Can American Apparel replace the Gap?

The language of style.
March 14 2007 7:23 AM

American Apparel Goes Global

Can the sexed-up brand replace the Gap?

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Finally—and this is where Endeavor may be in the money—there is the boring but reliable and even patriotic purveyor of wardrobe basics as luxury objects. (See: the Fine Jersey Short Sleeve T, available in 30 colors, for men and women ($15); the Fine Jersey Short Sleeve Leisure Shirt, in 37 colors, for men ($32); and the Unisex California Fleece Zip Hoody, in nine colors ($41).) Here, the hems are all straight. The zippers work. The cuts are good, if not perfect. The collar of the Short Sleeve Leisure Shirt is just the right length (i.e. longer and leaner than it would have been on a comparable shirt in the '90s). The short sleeves are longer and narrower, too. Most importantly, the shirt is cut slim in the shoulders and around the rib cage—but subtly, so as to avoid looking too "gay" (= skintight).

Whether American Apparel pays Endeavor's bills would seem to depend on how many people are willing to shell out $41 for a sweatshirt. On the one hand, a $41 sweatshirt might prove too expensive to become a staple. On the other hand, it might prove just expensive enough to forge a nifty profit.

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The answer comes down in part to how much more consumers are willing to pay for a piece of clothing simply because it was made in the USA. Just the other day, I bought a perfectly functional white cotton hoodie at Target for $12.95 (reduced from $17). It was made in China. No doubt my purchase helped finance another outsourced manufacturing job whose conditions and salary were substandard. But isn't it also possible that some poor Chinese person would have been even poorer without the job? What's more, I was secretly tickled to be succeeding at what all consumers are taught to do—namely, get a bargain. I wonder how many others who bought the same sweatshirt felt just like me.

In the end, American Apparel may be best summed up by its skivvies. Underwear of all sorts appears prominently in the company's ads. But $12—the price of the Baby Rib Men's Brief—is a lot to pay for a single pair of shorts when you can get a three-pack of Hanes for 10 bucks. The BRMB comes in 30 colors, including three shades of pink alone (fuchsia, pink, and fluorescent pink). How many men actually wear pink underwear? Sales stats—even if they were available—would be misleading, as anecdotal evidence suggests that females may be the biggest purchasers of the BRMB, its genital pouch notwithstanding. A young woman friend recently reported that the BRMB is the perfect pair of underpants to put on when you "have your period or just want to climb into bed and vegetate." It's also cool in the our-generation-is-so-past-gender way that American Apparel "does" cool.

Still, it's hard to believe that an empire can be made out of cross-dressing women. Moreover, underwear, even when worn by the highly promiscuous, makes a poor advertisement for the brand. It's American Apparel's all-American basics, not its androgynous underthings, that could slingshot the company to massive retail success. Which may make this the one case in which less sex sells.

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