Last week, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney was finally fired from the company he founded in 1988, which came as a surprise to no one. Since then, the media has found plenty of tidbits worth reporting. There’s the insane video of the ex-CEO dancing around naked, which ended with him noting, “Stop it, you’re going to get me in trouble.” Talk about foreshadowing! And the dozens of staffers who have come to his defense via the anonymous-posting app Whisper, in WWD and on BuzzFeed.
Need a refresher on what went down? To get a real sense of how American Apparel was started, you should read the homepage of Dovcharney.com, an American Apparel microsite written by Charney a few years ago, in its entirety. You should also read The Week’s 2010 article, “American Apparel: Timeline of the Controversy." As well as the numerous reports that have emerged in the past four years, including this one, this one and this one.
I could go on for another 1,500 words about the scandal surrounding Charney. But what few are willing to talk about right now — because, uh, it’s not as salacious — is American Apparel’s health as a brand. Not as a business, but as a brand.
When Charney moved American Apparel’s operations to Los Angeles in 1997 after stints in New York, Boston and South Carolina, he was a wholesaler. Charney’s altruistic idea was to manufacture t-shirts, underwear and other basics right in L.A., subsequently making “vertical integration” the sexiest business jargon on the planet. It was a sorta-sad time when screen-printed tees constituted a fashion line, and I remember when those Helvetica garment tags began appearing in New York boutiques around 2001. A friend of a friend knew Charney, and he already had a reputation for being provocateur. But it was also clear that American Apparel was driving a very specific moment in fashion. Clarks, trucker hats, classic t-shirts: that’s what people — now known as “hipsters” — wore in the early 2000s. In 2003, I bought a handkerchief skirt at the American Apparel store on North 6th Street in Williamsburg. A year later, I was regularly purchasing t-shirts at London's Carnaby Street location. Gap was struggling. Everlane was more than a decade away. Fast fashion was still a novelty. American Apparel offered a cool alternative to the bland, boring t-shirts and leggings that department stores and other mass retailers offered. The brand was known for classic styles in sexy fits -- deep v-neck tees, low-rise underwear and running shorts reminiscent of the early '80s. A wardrobe straight out of Wet Hot American Summer, updated just enough for the 2000s.
Accusations against Charney surfaced as early as 2005, but I was still bullish on the brand when it made a kinda-sketchy “back door” initial public offering in 2006. (That’s a funny term for a reverse merger. What it really means is that a public company called Endeavor bought American Apparel so that it wouldn’t have to take the regular, arduous steps that listing on the stock market typically requires.) I was buying stuff, and so were my co-workers. American Apparel was often touted as the new Gap: basics with cheekier — and often refreshing — branding.
But at the same time, shopping at American Apparel has almost always felt like shopping for fashion souvenirs. There was never any permanency to it. As with Hypercolor, L.A. Gear and Members Only before it, American Apparel was so emblematic of a specific era that it was hard to believe it would be around for more than a decade.
Throughout the years, I’ve thought many times about buying certain items in bulk, because who knows if I’ll ever be able to buy it again? American Apparel has long reminded me of Units, a mall franchise that sold colorful mix-and-match separates. Women were encouraged to buy just a few pieces to create dozens of different outfit combinations. It was a sensation. A sensation that died with the 1980s.
American Apparel’s board says that they’ve fired Charney because of his misconduct. But the company is also failing financially, as it has been for years. One reason for that was Charney's unorthodox approach to, well, everything. For instance, in 2008, Charney told the Wall Street Journal that his chief financial officer was a “complete loser” with “no credibility.” Those kinds of statements don't sit well with investors.
But what may be more important than the money stuff is that American Apparel, the brand, just isn’t mass enough to generate the kinds of sales it currently needs to survive. Yes, Charney’s vision for vertical integration has helped to slowly transform the way mid-priced fashion is produced. "Made in America” is a powerful marketing tool once again, thanks in no small part to his efforts. He has boosted California’s reputation as an apparel manufacturing hub. And AA’s merchandise still appeals to a certain kind of young person, particularly one who does not see the irony in normcore.
The offering -- right now, you can find lots of mom jeans and baby doll dresses -- is never going to appeal to the majority. Like those ghost brands before it, American Apparel is trying to become bigger than it should be. In order for it to survive on the level its investors require, expect major changes to the company ethos and design. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the company starts manufacturing outside of the U.S. American Apparel, as we know it, is already a relic.
That’s not to say Charney will suffer the same fate. Once all of this nastiness is over weeks, months or maybe years from now, I guarantee he’ll resurface. “I am an intuitive designer,” he once wrote. “I've seen photographs of Yves Saint Laurent in a fitting and I thought, ‘That's how we do it!’” He doesn’t sound like a man who will ever give up.