1. The 50/50 Shirt: Basing Our Hatred On Something That Isn’t Real
2008 was the year San Francisco, its whole anatomy and scene, peaked in a thrive of undergrounds and a life still affordable. 2008 was the year American Apparel peaked. I remember a mySpace bulletin from late in that year’s party cycle by that year’s photographer of record, a strong blonde with an intoxicating overbite. ‘Enough with the endless American Apparel at these events’ it shrieked. It was neither a total collusion nor quite a uniform, but there were nights when you really would see someone wearing the same item as you. You’d wonder if she stole hers, or actually paid for it.
I tried on Slim Slacks at the Haight store, then brazenly passed pairs thru the curtain to a girl waiting with a giant purse. I suggested a sales associate join me at Lights Down Low later, with like $150 dollars worth of merch in a backpack. Did he know, and if so did he think I knew he knew? Before the crackdown happened, before the mass RFID installations, how much the employees actually did or didn’t care about shoplifting is hard to stipulate. Once outlaw consumers were legitimized by American Apparel’s entire vertical structure, was there ever any real extradition? The brand won notoriety early on for this embrace of good-looking thieves as ambassadors, except how do you ensure a thief is good-looking.
On weekends American Apparel’s brick multi-storied HQ in downtown LA acquires a festivalian spirit. Inside are slashed prices on items that are sometimes defective. Until recently the parking space of Dov Charney, company founder, was out front as ostentatiously marked as Dino de Laurentiis’ at Universal Studios. Also until recently, there were no fitting rooms on the massive sales floor. Hirsute dudes posed as sentries while their girlfriends tried on the Thick-knit Jersey Skirt, crouched behind a rack. Such transparency combined with the alienating floorplan for a sometimes eerie vibe, detached from the color-intensive hyperreality of the typical retail space. A memorable 2012 tweet by Blake Butler imagined an ‘experimental American Apparel storefront where all the merch is in the bathrooms and you piss or shit wherever in the mirrorlined main area’. Since fitting rooms were finally installed in the factory, you don’t find people scattered in states of lockerroom undress anymore. But the sweeping emptiness persists.
Interlude: American Apparel’s relationship with Helvetica
From the book Just My Type by Simon Garfield:
‘In the spring of 2010, the big in-store push for the troubled clothing manufacturer American Apparel was for the Unisex Viscose Sexuali Tank, available in dark orchid for $24. This is basically a long vest, with all its sizing and washing details displayed–in Helvetica, of course. American Apparel, which uses more Helvetica per square meter than any other place on earth, had realized a simple truth: it doesn’t need guile or tricksy emotional psychology to sell its wares–not when it has a bold typeface from Europe that came in with our mother’s milk.’
If advertising built the kingdom of Helvetica, American Apparel usurped it with a single t-shirt, bearing just one letter in cases both upper and lower like so:
Aa Bb Cc
Implied by the bipartite character is everything you need to know about the wearer: that she is minimal and attractive and can presumably both turn up and turn down. Helvetica, the denominator of deadpan.
Garfield’s book, like the Helvetica documentary, ties Helvetica usage to the dominance of Coca-Cola. ‘The font’, he writes, ‘also manages to convey honesty and invite trust, while its quirks distinguish it from anything that portrays overbearing authority; even in corporate use it maintains a friendly homeliness.’ ‘Friendly homeliness’ is one way of describing some of American Apparel’s profoundly plain models; ‘corporate use’ reifies Tao Lin’s iconic refusal, in the Vice story that inspired Shoplifting From American Apparel, to register the brand’s non-corporate fake ID. ‘Don’t hate me for stealing from an independent clothing company’, he wrote, ‘because then you’d be basing your hatred on something that isn’t real.’
2. The Lolita Crop: American Apparel Is A Company That Celebrates Natural Beauty
American Apparel models are so specific you either know one or think you might. They have Tumblrs in their honor and their own casual signature: ‘she looks like an American Apparel model’. Their names are Steffi and Trudy and Cailin. They appear in Jersey High-waist Hot Shorts and Micro-Mesh Bodysuits and Flex Fleece Tees, more acrobatic than not, with dorsal nudity and hair itching to be pulled. The scope of all this media has remained just small enough to fit in your bedroom while big enough to start diplomatic fires in disparate regions.
There are so many American Apparel billboards in Los Angeles–next to on-ramps and fire-hydrants, in heavily-tagged parking lots, over tire shops and liquor stores–they’ve become a natural part of the landscape. Their presence even in isolated areas empties billboard buys of their presumed purpose, to dominate the eye and create lasting images in a visually-crowded space. Seen in the wild more often than not, an American Apparel billboard’s real signifier is nothing. Nowhere is the male gaze more focused than in Los Angeles.
If we’re to play along with one of the latest definitions of ‘natural’ as ‘not too skinny’, American Apparel’ models are naturally beautiful. Never what you’d call statuesque, historically they’ve still covered a wider range of body types than you’d find in any of Forever21’s media, for example. Moreover, female employees at American Apparel stores have typically been prohibited from dying their hair, overly tweezing their eyebrows, having piercings, or wearing makeup.
Another aspect of ‘natural beauty’ is presumed pubic hair, in favor of which American Apparel has been pretty outspoken. A 2011 ad starred a typically Eurasian-looking girl with bush visible thru sheer panties; earlier this year a store in Soho filled a display window with full-bushed mannequins. W/r/t the mannequins in merkins, American Apparel released the following statement to Elle:
American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration. We created it to invite passersby to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form. This is the same idea behind our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry. So far we have received positive feedback from those that [sic] have commented and we’re looking forward to hearing more points of view.
Interlude: American Apparel’s Relationship with Porn
As claimed this summer by TIME magazine, American Apparel’s scandals have gotten boring. (As claimed by the pot, the kettle is _____.) The latest one, at that point, involved the “stoked Lolita fantasies” of the brand’s back-to-school campaign. American Apparel’s media shares a bloodline with either Balthus or Cocteau, both of whom at least worked occasionally with pathos. In 2011 an editorial in the trans periodical Candy placed several androgynes in clothes by TopShop and American Apparel in celebration of Premiers Desirs, the Criterion-approved softcore film by the photographer David Hamilton. Attendant copy alluded to the south of France, the movie’s location, still ‘sparkling with a certain nostalgia and sudden eroticism’. Combine a certain nostalgia with sudden eroticism and you get blank adolescent exhibitionism, the kind neither Balthus nor Cocteau would recognize.
A closer antecedent would be the risen popularity of amateur porn over the last decade. Women like amateur porn because it’s less contrived and more mutual; men like it for probably different reasons. Amateur porn and cam culture execute a pincer movement on the psyche of the natural voyeur that other kinds of internet sex don’t, at least not as effectively. American Apparel’s embrace of amateurism remains adamant, from its clean-work standards to its reliance on so many anons to its recent placement of factory workers in select ads.
Apart from numerous ads being deemed pornographic when they dropped, American Apparel has kept faces of adult film in regular rotation. Lauren Phoenix was the first, in 2005; she was followed by Faye Reagan, Charlotte Stokely, and Sasha Grey. The latter is notorious for inventing a certain kind of manifold entertainer, bottling the precise instant porn went chillwave. She starred in the best movie about the Great Recession, The Girlfriend Experience; she and her industrial-rave no-dance project, aTelecine, made a mix for Fact, the influential UK music magazine. She also had an arc on Entourage during which she implored a photographer to not make her tits look big. In body-image curricula, it was a notable underachievement.
A natural successor to Grey’s multi-tabbed, ecumenical persona is the disco barbarella Jessie Andrews, who worked first as an American Apparel retail salesperson, then as one of its recurring models. Girlfriend Mix, a wink at girl-only porn, was the title of her now-defunct Soundcloud mix series that featured female-only house, techno, and hip-hop DJs. Andrews tours extensively. Last winter at a Boyle Heights underground she dropped the Weeknd’s remix of Drunk In Love and everyone lost their minds. If you’ve ever been to Boyle Heights, you know how far it is from Hollywood. This is another way Andrews is the logical face of American Apparel: her Disclosure-verified taste/aesthetic widely avoids the ersatz end of the EDM pool for a deeper, grittier vibe–one typically found in downtown warehouses.
3. The Slim Slack: Why I Continue To Shop At American Apparel When Its Cultural Relevance Is Probably Beyond Restoration
Whether or not you think Dov Charney is a criminal, his fingerprints are all over American Apparel and there’s no denying the genuine downtown/DIY spirit of the brand. Pretenses toward sustainability, immigration reform, and fair treatment of workers generated early goodwill–which the company mostly retained thru all the sexual harassment lawsuits and fiscal missteps. As the high faded, the brand lost the protection being cool afforded it. American Apparel’s frivolity doesn’t belong in the age of normcore, realism and Jimmy Fallon. Besides, the 18-25 demo has moved on.
But: American Apparel still fits! Slim Slacks, the pants I was stealing at American Apparel before I was buying them, hold their color on average, cut off well when they start to play out, and fit ‘slim’ without being ‘skinny’. One pair I retired due to a broken zipper; one pair developed a hole in the seat due to erosion of coastline; one pair developed a hole instantly after a drunken fall. But my commitment to this item is practical, not sentimental.
Going into an American Apparel store is still a kind of baptism. Freed from the mall module that keeps Forever21 and H&M in the same cookie-cutter hell, each location assays a whim of change that has the solidarity of perfume. With a few minor bpm updates the stores are soundtracked by roughly the same post-banger indie-inflected collective that serviced it in the last days of 2008, bands that are either Empire Of The Sun and MGMT or replacements that sound like Empire Of The Sun and MGMT. The mirror-lined showrooms that so enamored/horrified Blake Butler assume a templar quality. If you’re really desperate you can hear the platinum echoes of long-closed dance palaces, indigent 80s ones like Area or the Garage. It feels like FOMO, retail therapy that’s half rainbow half razorblade. The salescast is markedly less attractive now, down pegs from when every last one of them was fuckable. Familiar items hang or lie there like the discards of you and/or your ex-lovers. The thing about American Apparel is they don’t really discontinue products. Gone attractions blend thermally; dead anomies call out from the scaffolds of novelty lighters at the register, the layers of landlocked swimwear. You know you could be somewhere cool, and this isn’t quite it. But it used to be. You used to be.