘big’ brand.”

My friends are right—to an extent. American Apparel has been on a tear, opening some 150 stores in cities around the nation and in select global capitals during the past three years. Its target audience, described as “young metropolitan adults,” view the brand’s brightly colored T-shirts, underwear, sweats and leggings as hip wardrobe staples. As for the company’s coolness quotient, well, even virtual characters want to wear its clothes: A few months back, American Apparel opened a “store” on the popular on-line-game site, Second Life.

In a point of distinction, and unlike most of its competitors, American Apparel doesn’t import garments. All of the clothing is made at its factory in downtown Los Angeles. The retailer promotes the business as being “sweatshop-free,” and pays its mostly Latino factory workers a healthy wage, adding in low-cost health insurance, English classes, bus passes, subsidized lunches and even free, on-site massages.

But it’s not just on the labor front that American Apparel plays by its own rules. The company was founded by Dov Charney, a Canadian native who is sometimes referred to as the Hugh Hefner of retailing. The controversial executive, who has gone on record saying he feels free to engage in consensual relationships with employees, has cultivated a freewheeling culture at the company. In 2005, three sexual-harassment suits were filed against him and American Apparel that focused on the sexualized workplace.

Charney’s behavior is less than inspiring, and not very socially progressive, at least to my way of thinking. The same goes for the sexual way it markets product. The truth is, I think American Apparel stores are on the creepy side. The walls are covered with product shots, which are nothing more than grainy snapshots of young people (some very young) in various states of undress. Some of the poses are highly suggestive (I’m talking spread eagle). A similar theme runs through the company’s advertising and Web site. The seemingly candid nature of the photography only makes it look creepier. The fact that Charney personally photographs some of the women for the ads is odder still.

American Apparel’s coolness factor and pro-labor stance have made it a darling of hipsters. But I don’t think it deserves the free pass that some give it. As I wrote this, the company announced it had been acquired by Endeavor Acquisition Corp., a small, publicly traded investment group. Maybe public scrutiny will force American Apparel to clean up its act. Only then will it have a shot at becoming the next big brand.

© 2014