The Rise and Fall of American Apparel

I have a secret to tell you.
I worked off and on at American Apparel for three years.

It’s true.
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?

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  • Reply Paige May 16, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    here! here! to being a retail bitch!

  • Reply Carol May 16, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    I will not be sorry to see this company go – for all of the reasons you stated. Sleeping your way to the top doesn't happen in all companies, certainly not in mine, and as much as I feel immigrants are important to our country, I am against employing anyone who is here illegally. Also, their clothes are ugly – however, you looked lovely in them.

  • Reply Lauren May 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I honestly like American Apparel for their clothing. You can look effortless stylish without having to be overly alt. Not to sound like a stalker, but I knew you had worked there a few years ago, before this post 😉

  • Reply MG May 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    My aunt knows Dov and essentially retail is a shit field to get into in the first place and couple that with putting 5 stores on one city block and you have a recipe for disaster. He got way too cocky. The girls in CT are ok…but not the best.

  • Reply Christi @ Rumination Avenue May 16, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Originally, I was excited about the idea of AA. But then I just became disgusted with the overt sex sells campaigns. Then, the styles became more and more outrageous. I am of the belief that if you lived unitards already in your life, you shouldn't revisit them.

    The owner is no doubt creepy. On top of the fact, that he has mismanaged a company that had longevity. I snorted out loud when he claimed the hipster was dead and preppy was in! Whatever.

    If they go under, it won't be the end of the hipster and TOMS will probably fill in where AA left off.

  • Reply Cathy Benavides May 16, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    My boyfriend's favorite shirts are American Apparel. Their quality is just awesome. I really dislike Dov Charney, and the way he runs his business. But hey, people are still flocking to work for him. It's not my job to be the morality police, so as long as he doesn't do anything illegal it's not bothering me. However, for such a socially conscious company, why are the employees not trained to treat their customers with respect? That to me is the huge disconnect. I'm glad they fight for gay rights and immagrant rights- but what's the point if you can't treat your customer with respect? It's like those parents at the PTA meetings that care so much about the school, but can't be bother to help their kids on their homework.
    PS- I don't judge you for working for AA Lauren- it just makes you even more exciting and slightly glamorous 🙂

  • Reply -Your Friendly Neighborhood Dentonista May 16, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    You made some compelling points about About American Apparel, points I hadn't thought of.
    However, I think the MOST important point you made was that everyone should have to work retail. You say from Black Friday to Christmas. I will extend that period through January, for Christmas returns, and I will add a mandatory semester of waiting tables!

  • Reply don May 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I've never been in a retail outlet, but I like the shirts and we always ordered them from there to print stuff on for the band. Quality is good, and we convinced ourselves (perhaps under-informedly) that it was better than sweatshop shirts. I hope they keep the wholesale part open even if the stores close…

  • Reply Big Mark 243 May 16, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    The only thing I know of AA's products is from the ads and looking at hipsters trying to look disaffect downtown…

    … but I think it will be sad when the company folds. The ideals that they advocated for was a bold move for a company and it harked back to a time where companies actually thought more about what they contributed to society and its employees…

  • Reply theTsaritsa May 16, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I'll be sad if they go under… where else will I get my leggings and pencil skirts?

    Their CEO is a known tool, but I still love their clothes and the overall message of making quality garments in the USA.

  • Reply Reynard May 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    promoting social justice and making clothes without brand name prints has changed the market in a very real way and that is great, before aa got big it was very fucking hard to buy a decent solid t-shirt or pair of underwear that wasn't either insanely expensive or a walking advertisement or both

    that being said i too worked there on and off in austin and san francisco because i had friends in the company and often needed a job because i do a lot of freelance stuff, the people i worked at those stores were pretty great but there are a lot of pricks and bitches peppered about and unfortunately sometimes those people get power because they're hot, not because they're good at their job – this is especially true of the regional managers, many of whom suck balls at their job no matter how hard they may or may not try, i think that is really what's leading to the company's demise, i think their mistakes cost the company a lot of money on a regular basis

    i program a show on viva radio twice a week and i don't get paid for it so i feel okay talking about this stuff, i do the show because i like the idea of introducing the customer base to music they're not going to hear at urban outfitters hollister or wherever the hell kids shop these days

    i think it will be sad if aa dies and it's going to pull a lot of funding from people like vice, who do as much to raise awareness of injustice, the hypocrisy of war, and environmental concerns as they do to lampoon people who have no taste, all this despite the stigma they may have going against them for daring to be 'cool or whatever'

    in general i think the hipster backlash against american apparel is pretentious, ignorant, and unfounded – when aa wanted to open a store in the mission a good deal of the people who demonstrated against it at city hall were wearing aa v-necks and hoodies – hipsters always want to be one step ahead of whatever is generally considered cool because they want to be cool but they don't want to be thought of as thinking they're cool and so, like the hispanic population that votes for republicans because they're against abortion because they're catholic, they will 'vote' against their own interests, or cut off their carabiner to spite their keys


  • Reply girluntitled May 16, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    i love american apparel clothes…but haven't been to a store for probably 2 years because of the poor customer service. i cannot stand the yahoos who get hired to work there (nothing against you). i'm sure there are decent human beings floating around in the aa world, but i have yet to meet one. it's a good thing i love tights so damn much or else they would have never gotten my business.

  • Reply Laura May 18, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    AA is definitely a conundrum. An "American" company run by a Canadian putz. A company all for bringing back "Made in America," yet hiring a ton of non-Americans to make their apparel. All this talk about a quality product, when the shirts fall apart in your first wash. Paying better-than-average wages to the people who actually make their clothes, suggesting they respect their workers, but then taking advantage of them in every other imaginable way. If you eliminated Dov Charney from this hodgepodge of mixed messages, you'd probably get rid of a lot of the main problems. I'd like to see that version of American Apparel, and then judge. But from past experience? I'm unimpressed.

  • Reply Jas May 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I wasn't even aware of the sleeping to the top issue. However, your post gnawed at my curiosity, so I went and did a little Google-snooping. Wow. Wooow.

    I never really had an issue with American Apparel. Elitism and hipsters seemed to go hand in hand, so the lack of customer service in an AA store never phased me.

    That said, I have never bought anything from American Apparel because I'm not a point in my life where I can pay $24.00 for pantyhose. I probably won't notice its absence when and if it does go under.

    It will be sad to lose out on the 8,000 US based jobs, though.

  • Reply craig May 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Some of my favorite shirts are AA, back in the day before the retail stores they were the best place to find well fitting basics for thin guys like me. They've held up well over the years too, I think I've only had to toss a couple shirts.

    The website is still the most reliable place to find a good selection. The stores are better than they were a couple of years ago when it was a lot of gold lame and stoned washed pants, but still pretty disastrous in terms of finding things someone would want to wear.

    Charney's pervitude hasn't helped them out much, need to get out of the pseudo-sex business and back into making well cut clothes… that's the product.

  • Reply tinkgrrrbell April 27, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    In one breath you talk about how cutting-edge they are in pushing the Prop 8 and Immigration agendas…and then justify their sexual exploitation of women by claiming this is something that will “never change.” Anyone else sense the irony in this???? hahHAhahAhahha. I guess it’s only ok to push cutting-edge social reform as long as it doesn’t involve treating the women folk with respect, eh? Makes total sense. NOT.

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