My story begins with, not a job application, but a photograph taken of 16 year old me.
It was an average shopping day in the middle of a Texas summer when an employee at American Apparel “liked my look” and asked if they could take my picture. Not only did they like my aesthetic, but also that of my best friend, Perris. Needless to say, such a supreme compliment of our cool-ness made us ecstatic. We immediately went back to Perris’ house to scour the company’s website for inspiration. We analyzed the clothing and models who exhumed all-American-sex and read scandalous stories about the infamous Dov Charney.
What began as my first retail job placed me in the climax of an American epoch. As the 19 year old icon crumbles, I reflect on how it shaped a few formative years of my life which were spent in a sexy, niche, American cult. Many articles have been circulating about why this has happened and who’s to blame, narratives of sexual misconduct and exploitation that shame its founder for both his business shortcomings and his vices. While I agree that these are important topics of discussion, I choose to think back positively on my experience and address the nostalgia many former employees and devout fans are feeling.
This is the end of an era, the loss of an elite culture the public can now only fantasize about.
As you may remember, American Apparel was a little pricey. Prior to employment, our shopping trips had been confined to sale sections and 5-finger-discounts. Once we were hired via phone call 2 weeks later, (the decision based solely on our pictures because they never asked for job experience or anything else of that nature,) we were immediately consumed by the iconic retail culture and with a 50% discount. We were required to wear American Apparel from head to toe, with natural hair and without makeup. We eagerly immersed ourselves into Peter Pan collars, “disco pants,” “basics,” lace, lamé, and the F497, (the famous flex fleece hoodie.) We became fashion statements at our high school, switching from vans to penny loafers complete with white frilled socks. We wore bows in our hair and painted our nails with colors like “Mannequin,” “Downtown L.A,” and the ever popular, “Office.”
This job was like one giant clique with worldwide scope. Every store employee resembled an existing employee or model. (The manager who trained us actually was a prominent online model.) Every employee was connected through the American Apparel intranet, a private portal to cooperate command, merchandising inspiration, and international communication. The local level was saturated with even more unification. Every employee in Austin knew every other employee in Austin and, almost exclusively, socialized with them. Included in the mix were employees from San Antonio and Dallas, and anyone who moved from city to city simply transferred stores.
We all dressed in uniform outside of work and spoke the lingo too (“Neon is Now!”) We joked about our allegiance to Dov, tucked in our shirts, and listened to the same music. VivaRadio, a Brooklyn-based web radio station, was the official music network for American Apparel, playing in every store as well as in our own homes. Eclectic and retro, it was the American Apparel spirit made audible; the DJ’s were our musical counterparts. Sadly, the station’s website no longer works.
My shorts got shorter as my waist line rose; hosiery turned opaque and tops sheer. Visible nipples no longer bothered me. The more I looked like jail bait the more liberated I felt. I had been granted membership in a chic cult at an insecure age of ripe naïvety. My older coworkers were idols and crushes. They were stylish and independent. They spoke of concerts and bills and freedoms Perris and I couldn’t wait to procure for ourselves. Although they may have taken advantage of us and, in the case of my first manager, made us cry, we longed to emulate them and the company’s models by becoming “American Apparel Girls.”
The alumni of our store reside in my heart as fond figures of guidance, love, and good times. (Shout out to Jude, Jess, and Josh!) I eagerly craved their approval and did my best to make them think a 16 year old from suburbia could hang. At my first AA party I slept with my back stock manager. It was a Halloween party and our costumes were strictly and creatively constructed from American Apparel garments. I was a swan.
There was something extremely rewarding about being a part of the fashionably elite. Who cared if we had to do inventory every Sunday until 2 am, sometimes 3? Or that we were required to purchase something every time we failed to make the store’s financial goal? (which was most days.) We were COOL. I didn’t mind working 13+ hours for seasonal “store flip.” At 93 lbs, I graciously did the heavy lifting and display construction; if I ripped my tights the company would replace them. The uniform aesthetic required in every display pleased my perfectionism. It was finger spaced, color ordered, steamed perfection. Store windows became lurid works of art. The mannequins, who were themselves seething with sex, came to life in creative vignettes of fashionable purgatory.
We were young, sexy, well dressed creatures with good taste in music. We became addicts, ravenously fighting over each new style our store received; keeping keen watch on the website for new merchandise. We owned every garment in at least 5 different colors. We smoked cigarettes, (American Spirits of course,) and rolled together to parties and clubs. The underaged girls, which made up a good portion of the female staff, adorned ourselves with heels and fake I.D’s. We met our friends, boyfriends, and drug dealers through the company and my best friend and I got to be even closer; we chatted over the AA intranet during school hours and carpooled to work together until we got our own cars. We then simultaneously took the occupational step from “sales associate” to the even cooler position of “back stock associate.”
I even met Dov. I was told to dress my best that day because he was known to fire girls on the spot for not liking their outfits. He traveled with his possé of braless, bare-faced models. The stories are true, he’s a bizarre dude. He was loud and demanding; bursting with frenetic energy, going on about light fixtures, and making my manager do push ups with him in front of the register. He didn’t fire anyone though, and in fact, took a group picture with us. (It must exist somewhere.)
One of our friends from school wanted in. She tried multiple times to get her picture taken, and when she finally did, was never contacted. (The pictures were judged by the store’s key-holders then sent to corporate for approval.) This was an uncomfortable topic for us and a low blow to her self-esteem. As much as we rooted for her, corporate did not deem her an “American Apparel Girl.” For this Perris and I pranked called Dov Charney. The man had made his phone number very public and we were honestly curious, asking why he seemed to discriminate against blondes. He assured us he didn’t. We hung up giggling each time.
“ I need more drinks and less lights/ and that American Apparel Girl in just tights.”- Kanye West, “Gorgeous” from the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I’m still friends with my favorite former coworkers. There’s an unbreakable bond between us, the kind that comes from being part of the cool-kids-club/retail proletariat. Even though we’ve scattered from coast to coast, we still keep in touch via social media and sometimes visits. The short affair with my older manager was nothing more than a big crush and my first one night stand. The manager/model who trained me was fired for shoplifting panties. The other manager, the one who made me cry, became nicer after quitting and moved to Japan. Everyone seems to have moved on to better things, though still partying and still stylish.
On an average day I’m still covered in a good percentage of American Apparel; sometimes underwear, socks, or shoes, and sometimes everything.
Why did I quit? Eventually the OG’s left and we filtered through employees like the new styles that arrived in impossibly overwhelming shipments. Eventually even my best friend left when she transferred to an AA store in Chicago. And eventually, I did grow tired of the tedious job and became ambivalent towards the company. As you’ve probably already read, it could be a creepy, chaotic place of employment at times. We all put up with ambitious orders, strict “grooming guidelines,” and unnecessary stress. I was only sexually harassed by the costumers though. The store received pervy prank calls every other day and sticky old men asked me to reach for pink panties they could easily reach themselves.
Nonetheless, I’m genuinely saddened at the loss of the one store with classic and logo-free styles, colors I like, and high-waisted pants that fit me. Where will I go for gold lamé now? Knit thigh-highs, simple crop tops, bright chiffon? Velvet scrunchies, vintage watches, and matching fleece hoodies for my dog?
American Apparel should be mourned for its legacy- the provocative American staple of fashion that began as whole sale, 100% cotton t-shirts from the trunk of Charney’s car. The company may have been riddled with scandals and flaws but it also stood by its noble commitment to providing sweatshop-free products constructed by decently paid factory workers in L.A. (They even had a free massage room on one of the floors.) “Legalize Gay” made an important political movement hip, as did the “Make America Gay Again” line produced in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign. American Apparel depended on environmentally friendly practices such as “creative re-use,” the use of organic cotton, and the installment of solar panels. The nail polish was non-toxic and cruelty free. The advertisements were of their own caliber, both nostalgic in their film-snapshot style and borderline pornographic. But they were classically iconic and featured gay, transgender, and plus size models from every racial and cultural background; even mature models like Jacky O’Shaughnessy who modeled lingerie for the company at the age of 62. (I tried to be become a model multiple times but alas, only made it to the company’s Instagram.)
The vertically integrated company granted its employees creativity with fashion and merchandising, imparted room for promotion, and nourished a family-like environment, (incestuous and even pedophilloic, albeit.) Despite some cattiness and imposed clothing addiction, I gained a sense of confidence and camaraderie. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say the AA experience imprinted on my personal aesthetic a lasting hue of classic American-ness that I’ll probably never shake. However, I will never work in retail again.
Suddenly, half my wardrobe is vintage. I realized this while shuffling through the remnants of the store on Guadalupe, depressed by the dilapidation; chaos crowding the floor in unorganized boxes left to the public’s rummaging paws, body suits strewn about. The dressing rooms were overflowing with carelessness, “now 60% off!” The piles of last minute designs were ugly anyway. In those last weeks of existence the employees, who were cooly apathetic to begin with, had become completely cavalier. Goodbye finger-spacing; sayonara structure and all the XS’s. In the store on South Congress I was astonished to see the sales associate wearing vans and a band tee. It was sacrilegious.
Like Dov said, American Apparel is dead. I mourn her death in my black knit dress.