American Apparel’s Innovation and Exploitaton

The majority of companies no longer equate the production of their products with the marketing of their ‘brand’. Since a company’s finances is divided between different processes such as production, development and marketing, marketing departments have begun to see their work as something that in direct competition with the production process. But American Apparel is persistent about peppering their ads with blurbs about their economic structure and images of the production process. Spread across the majority of their advertisements are statements such as ‘Made in Downtown LA’, ‘Sweat-shop free’ and ‘Vertically Integrated’—an economic term referring to a sole business that encompasses all aspects of designing, producing, marketing and selling a product.  Today, companies that both manufacture and retail are increasingly rare, as the various aspects of making a product are usually sub-contracted to different companies, usually based in Third World countries. American Apparel confines all aspects of manufacturing and management to a single building in downtown Los Angeles; the largest garment factory in the United States.

The predominantly immigrant workforce there earns $12.50 an hour on average. American Aparrel provides its staff with health insurance and other benefits such as training programs, free English lessons and food vouchers. Masseurs are even assigned to relieve minor physical tensions of the workforce. The company’s favorable working conditions are far from the norm but the company’s founder and CEO Dov Charney is of the belief that when employees are comfortable and feel part of a team, they are more productive. He also believes that sweatshops are actually bad for business; “My theory is that going offshore is actually more expensive than these guys let on. What I’m going to prove is that sweatshops are more expensive in the end than vertically integrated manufacturing in the U.S. … the opportunity cost of offshore production is huge, because you can’t respond to market demands as quickly.”[1] It is also plausible that Charney personally would find the lack of production control associated with offshore manufacturing difficult as he likes to play such a visible role within the American Apparel factory. American Apparel press officer Cynthia Semon is also a firm believer in the benefits of vertical integration as new products ideas can be created quickly, often within a number of days. She is adamant that having all production done under one roof has not only logistic advantages but psychological ones and that employees work to their full potential when they’re happy, healthy and comfortable.

Good treatment of their factory workers is also demonstrated by the launch of the ‘Legalize LA’ campaign in 2003 which aims to promote better rights for immigrant workers. Their aim is that the over one million undocumented migrant workers who live in the United States will have the opportunity to become legal residents of the United States. Consumers can purchase a Legalize LA t-shirt with 100% of the proceeds going to Los Angeles-based immigrant rights groups. The term ‘Legalize’ when it is written across t-shirts and banners usually refers to the Legalization of cannabis and this gives the t-shirt its initial shock value. ‘Legalize LA’ is set in Cooper Black, a popular typeface during the 1970s. American Apparel have re-appropriated a 1970’s aesthetic in the products they sell, their stores and their advertising campaigns. The 1970s is seen as the time of the ‘sexual revolution’, pre-AIDs consciousness when people were less aware of the dangers of a promiscuous lifestyle. A casual approach to sex is something that Charney and the American Apparel brand actively encourage through the visual messages in their advertising so their desire to be associated with this time is expected. Cooper Black was probably chosen for the ‘Legalize LA’ campaign to relate it the 1970s as it was a time known for political protest and increased cannabis use. This pseudo-political movement has also helped the company market their own image by associating the company an anti-establishment nature. It could be seen that by operating an advocacy group American Apparel are making criticism of their company more difficult and an attempt to deter people from looking deeper into the company’s ethical stance and practices.

In Marxist philosophy labor is raised to an absolute value and often dismissed the “aesthetics of non-labor”. Today, Marxist theories of production can rarely be applied when critiquing consumerism as now production alone is rarely seen to gives a product its value, instead the product’s association with glamor, luxury or celebrity is emphasized. American Apparel is unusual in that it does place emphasis on the production of the products and is, in a sense, raising the status of labor and production. The website includes numerous photographs and videos of the work done inside the LA factory. On one hand, these images can be seen to empower the factory employees but some might view the images in which CEO Dov Charney has chosen included himself in with a little unease. It is often commented that American Apparel’s business model hearkens back to a bygone, paternalistic era of textile manufacture in the United States. Charney never misses an opportunity to include himself in the images used to promote the company, ever reminding the viewer (and also the employees) of his huge stronghold over the company. His body language is often stern, fatherly and controlling. Unsurprisingly, Charney seems to only include himself in photographs with female staff. The photographic image has associations of power and control; they are an integral part of institutional life for example mug shots and photographic identification such as licenses.  These employee photographs can be seen to reinforce the power relations of the company with Charney, of course, always being in the position of power.

This paternalistic managerial style is similar to that of entrepreneurs at the beginning of the industrial revolution. At the time, there was a broad hostility and distrust of mass production and mechanization practices particularly from the British Arts and Crafts movement and their supporters. This movement was very much a reaction to industrialization and argued that machines should only be used to relieve the tedium of repetitive tasks. The dehumanizing effects of highly mechanized production were very much part of public consciousness and often met with criticism. Concerned about public perceptions Henry Ford, and other entrepreneurs worked hard to change these views by providing a safe, clean working environment for their employees. The same distrust of the mechanized factory re-emerged at the beginning of the 21th century. By familiarizing their consumers with the look and practices of the factory workplace, American Apparel could be attempting to change people’s perceptions of the factory environment by emphasizing the humanistic elements by making employees the focus of the photographs. These enlightened industrial entrepreneurs were part of the ‘Progressive Pre-Urbanisation Movement’ The social commitment of these industrialists cannot be denied but these also had economic advantages derived from higher productivity on behalf of the grateful co-workers. They secured the obedience of their tenant workers by appealing to their personal benefit and were seen by many to suffer from incurable paternalism. They often made housing available for their workers near the factory known as ‘model villages’. The entrepreneur – owner of both the factory and the model village – maintained huge economic and political power and because of this the term ‘Benevolent Dictator’ was often applied. The tenant-workers who availed of this housing were chosen by the company on the basis of their efficiency at work. In a strange modern-day comparison, Dov Charney lets his “favorite” employees live in his LA mansion rent-free and in return for serving as his personal assistants. They’re exclusively male; he states “I used to have girls around, but it’s easier with boys,”[2] One such man is Johnny Makeup. Charney recruited him from an American Apparel store after being charmed by his sense of style. Now he’s apprenticing in the Public Relations department, where his tasks include putting together music mixes, updating his MySpace page, making Charney salads, and keeping him company. He calls Charney ‘Daddy’  again re-enforcing the strange paternal relationship he has with many of his employees.

American Apparel has also received positive media attention for its sustainable and environmental practices. Businesses have a strong influence in the context of international environmental cooperation and are frequently cited as a barrier to necessary political­ action.­ American Apparel’s have taken considerable steps to insure that their company is environmentally friendly and their status as a large corporation makes these initiatives an even more powerful statement. Pier Fawkes believes that because of the growing number of ethical consumers and investors there are many financial benefits of becoming a more sustainable business, but warns ‘be careful about making a statement about being green though – it comes across as cliché’. American Apparel has stayed true to this logic. Their environmental campaigns aren’t preachy or sensational and are quite subtle about emphasizing their good business practices. American Apparel’s shift to vegetable oil-fueled transportation, as well as efforts to minimize waste on an employee level and how these have substantially reduced company costs. They installed a 146 kilowatt solar electric system on its factory roof which power as much as 30% of the factory. It also has a contract with Environmental Textiles who regenerate fabric scraps into high quality fiber t­hat can be used to create “thongs and other skimpy but wearable pieces” saving 30,000 pounds of cotton per week. This is both practical and environmental, but these ‘skimpy pieces’ also give the company an excuse to add to their extensive portfolio of sexual and controversial advertising. Community Outreach Director, Shawn Shahani states, We have some things that are on the fringe of taste… But the publicity of our sexual images helps people to realize that it’s possible to be successful and to treat the environment with respect.”

Unsurprisingly, and in keeping with American Apparel’s raunchy advertisements, the organic thong was used to promote the arrival of their new ‘Sustainable Range’. The advertisement consists of three photographic images showing a young woman wearing the organic thong from three angles – from behind, to the side and front. The text flashes between the statements ‘Going Green’ and ‘Going Organic’. The advertisement simultaneously signifies both the environmental aspects of the product as well as its fashionable and sexual aspects. It is targeted to a consumer who is somewhat concerned about the environmental crisis while is still concerned about making purchases that are attractive and on-tread. The advertisement was featured on the successful music,fashion and culture blog which receives over 50,000 visitors per week. The creator of Hipsterrunoff, Carles believes American Apparel choose to advertise on his blog because he “reaches their target audience who are searching for trends, music, and information about living an alternative life.” I asked if he thought that concern for the environment is part of this alternative life to which he responded, “I don’t think the readers are even aware that there is an environmental crisis.” This is not the first time ‘Hipster’ culture has been criticized for simply having a veneer of concern or being pseudo-political.

During the early 1990s, Benetton was criticized for its controversial marketing campaign that juxtaposed political issues such as terrorism acts, HIV victims and domestic violence with their company logo. It was the context of commodity sales that inflamed people’s passions and were the reason that the advertisements were so controversial. Many critics believed that raising those political issues in the context of an advertisement in a way reduces its meaning. Considering the current environmental situation, companies like American Apparel that make a real effort to be sustainable and environmental are greatly needed.  However, using sexual imagery to create awareness about sustainability in business and global warming has it problems. The positioning of these sexual images over a backdrop of progressive causes seems almost cynical and could be seen to actually undermine the seriousness of the issues.

American Apparel knew they needed to transcend the niche of ethical consumers as the market is still too small. Their ethical company ethos means that ethics is central to the production of their products, but not to the promotion of their products. Although they do use some images of production in their campaign, American Apparel relies on hypersexual imagery to sell its designs rather than focusing on its ethical policies. But, whether ethical or not, this seemingly incompatible combination has really appealed to their target market and has become one of the main reasons for American Apparel’s huge success.*

*Please note: this article was written in early 2009 before American Apparel began to suffer great financial losses.

[1] Spunt Alexandra, ‘Mr. No Logo’, Montreal Mirror, August 8, 2003

[2] Page 8, Vernon, Polly, ‘Label of the Year: American Apparel’, Observer Magazine, Nov 30, 2008.

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