I have a secret to tell you.
I worked off and on at American Apparel for three years.
I was one of them.
I often felt this fact was a tiny mar on my resume and should be excluded from the story of my life. For a long time I simply didn’t tell anyone that I worked for the company. I was kind of embarrassed. I knew what many people thought of the company, but more importantly I knew what people thought that we, the employees, thought about ourselves. Which is that we are all stuck-up, pretentious hipsters who would rather stare at the ceiling and flash side-boob instead of smile at a customer. I mean, I think of ourselves that way sometimes. Having visited a number of American Apparels I can tell you that in some cases that statement is accurate. The company is not known for their customer service training. In fact, there is zero customer training other than looking “hip”. However, if the company is lucky enough to hire employees that already understand that greeting a customer instead of acting as though they invaded their territory, then you have a pretty good store. The stores in Austin and Portland both have very good employees. The same can not be said for many of the Los Angeles and New York stores.
I also left this employment tidbit off of my narrative because it simply didn’t mesh with what I thought were the more interesting stories of being a Hollywood assistant (I began working at American Apparel after I left working in the film business). I ignorantly felt that working in retail seemed like a step backwards, an example of “not being able to cut it in the real world”. Boy, was I stupid little fool! Little did I know that retail is often a very stressful and challenging job and anyone who works full-time in retail should be given lots and lots of prizes. Any person who knocks retail should try working in a retail store between Black Friday and Christmas.
I’m not here to talk about my adventures in retail though. I’m here today to talk about the rise and fall of American Apparel. I’m not going to bad mouth the company or tell you dirty little behind-the-scenes stories. My experiences with the company were mostly enjoyable. I’m going to explain why it will be a sad day once this company goes under. Yeah, you heard me right. A mo-fo’ing sad day.
It is no secret that American Apparel is having difficulty. News outlets like Gawker, Jezebel, and Huffingtonpost have gleefully chronicled the rumors of a decline since the summer of 2010. Just a few weeks ago, a string of articles from the NY Times, NY Mag, and Business Week claim that bankruptcy at this point is “inevitable”. Stores are no longer getting regular shipments in or the necessary supplies to run a day-to-day business. None of this phases founder and CEO, Dov Charney, though. In fact, Charney has been quoted as saying he feels “inspired” with the looming threat of bankruptcy. This scare is nothing new to American Apparel, who has been bailed out once before, but reports this time are looking grim. A group of Canadian investors are offering a $15 million bail out, but the company reported a $86 million loss in 2010.
Many have speculated what caused this big shiny balloon to pop so fast (the company has been around for 13 years). Employees prophesied the imminent demise years ago after watching again and again business practices that were not in the company’s best interest. Practices like hiring young and unskilled workers to manage stores, districts, or whole departments. Practices like not listening to advice when your trend ideas are clearly off the mark. News reports state that Charney’s sudden shift of focus on preppy clothing instead of the basic and hipster clothing we were all used to is what sealed the coffin shut, but I figure it’s the nihilistic, free-for-all managing practices that got themselves in a jam.
For all of you who are celebrating the death of the unitard, the lamé leggings, and the provocative ads of employees, well, let me remind you that American Apparel is the largest clothing factory of it’s size that’s made 100% in America. The company supplies over 8,000 jobs to people living in America. “But half of those workers are illegal immigrants!” you might say. It’s true and American Apparel has never hidden the fact that they employee thousands of undocumented Mexican and Latinos workers at their factory in Los Angeles. Workers that they pay above industry average, that they offer subsidized health care, lunch, and transportation fare to, that they do not exploit nor take for granted. The company even pushed a much controversial “Legalize LA: Immigration Reform Now” campaign where they printed thousands of t-shirt with said logo and and marched in the May Day Immigration Parade in Los Angeles.
Speaking of social campaigns, American Apparel also jumped on board with the fight against Prop 8. The company printed and donated thousands of “Legalize Gay: Repeal Prop 8 Now” t-shirts and encouraged individual stores to don their windows with the logo. The company has also encouraged individual stores to get involved with local non-profits related to said causes.
With all the controversy surrounding the company, it is easy to forget the very important facts above. How many other companies can you think of that are so vocally behind gay rights and immigration rights? How many other non-boutique clothing manufacturers can you think of that make all of their clothing in America? How many other clothing lines showcase models that have a little bit of cellulite, a little bit of love handles, or a little bit of nooks, crannies, pimples, or imperfections?
Of course we can not neglect the elephant in the room, the hyper-sexual business dealings within the company. Yes, the owner likes to share his pickle. Yes, the owner likes to hire young girls he shares his pickle with and give them upper managerial positions at the company. Yes, these same young girls make big decisions for the company. Yes, all of this is kind of gross. As a young woman was it frustrating to see and hear stories of my peers getting ahead by giving head? Of course, but as I’ve come to realize, that’s just the way it is. It’s never going to change. That crap happens within companies worldwide. American Apparel was just brazen about it. And if it’s any consolation to the people who objected to this behavior, this practice could be a large part of why the company has failed.
Now, American Apparel could be saved again. Charney could be ousted and the company redesigned. Or the company could shut down it’s retail stores and continue to where it once became as a clothing wholesaler. Regardless, there is no denying that American Apparel has progressively sunk deeper and deeper into a tight spot. Maybe American Apparel’s time on this Earth was meant to be a short one. To show people that a company can be based in America and can produce materials at low cost while still taking care of it’s employees. That you can use your employees as models for your brand. That a Mom & Pop feel can exist in the international company. That you can build a successful company on principals that matter most to you and also can support other causes. Maybe it was also created to show what not to do when you have a good thing going.
What do you think of American Apparel?