American Apparel is back. The brand that spawned myriad copies of its hooded tops with contrasting pull cords in the 00s before exiting the high street after much fanfare and a high-profile bankruptcy in 2016, became available again online in the UK this week.
The US retailer has weathered a well publicised storm over the past three years, which included the departure of founder and CEO, Dov Charney, and mass redundancies, followed by large-scale protests by its former workers. Now, after a reboot by its new owners, Gildan Activewear Inc, the Canadian-American manufacturers that bought the company for $88m (£62.5m) in 2017, the company is aiming to reclaim its title as the go-to retailer for the best basics, says brand marketing director Sabina Weber.
“We didn’t take the approach of saying, ‘this is a new brand’, we took the approach of: ‘this is a brand that is deeply loved and made some mistakes and there are lessons to be learned’.”
The new team has brought back a lot of American Apparel’s signature products, including the same branding, street-cast campaigns and items such as bodysuits, disco pants and athleisure jersey basics. The highly sexualised image it cultivated in the latter Charney years, however, is not the epoch Weber and her team wants to resurrect.
“We went back through the archive and it’s very clear where the ads and images were working, and where they just become completely unacceptable. Especially as a woman, I look at those images and I cringe.”
It wants to revert to its early image of a cool and inclusive label. “What the brand stood for prior to it becoming overly sexualised and uncomfortable was actually at the forefront of what’s happening now,” says Weber. “Using real girls, showing diversity, fighting for immigration and standing for LGBTQs was being done by American Apparel long before anyone else figured out that there was a commercial value there.”
Its first campaign under Gildan still shows American Apparel as a “sexy brand”, says Weber, but an engaging and fun one too, featuring people of all groups and backgrounds. “It was challenging to come back as a sexy brand and say, ‘we’re staying sexy’, because there’s nothing wrong with being sexy – it’s just how you do sexy. It [now] comes from an empowered perspective and you’ll see that in our images and the stories that we tell about people we use. It doesn’t just apply to our women, it applies to our guys too.”
One big change is the Made in the USA tag. Its commitment to producing all of its collections in downtown LA factories – Charney refused to outsource from the US – defined its former incarnation. Now, the brand splits manufacturing between its own factories in Central America and Gilden-approved vendors governed by its Genuine Responsibility programme around the world, including Mexico and China.
“Our customer has never really cared about the ‘American’ in American Apparel because it was made in America. They’ve always cared about American Apparel because it stands for certain values of authenticity, diversity and ethical manufacturing and we keep all of those values now, even though we are not necessarily made in the US,” says Silvia Mazzucchelli, vice-president, direct to consumer.
On its website, its Made in USA Shop allows customers to choose between the “designed and sewn in the USA” version of eight popular styles and its “globally made twin”. The signage says, “Both are sweatshop free, identical in quality, different in price. We are… ethically made regardless of the location. You decide.” Its signature Flex Fleece Zip Hoodie is £44 and £34 respectively.
“The goal of this page was to be transparent about where our product was made and to give the customer a choice,” says Mazzucchelli.
The company is championing a digital-first approach. At one point, it had 260 shops in 19 countries around the world, including the UK. Now, it has an online-only presence, with its first new shop slated to open in LA at the end of 2018.
“Obviously there is plenty of competition out there,” adds Mazzucchelli, “but the unique thing about American Apparel is that it has always stood for timeless fashion basics.”