American Apparel, which so deftly captured the consumer lust of the 18-to-30-year-old market with its pervy roller-disco looks, is twisting by the ankles over the abyss of bankruptcy, and its leg warmers are unraveling.
Dov Charney, the company's incorrigible scamp of a CEO and founder, had a designer's knack for catching the trend-wave du jour by recycling just the right historical wardrobe references — all the French-cut leotards, metallic headbands, stretch lace tank tops, and elastic belts that could turn a nice girl from Akron into a not-so-nice girl from Akron. The gay shopper, too, felt naughty in colored briefs and gym shorts. After a dizzying growth spurt — from three stores in 2003 to 103 in 2006 to 280 stores today — the golden unitard lacked sufficient financial stretch and is bursting its seams.
The downfall of the company is being perceived as relatable to the perverse un-CEO-like antics of Charney. Always preferring to fly by the seat of his pants (or lack thereof), Charney became infamous for showing up to work in his underwear, prompting three employees to file sexual-harassment suits; and pleasuring himself before a Jane magazine reporter during an interview in 2004.
Few financial commentators believe that if his multi-million-dollar retail circus survives its current difficulties, he will be allowed to run it anymore. But, inappropriate though it may be, Charney's libidinous drive is also what made the brand so effective. American Apparel's print ads are so beguiling precisely because of the Terry Richardsonesque amateur-porn world they inhabit: a sleazy Utopia full of curvy, pouty art-school chicks with futon hair, bushy eyebrows, and none of the anorexia or dramatic pretensions (fear, love, unrequited love) seen in the usual fashion print ads. American Apparel girls are a rougher bunch; they look only too willing to follow you back to your apartment, have a couple beers, and do unspecific yoga for your cheap camera; you know just from the look in their eyes that your late-afternoon fling will commence the minute you figure out how to peel off their capri leggings and spandex monokini.
Charney, for his part, has professed an intention to pull the company back from the brink and retool it into something like Brooks Brothers — or, in his own words, "a traditional American clothier." Having publicly declared the death of the dirty hipster, Charney now intends to take American Apparel Working Girl–era preppy: lacy blouses, respectable blazers, pleats, button-downs.
But the charm of American Apparel was always the fact that it was decidedly not the Gap. For all its Starbucks-like ubiquity, the brand was able to maintain an aura of épater le bourgeois radicalism. The American Apparel girl was never someone you'd want to take home for Thanksgiving, unless you were really mad at your mom. It seems unnatural to take away her vinyl short-shorts and put her in a sweater set. (Besides: As the Gap-ad spoof once pointed out, "Hitler wore khakis.")
Maybe it is better that American Apparel die now and leave a really doable corpse. It is no square-ass brand. It has been, since its inception, the right cheap flavor at the right hot moment — like a neon-blue frozen Otter Pop on a 90-degree day, in the mouth of a girl who won't say no. Perhaps it is simply destined to melt that way.
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