These days, American Apparel is known more for its internal leadership drama, bankruptcy filing, and declining sales than it is for its clothing. At its peak, the brand was celebrated for manufacturing its product in the US as well as bringing the downtown aesthetic to people all over the country and the world. But issues with CEO Dov Charney constantly clouded the media coverage of AA, and once Charney was forced out, business started to sag significantly. In the last week, many media reports have surfaced about a pending buyout of the brand that’s contingent on Charney’s return to his role as CEO. But even if Charney, who created the brand and its original vision, returns to this top-ranking position, can he save American Apparel? Is there still an audience for what’s essentially overpriced cotton basics or have we moved on? Here’s a nostalgic look back at mainstream fashion’s love affair with AA:
1. The ad campaigns seemed like private, naughty outtakes.
The photos were often fever-inducing. NSFW. Not safe for anywhere really unless you were home alone. The photos of scantily clad or nearly naked girls were controversial, provocative, and an example of marketing at its best. Whether you viewed AA's campaigns as genius or just pure smut, their name was rolling off everyone's lips, and kids all over the US were rushing to its stores.
2. Male cleavage was an acceptable thing.
The deep v-neck tee for men went from a WTF product choice to the uniform of Hell's Kitchen clubgoers and Lower East Side dive bar patrons alike. Your summer outfit was only considered daring if at least 60% of your bare chest was showing. American Apparel made it okay for men to expose some part of themselves without taking off their clothes. Temporarily, the rules of masculinity were redefined when it came to casual dress.
3. All of the worst fads of the 80s were back in fashion.
Thanks to AA, kids who were only babies during the 80s (or even worse, not even born yet) were sporting acid wash jeans as though they'd just been discovered. It seemed American Apparel went digging in the bottom of a discount barrel at T.J. Maxx and decided to reinvent all of the worst parts of 80s fashion in their own vision.
4. It was okay to wear your sisters' clothes.
American Apparel was the only mass market brand that fully encouraged gender bending style through multiple unisex pieces. Be it shirts, tanks, cardigans, or socks, this brand created a world in which your sex did not limit your possibilities when it came to getting dressed in the morning. Got your sweater mixed up with your sister's laundry on accident? No problem. Just put on her sweater. It's supposed to be that way.
5. You didn't need experience to have a career.
American Apparel wasn't just about selling to young folks. It was all about hiring and empowering them too. I distinctly remember interviewing for a management job at AA back in my 20s, and the District Manager couldn't have been more than 24 years old. It seemed pretty awesome at the time, but now that the brand is in peril, I can't help but wonder if the stores would have had more longevity with a more experienced staff onboard. (And less playthings around for Charney.)
There's no doubt that American Apparel was once the epitome of cool. But it's also clear now that in the age of millennials, we don't need a brand to try so hard to create a lifestyle around telling us what's cool. You either are or you aren't. And for the moment AA, it looks like you aren't.