There's one aspect lost in the business press when accounting for American Apparel's virtues and vices, Charney's pros and cons, and the general state of fashion affairs: And that is looking at the clothing itself. Visiting American Apparel stores, and navigating its online shopping site, I found a brand in a state of confusion. Charney, who recently declared that the "hipster is over," is embracing a contemporary version of the Preppy Handbook look. This means librarian cardigans, button-down shirts and high-waisted stretch riding pants that could potentially be the most unflattering cut ever for any woman under 5 foot 8 and over a size 4. For now, the most unflattering pants are American Apparel's pale-mint high-waisted-and, tragically, pleated-linen trousers, which, at $79 (Canadian), are also too expensive for their flimsy quality. As analyst Nikoleta Panteva says, with so much choice everywhere, from the Gap to H&M, "Consumers aren't willing to spend the extra dollar on basic apparel." No matter the admirable sweatshop-free mores.
Preppy positioning aside, the stores contain an awkward conflation of fashion, including the kind of vintage poly-acrylic-blend sweaters you'd find at a church jumble (but for $2 instead of $49), hot pink nylon lace thong bodysuits and unitards (not only NSFW but not suitable for cellulite), black '80s-style sheer collared blouses and the Sesame Street kids' collection, all under the same roof as incidental copies of Butt, the explicit gay magazine.
On the afternoons I visited five of the Toronto shops, roughly 85% of the staff had eerily the same look, the kind described by Gawker.com. They are mainly young Caucasian or Asian women with long hair, slender frames, minimal makeup and "natural" eyebrows. Charney apparently prefers the Brooke Shields eyebrow to a thinned one. I did see a few shorter hairstyles and some male staff, who all had the puppy-dog look of Kurt Hummel from Glee. The customer service, I must say, was attentive.
Even after AA posted its rebuttal to Gawker, stating that it does not hire on the basis of "beauty," but rather wants to ensure that its staff has a sense of style that meshes with the brand (a sensible point), Gawker published another in a series of anonymous posts, this time from an L.A. woman: "A week ago I had an interview at AA in their downtown headquarters for an office admin position. First of all, the guy who interviewed me only asked me 4 questions, one of which was 'What are some of your favorite blogs?'…Then he says he's taking me upstairs for a test, which I assume is a computer literacy test and pretty standard for most office/admin positions. So I get up there, and it's the area they have photoshoots....The test they gave me was putting on their ugly clothes and doing an impromptu photoshoot!"
Perhaps the thing about Charney and the rare few freewheeling creative types like him in serious business is that they are neither the good guys nor the bad. Instead, they walk the chalk line in between, determined to follow the single-minded pursuit of their aesthetic ideas. Whatever it takes, no matter the financial woes, come what may.
The final nail in the coffin for American Apparel may be that its distracted genius founder forgot about fashion. Hipster is over. But Dov Charney's not gone yet.
A FINISHING SCHOOL FOR PRACTIONERS OF POPULAR CULTURE? It's the mid-1980s. At the highly regarded St. George's School of Montreal, Dov Charney's circle of friends is listening to Madness, rocking the Rude Boy look and honing an inimitable creativity that they will soon unleash on an unsuspecting world. "We were the party," says class of '86 friend James Di Salvio, who made his name by founding the Montreal musical collective Bran Van 3000. Their independent private school began life in 1930 and developed into an avant-garde, liberal institution challenging conventional thinking (sound familiar, Dov?). A short list of St. George's notable alumni suggests its curriculum prepares students particularly well for careers in entertainment and media.
Stephen Bronfman President and CEO of Claridge SRB Investments and would-be hockey-team owner (see page 76)
Corey Hart 1980s pop star whose string of hits included Sunglasses at Night
Naomi Klein Mega-selling activist author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, and a contemporary of Dov Charney's
Shawn Levy Hollywood director of Cineplex-ruling comedies Big Fat Liar, Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen, Date Night and both Night at the Museum movies
Kevin O'Leary Entrepreneur and, on CBC's Dragons' Den, TV's most ruthlessly money-minded investor
Jordan Parnass Dov Charney's BFF and founder of Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, an award-winning Brooklyn-based practice combining architecture, digital media and branding design
Jody Quon Creative director of W magazine in New York
Nikki Yanofsky Jazz singer and voice of the Vancouver Olympic anthem I Believe