Sans serif was never so sleazy. Next to their outpost on the south side of Houston Street, American Apparel has commandeered an oversize billboard on which a young girl appears, wearing nothing but striped athletic socks and a crooked smile—and above her “Hello.” The photograph is firmly au courant, adopting the skuzzy stylized noise of contemporary fashion photography. It’s a direct challenge to Calvin Klein’s heraldic Kate Moss-In-Jeans, which first appeared on the north side of Houston in 1993, and has been recreated at intervals since then, like a pietà of downtown decadence. Calvin Klein was always slick and modern: never anything but the girl and the logo. Spartanly clothed, Futura Light—and all aglow with athletic concision and graphic reductionism. (The brand’s ads in the 1980s, which featured a teenage Brooke Shields, were lit up worshipfully around Times Square, but were rococo in comparison.) American Apparel’s ripostes, which started going up in mid-2000s, depict a girl marooned—almost helpless—in blown-out flash, wearing a leotard or daisy dukes as tight as the typesetting on the logo’s Helvetica Bold.
We are told frankly that American Apparel’s models are recruited from behind the counter—“Rachel works at our Melbourne, Australia store.” This device does double duty: like the gritty photography, it emphasizes the purported realism in the depiction, and this in turn inverts the perception of distance between the consumer and the product. In its time, Calvin Klein always comfortably outpaced its consumers. The look was so perfect and remote that, no matter how much was bought, there was always further to go—in the end you’re still not Kate Moss. Step into an American Apparel store, the idea goes, and you may be in the very presence of the girl who is painted four stories tall across the street. American Apparel posits itself as a participatory enterprise. Their coolness is your own. It’s self-aware but not self-serious.
This populist conceit is also engineered to heighten the brand’s affectation of democracy in images: “these are real people.” The embrace of a variety of skin-colors and body-types is politically correct but their portrayal is racy enough to disperse any whiff of marmishness. As opposed to Benneton’s ads, with its spectrum of carefully spaced-out races, singled out and pure, American Apparel’s genetics are mixed; a maybe-Latin latte color, with its suggestion of sensuality and promise of sincerity. The most significant overlap with brands like Calvin Klein is the fixation on youth, but where teenage supermodels are representative only of unsullied perfection, for American Apparel it is not the appearance of youth that’s exploited, but the captivity of its culture. Rudimentary hipster markers outline the parameters for their diffuse, globalized sense of coolness: M.I.A. on the stereo in stores in Dusseldorf and Denver; their girls spread-eagled on the back of every issue of Vice magazine, free for the taking in all the Williamsburgs of the world.
Calvin Klein’s market-share battles in the eighties and nineties were pitched against giant European conglomerations like Armani and Gucci, whose webs of marques and submarques shoeboxed demographics with the furious multiplication of cellular division. But underlying those brands, bottom to top, was the promise of exclusivity. In an approach that now seems rather primitive, they created desire through the pictorialization of the impossibly lean and the impossibly rich (which culminated, indeed perhaps transcended, its origins in its transformation into heroin chic). Their convergence harnessed the machinery of the fashion industry—which had already achieved an unparalleled collapse of its media’s separation between editorial and commercial interests—to generate images profoundly sensational, each self-similar in mode but different in specific: the rearrangement of component parts. They were tableaux vivants from Thorstein Veblen. Fashion in the eighties fostered aspirational self-satisfaction that reinforced itself through repetition, like a nascent cocaine addiction. Hedonism was invoked with the casual indifference of point-of-purchase: sex itself softened and sublimated but somehow also superfluous. The genius of industry was put in the service of maximizing stimulation, so long as it was not at the expense of cleanliness.
In Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man, Emilio Estevez plays a ne’er-do-well thanklessly mopping floors in a Los Angeles supermarket, in which the stock consists entirely of products in identical generic packaging. A single blue with plain type reading simply BEER or PAPER TOWELS. It’s an environment not only stocked by, but stocked for the bottom-line—a combination of apparently limitless supply and economically irresistible demand. Estevez is, of course, fired, and when he returns home, he opens a blue and white can for dinner. The type on it, blue on white, reads FOOD—MEAT FLAVORED. The movie is full of—and maybe it ought to be said, consists entirely of—ineffectual but impassioned swipes at the society advanced by the values of the American middle class. But behind the punk rock sneer, there is a convincing framing of the petit-bourgeois celebration of convenience as an irreversible process that has pancaked the population to the point of existential evacuation. The movie is haunted by the specter of Reagan, but, as is attested to by its secure place in repertory cinema (it recently played at Lincoln Center), there is something perennial in this image: the somehow perversely-relished plight of the stridently individual among the endlessly generic.
American Apparel’s graphic style subverts that threat of genericism with a densely layered body of cultural symbols. It starts with textbook corporate modernism—Helvetica in tightly gridded layouts—but upends it with its celebration of the amateur. By juxtaposing the aridity of that design with a photographic burlesque it lampoons the affectedness of fashion-imagery without excusing itself from that very pursuit. The oppressiveness of the generic acts a kind of inside joke—the name “American Apparel” fits into the conglomerate template like “General Electric”—by which the corporation seems to pose playfully as the sort of unfeeling capitalist engine that it in fact is.
And as a capitalist engine, American Apparel has stupendous success. Its revenue flow is plugged in to both sides of garment consumption. “Basics” —t-shirts and sweatshirts and all manner of sportswear rendered competently and produced in reliable quantity and variety—make for a consistent and reliable source of wholesale receipts, while a flotilla of retail locations in trendy, young neighborhoods—North Brooklyn, Echo Park in LA, East Austin—establishes a baseline of consumer recognition. Its backend business is not only attached to, but feeds off of, its retail market position. It’s an ambidextrous business model, working in scale (the product reduced to its basic form) and specific (a highly-stylized aesthetic drawn without much original modification from existing sources).
And in terms of stocking the caché in the front window, not enough can be said for the pertinacity for American Apparel’s founder, Dov Charney. His cultivated unscrupulousness fits neatly alongside that of emergent group of gritty fashion photographers: Terry Richardson, Juergen Teller, and Ryan McGinley—all of whom he has employed. They are a generation of photographers who have managed to parlay their self-branding into artistic legitimacy. While others have traversed the border between journalism or fashion and fine art, none had previously done so purely on the basis of their self-presentation. Richardson and Teller and Dash Snow documented dissipation with a do-it-yourself aesthetic (35mm film in cheap point-and-shoot cameras), in which they play fast and loose with tropes of social critique and identity art without being encumbered by any discernible line of argument. At the same time, their embedding of themselves in their subject matter furnishes them with easily digestible celebrity. By aligning his clothing brand with this species of art photography, Charney is able to command credibility in art and consequently high-fashion circles despite his role as little more than a cotton-goods manufacturer.
And just as those photographers create authorial voice through their participation rather than the formal content of their work, Cherney’s actual stylistic devices in the clothing are never are never reducible to a single article—like the blue jean—but rather comprise an entire constellation of period-specific units that act in concert to evoke a particular era. Early designs included mass-marketable products like ringer baseball tees and fleece hoodies to rope in vague recollections of the eighties and nineties; but as the strength of the advertising grew (and the girls started appearing far from their service jobs, all over the world, and rather underdressed for Copenhagen), so did the strength and intensity of the kitsch. The sensuality of the era was no longer conveyed only through the art-direction—navel-tied shirts and omitted bottoms—but in the design itself, with hyper-camped costume pieces drawing on the imagery of vintage pornography. By the middle of the decade, American Apparel was succeeding both as a tee- and sweat-shirts wholesale business, but also and more prominently as a peddler of such retro props as jumpsuits, oversized glasses, and lamé.
Though as a retail practice American Apparel is really only an urban recapitulation of the Gap, its self-presentation is canny enough to win acceptance from the avant-garde fashion set—frequently appearing in editorials in Purple and Self Service layered with Dries van Noten or Martin Margiela. Perhaps this is in part because that set is eager to disavow mainstream European name-brands, which were tainted by their adoption into the lower-middle class (and their layaway monogram bags and Prada flip-flops). Consequently, American Apparel profits from top-tier ready-to-wear markets while posing as a bystander. It employs the very same advertising techniques as its predecessors: images of women are still totems for sex, after all, and the suggestion of honesty (that their women aren’t uniformly white and waiflike) is ultimately token, since Charney’s taste is always ultimately more important than his professed progressiveness (the UK famously banned an ad with a half-naked girl who looked prepubescent). The mainstream futility embodied in the generic product is mined for its discordant resonance in popular culture, and in that role can act as a refutation of the eighties’ false promises of exclusivity, while still essentially serving to market clothing priced at some factor of their more undifferentiated equivalents at Wal-Mart. Some of the t-shirts advocate immigration reform, but the gestures at liberalism go only so far as they don’t interfere with the accretion of revenues.
The stewardship of the brand is as inventive as it is ecumenical. It’s as though the cupboard of the seventies has been dumped on the table, and all of it put to use. Well-done corporate modernism acts as a wink to youth culture, while still pulling on its intrinsic graphic power. It confronts the contradictions of name-brand fashion while profiting abundantly from its techniques. The contrivance—really, the genius—of American Apparel is to have it both ways.