During my recent trip to Paris, the famed fashion capital of world, I was fortunate enough to witness an unlikely American commodity holding its own in the unfamiliar land of high-end labels and couture shopping. As usual, on the first day of the summer sales, hundreds of Parisians piled into all the French retail favorites — renowned designers like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Chanel —snapping up luxury goods and last-season markdowns. But as I walked past the dazed shoppers, I was shocked by what I saw.
The recognizable all-white storefront adorned by the simple, bold black letters stood out like an outsider. “Really?” I asked myself, “an American Apparel in Paris?” The idea baffled me.
Out of curiosity, I walked inside, only to find the setting
eerily similar to a typical store in Los Angeles. Cramped aisles and edgy campaign material, check. Blinding neon fabrics, shiny lamé and colorful basics, check. Hipster teens begging their parents to buy them expensive tri-blend -shirts and metallic headbands, check. It was evident by the crowded store — even without a single sale going on — that the American Apparel craze had caught on overseas.
But how could this happen? Here at home, for some, the concept of buying a 20-something dollar plain T-shirt seems
wildly ridiculous, not to mention irresponsible given the current economic climate. While the quality may be higher and the product softer, for most consumers American Apparel would have to explain its costs in areas someplace else.
Ironically, this subtle difference just might be the key to the brand’s success. With a small bump in prices, the company has become a rising industry leader by not only reviving an unpopular business model, but also tackling important issues that for the last decade have gained heightened attention.
The first of these issues is domestic production. Though the “Made in Downtown LA” tagline might be a trendy branding strategy to loyalist consumers, it is in reality a stand for America’s economic independence — a challenge the country has faced more grippingly in recent years.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised the company for not falling into the trap of outsourcing labor for cheaper wages; production in China would cost a company, on average, a mere 40 cents a worker per hour versus the more than $12 American Apparel pays its manufacturing employees, not to mention the medical, dental, ESL training and even on-site yoga benefits it also offers its employees.
Believe it or not, American Apparel, a company barely two decades old, is now the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States today — a hefty title considering the fact that many Angelenos still find the brand to be no different than the overpriced fad retail chains it competes with.
But American Apparel’s roots as a wholesaler have helped it to develop its own place in the market (the company didn’t open its first retail store until 2003). The 800,000 sq. ft. American Apparel factory, located in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, is the largest garment factory in the nation, producing 250,000 garments daily with the help of more than 5,000 workers from the community.
Clearly, the uptick in price is crucial to keeping industry at home with safe and beneficial conditions for workers. And while other countries may care less about American labor, cost also ensures a quality product that is justified on its own by its fashion value.
“They might be a little more expensive than other brands, but I buy their clothes mostly because they fit well and it’s what’s in style right now,” said Stephanie Vazquez, a junior majoring in public relations.
Today, however, the idea of American-produced clothing has moved past being just stylish. While the American Apparel’s “trend factor” is oftentimes overwhelming — the Intelligence Group called it the “No. 2 Trend-Setting Brand” behind Nike — it might be its very cult status is vital to the brand’s survival and continued success, both at home and abroad.
that Realizing its target demographic — as the company puts it, “20 to 32-year-old young metropolitan adults” — American Apparel has succeed in marrying fashion with popular social themes. Its fight against immigration reform was more vocally heard through their “Legalize LA” campaign, which undoubtedly influenced the brand’s latest “Legalize Gay” campaign — a call to repeal Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California last fall.
“It isn’t only about getting up and getting dressed in the morning. People wear things to make a statement,” said Melissa Ramboyong, a college student who shops at the store regularly. “American Apparel clothing stands for messages I can identify with.”
The company finds young customers, more likely than not, sharing its same core values and as a result, they support the American Apparel brand. Over the past decade, the company has slowly moved from being pure novelty to a highly respected fashion and social emblem by its customers. This transformation takes place only in an age where heightened political interest amongst younger people is especially prominent.
“A lot of people at USC like that fact that American Apparel T-shirts are made sweatshop-free,” Vazquez said. “I personally don’t really look into the issues American Apparel fights for but I do see why they can be important.”
As for one of the more popular issues, the environment, American Apparel is of course working to stay green. Aside from vertical integration — a model where everything from dyeing to packaging is completely self-run — the company takes part in a host of other environmentally friendly initiatives, such as recycling fabric scraps and utilizing organic cotton and dyes. There is no doubt that these eco-friendly initiatives have aided in American Apparel’s success as a brand.
“You can feel good about buying something for a cause,” Ramboyong said.
The cause is now going global. In Paris alone there are currently six American Apparel retail stores, joining more than 80 other oversea shops in 19 foreign countries. Even in its struggle to establish an international name, American Apparel is setting the trend and sticking to its principles.