How American Apparel Has Become Fashion's Most Provocative Brand

The label’s progressive labour standards and high voltage ads made it notorious – from dorm room project to generation-defining brand, we trace its past and ask: what’s next?

American Apparel was not necessarily destined for greatness when its founder – then just a high-schooler – had an idea: he would sell t-shirts. With few funds and virtually no practical experience, he started a tiny business, importing classic American t-shirts to Montreal Music Lifestyle in an operation largely run from his Connecticut boarding school dorm room. Ten years later, that after-school project had earned the title of America’s largest t-shirt manufacturer and the reputation of being one of the most controversial brands in the world. How did that happen? To answer that, you have to familiarise yourself with Dov Charney, the brand’s founder and its biggest liability.

In the early 1990s American Apparel was just a small start-up established by the Canadian Charney, who had enrolled at Tufts University near Boston only to drop out before graduation to pursue the endeavour full-time with money borrowed from his parents. After ultimately settling in Los Angeles in 1997, Charney began to make waves, challenging the labour standards of the local garment industry by paying higher wages (two times higher than the standard wage at times) and providing benefits for his workers, and touting his company’s mission of removing exploitation from the garment manufacturing process.

After experiencing early success with American Apparel’s wholesale model, Charney decided to expand into direct consumer retail, and the company went into aggressive expansion mode. American Apparel opened its first store in the trendy Echo Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles in 2003. Two more stores – one in Montreal, the other in New York – followed that same year. Under the direction of Charney, it expanded to Europe in 2004, and in 2005, the brand opened 65 more stores. Today, they boast over 260 locations worldwide in 19 countries, including ones in Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Israel, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Mexico and Brazil, among others. The press has since noted the “dangerous trap of (American Apparel’s) retail expansion,” or what others have called “rapid over-expansion.” In 2010, Charney said this was necessary to boost awareness of the brand. However, he also admitted: “Maybe there were a dozen stores we shouldn’t have opened.”



Since its earliest days, American Apparel relied on bold advertising as a tool to raise its profile, and as a result, its ads have played a significant role in shaping its identity. Look back to 2000, for instance, when the company was still operating primarily as a wholesaler. It was making its name selling ethically-manufactured blank t-shirts, and “related garments, such as panties,” as it noted in an early marketing flyer, which included photos of scantily-clad girls – and Charney, himself, who would become a semi-regular fixture in imagery. That was just the beginning. In the years to come, we would see girls wearing nothing but tube socks, sheer bodysuits or underwear. Campaigns that featured girls wearing next-to-nothing were the new norm – for American Apparel, at least, and once merely suggestive ads eventually became much more blatant and attention grabbing. Instead of showing a scantily-clad girl, American Apparel managed to out do itself by posting online banner ads with fully topless models beginning in 2005.

“After settling in Los Angeles in 1997, Charney began to make waves, challenging the labour standards of the local garment industry by paying higher wages (two times higher than the standard wages)

A number of other elements were consistently at play making American Apparel ad campaigns distinctly their own – besides that famous Helvetica logo. They all shared a candid, amateur vibe – evoking the snapshot aesthetic that Lisette Model pioneered and which Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller had a strong hand in bringing to the mainstream. A far cry from the polished, traditionally glamorous ads that big fashion houses were putting out at the time, there was no obviously ‘done’ hair and make-up, professional sets or recognisable faces. Instead, there were a lot of beds, couches, white walls, and provocatively-posed models that looked like the girl next door.

These were not women you would see walking during Paris Fashion Week. Bypassing the system of traditional agency-signed models, American Apparel openly opted for “real girls,” ones that Charney spotted on the street or that worked in the brand’s stores. According to the company’s website, “We find our models all over the world, through online submissions, word of mouth, and in retail stores, where we’ve been known to do an impromptu test shoot or two.” In one ad, Kelley, an American Apparel employee, is pictured posing for an array photos, in one she wears just a thong. According to the ad’s caption, the photos were taken “by a fellow employee at the company apartment in Mexico city… Kelley chose and re-enacted her favourite poses from vintage porn mags.” Another ad, entitled, “Pantytime,” features another American Apparel employee, who is posing topless in bed – wearing nothing but the brand’s underwear, of course.

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