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27-11-2004
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Building A Brand By Not Being A Brand ... American Apparel
Quote:
November 23, 2004

Building a Brand by Not Being a Brand
By RUTH LA FERLA

Some people seek their calling. For others, like Dov Charney, it is bred in the bone. "I think I was born a hustler," said Mr. Charney, the fast-talking founder of American Apparel, the rapidly expanding youth-oriented T-shirt chain. "I like the hustle. I like selling a product that people love. It's nice when a girl tries on a bra or a tie-dye T-shirt, and it's, `Ooh, I love it,' " he said, affecting an ecstatic moan.

Mr. Charney cultivates his faintly off-color persona, part garmento, part 1970's pornographer. In fact, he works it studiously, as attested by a photo of him in his store on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which shows him preening in a snug polo shirt and white belt, his mustache scrolling from his upper lip to his mutton-chop whiskers. He is nearly a ringer for the photographer Terry Richardson, famous downtown for bringing the aesthetics of soft-core pornography to fashion photography. The image is meant to resonate with a target market of 20-somethings.

Urban hipsters — and some of their elders, too — are scooping up Mr. Charney's form-fitting T-shirts, underwear, jersey miniskirts and hooded sweatshirts, sold in white-on-white stores that double as art galleries. On the walls of the 26 American Apparels that have sprouted across the country and in Europe and Asia are snapshots of 1970's suburban proms and Christmas Eves, poster-size blowups of seedy Los Angeles storefronts, surfers, skateboarders and, not incidentally, scantily outfitted street kids vamping for the lens.

The vaguely risqué vibe is offset by the company's well-promoted social agenda. A manifesto on a wall of most of the stores tells that the merchandise is "sweatshop free," made in America by workers who are paid a living wage ($13 an hour on average) and sold at a reasonable price (about $15 for a T-shirt). Shoppers also learn that the company eschews ties "with the corporate right and the politically correct left."

Perhaps most important to younger consumers who have grown suspicious of corporate branding, there is not a logo in sight.

A business built on the mystique of no mystique, American Apparel had sales of $80 million in 2003, which are expected to double this year, as they have in each of the last four years, Mr. Charney said. He is planning to open 14 more stores before Christmas. Fast outgrowing its status as an under-the-radar phenomenon, the chain is seen as a new model for the marketing of hip.

"The company is plucking all the right heartstrings," said Arnold Aronson, the managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates, a consulting firm. "Patriotism, social values and an environmentally friendly spirit, plus value for the pocketbook, and they make a damn good product," Mr. Aronson said.

Mr. Charney's flair for romancing a plain-Jane line of clothing, coupled with his rapid expansion, has invited comparisons with the Gap chain, which experienced a similar explosion in the late 1970's. "These stores look completely fresh," said Irma Zandl, a New York youth marketing consultant. "They could become the next Gap."

Mr. Charney himself is somewhat more circumspect. For one thing, he has no plans to sell jeans, a Gap mainstay. For another, his sales are less than 1 percent of the Gap's $16 billion. "We have a long way to go," he said.

Mr. Charney, 35, who describes himself as "born in the brisket" of Montreal's Jewish neighborhood, built his business from scratch. He peddled T-shirts on the streets, then later sold them to screen-printers, who created logos for groups like the New York Police Department. These days he is wooing retail customers with a mix of social conscience and hedonism. "This is a new generation of young adults," Mr. Charney said. "They want what their parents wanted at that age, what kids always want: to have a beer, to smoke a joint, to go to a good movie, to party."

A display of photos at the American Apparel on Orchard Street underscores the point. They show lankily seductive, somewhat dissolute-looking urban adolescents. They look utterly contemporary. In fact, the pictures were shot in the early 70's; their subjects might well be the parents of Mr. Charney's customers. "Kids today mimic their parents at the same age, not just in looks and style, but in values," Mr. Charney said. "They want to learn something, they want to be happy. At the same time it doesn't feel good when their happiness is based on exploitation."

Jessica Fee, an entertainment agent in her 20's, was shopping last Thursday at the Orchard Street store for "simple, clean, comfortable stuff," she said, "that I end up wearing even though I buy other things."

She could have found much the same clothing at Old Navy or the Gap instead of American Apparel. "But their marketing is a little bit sexier," she said of Mr. Charney's store.

Sara Ajnwojner, 19, a native of Frankfurt, wandered into the American Apparel boutique on lower Broadway in New York. "I'm addicted to their underwear, the way it fits and makes you so nice," she said, tracing an hourglass shape in the air. She is just as taken with the company's message. "I saw a documentary in Germany that talked about how the company hires Mexican immigrants and gives them equal pay and how the workers are allowed to call back home," she said. "That is what I want to support."

Mr. Charney's assertion that he runs his business without exploiting a mostly immigrant work force has been challenged by Unite, formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. In February the union charged that American Apparel had blocked the unionization of its sole factory, in Los Angeles, which employs more than 2,500 garment workers. In a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, the company put up posters in the factory telling workers they had the right to unionize, Mr. Charney said.

By telephone yesterday, he dismissed Unite's charges. The company offered to hold an election for workers over whether to join the union, he said, but Unite declined to participate. "The union had no traction with the workers," Mr. Charney said.

Angelica Salas, the director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, a workers' advocacy group, called Mr. Charney a progressive employer who pays his workers well above the average. "But," she added, "he needs to look into whether unionization is the next step."

Consumers may like Mr. Charney's management style, but industry insiders are more impressed by his marketing skills, which they say are in tune with a cultural shift. "There is a highbrow stand against commercial culture right now," said Alex Wipperfürth, a partner in Plan B, a marketing firm in San Francisco. "People are sick of being walking advertisements for clothing. By stripping brands of logos and of pretense, by being more subtle in your cues, you are saying that you are more about quality than image."

The peril, he warned, is that a company may put off consumers by too insistently tooting its own horn. "When you overexplain, it kills the magic," Mr. Wipperfürth said.

But Mr. Charney is still avidly promoting his social responsibility, and opening stores at a rapid clip: one in Vancouver last week, two in Miami not long ago, one in downtown Brooklyn this week, one in Chicago on Friday. And he is spawning competitors: No Sweat Apparel, a Massachusetts company, is describing itself as an ethical maker of shirts, sneakers and jeans in unionized factories abroad. But Mr. Charney is not looking over his shoulder. "If we can be the brand of the next generation of adults," he said, "then I know I have done my job well."

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27-11-2004
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thanks for the article stylegrrl

I have long been a fan of their company. I've used their tees and tanks for different projects and have been pleased by the quality (and price).

No Sweat Apparel may be an ethical employer, but they are still outsourcing production to another country....

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27-11-2004
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I read this art also. Thought it was cool.

PureChris, where did you get your info? Just curious.

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27-11-2004
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i actually think the quality of the t's(and everything else) is crap...
i have a ton because people use their stuff to print on and as giveaways...but the cotton is hard and scratchy and the seams always tear...

i do think their marketing is very good though...and their stores look bright and inviting...

hope the trend away from logos will spread...


thx stylegurrl...

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27-11-2004
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Quote:
Originally posted by softgrey@Nov 27 2004, 02:52 PM
i actually think the quality of the t's(and everything else) is crap...
i have a ton because people use their stuff to print on and as giveaways...but the cotton is hard and scratchy and the seams always tear...
[snapback]441468[/snapback]
I agree. I have a couple and they are not the best quality. Lots of hype.

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27-11-2004
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Quote:
Originally posted by softgrey@Nov 27 2004, 01:52 PM
hope the trend away from logos will spread...
[snapback]441468[/snapback]
I second that

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27-11-2004
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I really suport AA. I thinkt here great.

I think the t shirts are good quality, especially for the price.

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27-11-2004
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This sounds a bit like the Body Shop, regarding the "social awareness"... And they have certainly been a success.

I think it's an extremely good marketing strategy to appeal to peoples sense of justice, fairness and want of supporting the right thing. As long as your stuff isn't any worse than the next guy's, people will choose your stuff if it's OK quality. As long as you build and market it the right way, that is.

I don't know if this is good or bad quality, but it can't be worse than H&M I guess?

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28-11-2004
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The shirts feel really good, and most indie designers and shops I've seen use them for "DIY" shirts.

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29-11-2004
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Clay, this is what I was referring to:
And he is spawning competitors: No Sweat Apparel, a Massachusetts company, is describing itself as an ethical maker of shirts, sneakers and jeans in unionized factories abroad.

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