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Why American Apparel Was So Much More Than a Basics Brand

Fashionista editors share what the failed company meant to them.
An American Apparel store on Houston Street in New York City in 2014. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

An American Apparel store on Houston Street in New York City in 2014. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

As you've likely heard by now, American Apparel as we know it (not unlike America the country) has crashed and burned — the stores are shutting down and workers are being laid off in the thousands — and many of us have a lot of ~*feelings*~ about it. There are so many terrible things in this world that we'd much rather say goodbye to than a company that was once our favorite resource for ethically produced (for the most part), flattering, affordable basics and hipster identifiers... despite its founder's problematic attitude about sleeping with employees

As these feelings began to pour out in a long email chain amongst us, we decided to publish some of them, roundtable-style, sort of like a collective eulogy. Read on for six Fashionista editors' anecdotes about the defunct LA-based retailer, many of which we think you'll relate to, and some of which are honestly a little embarrassing, because what wasn't in the mid-aughts?

Dhani Mau, Editorial Director, remembers the unofficial uniform of NYC's hipster nightlife scene

My high school was in Seattle’s "hipster" neighborhood, though I didn't actually know that word yet, or what to call the cool-looking 20-somethings I'd see walking around. That is, not until some MySpace group for incoming NYU freshmen led me to, a precursor to street style that catalogued photos from an "underground" party that took place somewhere in downtown Manhattan, where everyone looked so. cool. The site was made fun of incessantly on (also dead now) and somehow I simultaneously appreciated its editors' harsh jabs at the DJs who threw the party, and desperately wanted to attend, and to infiltrate this scene of what I now knew to be (thanks to Gawker) "hipsters." I could also tell that those kids in my high school's neighborhood were part of that tribe, mainly because both groups wore the same ironic ‘70s-inspired hoodies, T-shirts and track shorts. At some point, I made my way into a nearby American Apparel and realized that's where they bought them.

Fast forward to August of 2006, when I moved to New York and began establishing a roster of places a cool, hip gal like myself should shop and hang out, including the American Apparel (or Amer Appar, as we called it) on Broadway and Astor Place. I bought all my "going out" clothes there and started buying into the brand's irreverent (and ubiquitous in downtown New York) messaging and image: the provocative but imperfect billboards, the disheveled, disaffected sales associates, the "made in downtown LA" ethos. And after multiple confiscated fake IDs, strategic late nights at a few Misshapes-adjacent parties around the Lower East Side, and some clever photoshopping and printing of a friend of a friend's Colombian passport scan (um, allegedly), some underage friends and I finally made it inside the sacred doors of Don Hill’s in the spring of 2007. I was wearing a dress from AA's "California Vintage" line (oh yes, I remember) and probably wore something from the brand every Saturday after that until the Misshapes threw their final dance party. I got my own "wall photos" on, which I had consistently looked to for outfit inspiration, as well as the sites of fellow hipster documentarians The Cobrasnake and Last Night's Party — then I ended up on those sites, too! (Are you jealous of me yet?) AA was the unofficial uniform of this hipster nightlife scene, and at one point, the bench outside of the American Apparel in the LES even became a late-night scene in and of itself.

The coolest I'll ever be: wearing American Apparel on The Cobrasnake in 2007. Photo: Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

The coolest I'll ever be: wearing American Apparel on The Cobrasnake in 2007. Photo: Mark Hunter/The Cobrasnake

From pre-Instagram hipster influencers like the Misshapes and Cory Kennedy, to the era's coolest indie bands and DJs, it was a time when looking cool didn't have to cost a lot of money. In fact, it was almost cooler to look like you didn't have money (kinda like how people drank PBR). As a broke college student, I could go into American Apparel and get the same outfits as the girls I wanted to be (many of whom I knew to be very wealthy) for under $100 — or less by taking advantage of the employee discounts of two friends who "managed" the Williamsburg location while they lived in a company-paid-for apartment and slept in the stockroom all day after partying all night. But I digress.

While working here, though my personal style has evolved past head-to-toe cotton and lamé, I've become increasingly fascinated by the company's structure, its downfall and its almost-mythical founder Dov Charney. There were definitely some operational problems and issues with boundaries (to put it lightly), but AA represented so much more than a basics brand, and it bums me out that its potential will never be realized. Now, 10 years after I arrived in NYC, unable to remember the last time I cared about being part of a "scene," I'm listening to this incredibly interesting podcast about Charney and glad that he's starting over with a new basics line that I'm hopefully not too old to wear.

Tyler McCall, Deputy Editor, remembers aspiring to be a "scene queen"

Going to school at the University of Florida, I wasn't perhaps as cool as some of my co-workers who were acutely aware of the Cobrasnake-shot, American Apparel-wearing "scene" happening in New York City. What I was aware of, however, were mainstream pop-punk-emo bands. I hung posters of Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco in my bedroom, drove hours out of my way to catch Cute Is What We Aim For and The Hush Sound and Jack's Mannequin, attended my first "festival" (a day-long concert in Tampa) to jam out to Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance. These boys had such deep feelings, and that guyliner! I soaked up all the information I could gather on these crews of emo kids — and the girls who loved them, dubbed "Scene Queens" by the denizens of LiveJournal and MySpace.

From my apartment in Gainesville, it looked like these girls had it all: Dreamy scene boys (it was 2006, please let me have this), all-access passes to the best tours, and the coolest clothes. I wasn't brave enough to dye my hair bubblegum pink like Audrey Kitching, or to pierce my nose like Hanna Beth, but the Scene Queens loved to shop at American Apparel — and that, that I could do. There was a small outpost of AA in my college town, because of course there was, and I would drag friends there to peruse through racks of lamé bikini tops, high-waisted disco pants, bodycon cotton dresses and low-cut bodysuits. Each time, I would chicken out, buying a simple V-neck tee or stocking up on those elastic headbands they had in every color (which found a new life in my Blair Waldorf phase a year later).

Ultimately, I found that I didn't quite have what it takes to be a Scene Queen and I gave up on my fantasy of selling merch at Warped Tour. While walking past AA stores always reminded me fondly of those good times; like the Scene Queens, it seems like American Apparel's 15 minutes is well and truly up. Pour one out for American Apparel and the scene — but not for my massive crush on Brendon Urie, which will never die. 

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Photo: courtesy Tyler McCall

Photo: courtesy Tyler McCall

Maura Brannigan, Senior Editor, remembers her go-to costume party resource

My extremely tepid relationship with American Apparel was most prevalent while in college. I was in a sorority, and there was a big, bright, airy store in the downtown adjacent to campus. I’d go there most regularly before themed events and drop way too much money on itchy metallic leggings and scary, unflattering leotards, as well as weird accessories like legwarmers, fanny packs and neon flatbrims. (We had a big formal that was literally called "Tacky '80s." People would go all out.)

I had a lot of friends who were big into its basics — the black leggings, particularly, were all over campus at the time — but I never bought anything even remotely wearable. The sweatshirts and even the tees were more expensive than what I wanted to pay, which, in retrospect, makes no sense if I was already going over budget on a literal gold lamé bodysuit — which I just now realized is still sitting in the closet of childhood bedroom — but whatever. I was a dumb college kid and American Apparel was cool; and when I absolutely needed hot pink arm warmers, they were there for me.

Which is to say, I've never fallen under American Apparel's marketing spell or entirely enjoyed the experience of shopping there — even before the brand began imploding with scandal. But I do look back on it fondly the same way you would that grimey college bar everyone frequented: We had some good times, but let's never go back there again.

Maria Bobila, Associate Editor, remembers being influenced by Mary-Kate Olsen and Cory Kennedy

I think my first memory of American Apparel was during my phase of snooping through photos from The Cobrasnake and Last Night's Party, which always captured this gritty, cool impression of the LA party scene. (At least that's what I imagined from my college dorm room.) I loved how the girls preferred laid-back basics over "going out tops" and expertly mixed vintage finds with something as simple as a pair of leggings.

I remember driving out to Philadelphia from suburban New Jersey or my college on the Main Line to shop at the only American Apparel store near me. If I was ever in New York City, I made a point to visit the store on Spring Street in SoHo. Mary-Kate Olsen (circa her NYU/boho-chic days) and Cory Kennedy heavily influenced my style at the time, and I constantly stocked up on V-neck T-shirts, zip-up hoodies and black lamé leggings — fashion choices that instantly became my most favorite go-to outfit for a very long time. Even today, I still love a good T-shirt, hoodie, and any type of leather-like pant, which goes to show how much of my style today is still rooted in my first purchases from American Apparel.

Cory Kennedy and Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter in 2006. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Cory Kennedy and Mark "The Cobrasnake" Hunter in 2006. Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Karina Hoshikawa, Assistant Editor, remembers developing her affinity for basics

I began to "discover" my personal style in high school, and I use the term "discover" because prior to this revelation, my thought process when shopping for clothes was as simple as, "This is cute! I’m going to buy it." If you looked at my pre-teen closet, you would not be wrong to assume that I was a batty, slightly unhinged youngster with a weird affinity for stripes.

Anyway, after I decided that neon green-and-black striped T-shirts weren’t a great look for me, I had a long internal discussion about what pieces truly made me feel happy and confident when I wore them. And it turns out, (for me at least) less is way, way more. I realized that solids were my milieu, and from there, sought out stylish basics that I could wear with everything. And at the time, no one did cool basics better than American Apparel. I wanted everything from their high-waisted cuffed denim jorts to their fisherman sweaters in every color. And the fact that they were proudly sweatshop-free made me feel good about paying more for a more ethically made garment that I otherwise could've picked up for half-price at an H&M — the beginning of a habit that I'm happy to say I still keep in mind when shopping for new solid pieces to fill out my wardrobe. So while I won't miss the brand's gratuitous sexualization and inconsistent sizing, I'll sincerely miss having a go-to shop for no-frills, accessibly-priced clothes.

Whitney Bauck, Assistant Editor, remembers admiring the company's manufacturing ethics, despite its founder's questionable ones

I have always had mixed, but strong, feelings about American Apparel. On the one hand, I think founder Dov Charney was a sleazy character (see: masturbating in front of a female journalist, sketchy sexual ethics with his own employees), and so I wasn't exactly rooting for him. Even the American Apparel ad aesthetic was a turnoff to me because it reminded me of another man who's repeatedly gross toward women and should maybe be behind bars for it: photographer Terry Richardson.

But on the other hand, the company Dov built really did have better manufacturing ethics from a human rights perspective than 90 percent of the big chain brands out there. They still weren't great from an environmental perspective, as their textile sourcing didn't take sustainability into account in any serious way. Still, the wages, benefits and labor conditions that American Apparel's factory workers in LA were entitled to made jobs at the factory covetable for many. The fact that they organized in support of Dov after he got kicked out of the company was a testament to this fact. So I'm sad to see American Apparel go, in spite of my feelings about its founder. I didn't shop there often, as I tend to fulfill most of my wardrobe needs at thrift stores when I can. But it was one of the only mainstream retailers that I felt okay purchasing from when I really needed something I couldn't get at Goodwill. I have to hope that other ethically-produced fashion companies will fare better in the future.

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