On December 22, 2016, Los Angeles based clothing company American Apparel closed the doors of its London shops for the last time, after filing for bankruptcy for the second time that year in November. The question is why? And also, why should we care?
Well, a little background to American Apparel. It was founded in 1989 by notorious Canadian Dov Charney. It was unique in the contemporary fashion market in that all its garments were, in its own words, ‘designed, cut and sewn in Los Angeles.’ Everything is made in one of their five LA sites: their headquarters share a site with a factory that produces 90,000 t-shirts per day; there are dyeing and finishing, knitting and denim factories, as well as a distribution centre, all based in the same city. Their factory is the largest in North America, employing 4,500 skilled workers. They claim to know about the conditions in their factories because they work there too- everything under one roof. This is radically different to the usual supply chain, which involves hundreds of people based in multiple different factories in cities across the globe, racking up thousands of airmiles before a garment has even reached the shop floor. American Apparel is exactly that- American apparel.
So aside from the obvious environmental benefit of reducing airmiles and emissions that are normally prevalent in the production of a garment (but if you aren’t already sold by that- you really should be!) there is also the huge social benefit. American Apparel’s famous tagline ‘sweatshop free’ sums this up perfectly. Their garment workers are the highest paid in the world, earning as much as $30,000 annually along with healthcare and benefits.
When the question on everyone’s lips is ‘who made my clothes?’ American Apparel know the answer, claiming that there are 83 people involved in the making of a pair of their jeans. This is fast fashion, but not as we know it. There are fair wages for workers, healthcare and other benefits. The environmental stats are good too- they recycle almost all of their manufacturing waste and are virtually landfill free. Solar panels offset as much as 20% of their electoral usages.
Or, they did. Because as of January 2017, American Apparel has started laying off about 2,400 workers in Southern California, and has announced that they will be shutting their US stores by the end of April. This follows the closure of all its UK based stores at the end of December 2016, the culmination of a series of financial troubles that began in 2009 with a run-in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the legal employment status of 1,800 employees. American Apparel had to fire these employees, more than a quarter of its manufacturing workforce. The layoffs caused production delays and a 90 percent year-on-year drop in profits in 2009.
The other factor in American Apparel’s notoriety, and perhaps decline, was Dov Charney himself. He was outspoken on immigration and fair wage issues, but also well known for his overtly sexual behaviour, sexual harassment claims and the oft-criticised, high sexual advertised used in the brand’s campaigns. While American Apparel was being praised for its workers’ rights policies and fair wages, it came under constant scrutiny for its advertising imagery that was considered risqué.
So, why do we care? Well, in today’s fashion industry, when so many conditions facing the workers who make a large percentage of the garments we consume are murky at best, American Apparel was a beacon of hope for those of us concerned with environmental and social sustainability. It was proving that ‘sustainable fashion’, that ambiguous phrase, could be cool, desirable and- maybe even a little too- sexy. It was paving the way by demonstrating that clothes that are made in a fair and conscious way don’t have to cost the same as high-end luxury. As they start closing the doors of more and more of their shops, we will certainly be mourning the loss of this company striving for sustainability.
And what does it mean for the rest of the sustainable fashion industry? Is every ethical brand doomed to a similar fate of bankruptcy?
‘American Apparel is Closing All its US Stores, but At Least There’s a Huge Sale,’ Self, January 17, 2017
‘Bankrupt Retailer American Apparel Begins Laying Off Thousands of Workers,’ Fortune, January 17, 2017
‘Can Paula Schneider Save American Apparel from its Reputation?‘ Elle, July 22, 2015
‘The Rise and Fall of American Apparel,’ Amelia Hill, The Guardian, August 25 2010