RIP American Apparel, May Your Sexy Staples Never Be Forgotten
In January, American Apparel, the ubiquitous purveyor of sexy staples and racy billboards, announced that it was closing. After years of rumored insolvency, I should have expected the news, but like a kid born into a bad marriage, the company’s constant turbulence had inured me to any terminal threat. Its clothes fill half my wardrobe, from the side-boob-revealing dress I wore this past New Year’s Eve to the pit-stained white-tee I keep intending to treat with cream of tartar. I only accepted the gravity of the situation when my then-boyfriend forwarded me an email from their customer service team with the subject line “Your Remaining Order Has Been Cancelled.” Due to limited quantities, the knee-high socks he had ordered for me would not be arriving.
Mourning a clothing store best known for plain t-shirts and hoodies may seem, well, basic, but it’s precisely American Apparel’s unremarkable sensibility that always appealed to me. Growing up in rural Arkansas, I was from a young age self-conscious of my family’s lack of money, which was telegraphed to neighbors by our dilapidated trailer house and the stockpile of broken-down cars sitting in front. When I was eight, my second-grade teacher pulled me aside and asked what sizes I wore; two weeks later I came home with a large plastic bag full of brand new clothes. Her charity was an embarrassment, as well a revelation: If my clothes had betrayed my background, they could also obscure it. On the bus, I looked out the window, refusing to acknowledge the bag beside me, but when I got off, I tore it open before reaching our front porch. Inside I found a pair of khaki chinos and plain white sneakers. There were other items, too, but it’s the two most banal I remember.
By the time I was in high school, I spent most of the money I earned as a grocery clerk on generic items like the ones my teacher had gifted me. Gap, Target, and Old Navy were affordable favorites; yoga pants, jeans, and t-shirts were my uniform. When friends recall the sartorial experiments they conducted in an effort to differentiate themselves from the rest of their classmates, I struggle to relate. For me, self-definition took the shape of aesthetic conformity. The summer before my freshman year of college, I splurged on a dark teal Patagonia fleece in anticipation of my first New England fall and was delighted when I arrived on campus and spotted a dozen other young women wearing the same one.
I discovered American Apparel at age twenty. The brand appealed to me for one powerful reason: I started having sex. Or, at least, I began thinking about sex more and wanting to be sexy. I’d been raised a Jehovah’s Witness and reared on the words of Saint Timothy—“women should adorn themselves with modesty and soundness of mind, not with styles of hair braiding and gold or pearls or very expensive garb”—an admonition that, according to my mother, precluded (among other things) skinny jeans, tank tops, and any skirt that fell above the knee. When I left the religion at the age of sixteen, the prospect of dressing for male attention was nothing short of thrilling.
In American Apparel I found an ideal combination of conventionality and provocation. The brand was notorious for its controversial NSFW ad campaigns, which made explicit what other mainstream brands only implied. Topless young women, ass up, touched themselves under their hip-hugger panties or clawed at a man’s boxer briefs while staring into the camera. At one point, the company began shooting actual porn stars. Sasha Grey appeared in a 2009 ad entirely nude, save for a pair of thigh-high ribbed socks. Adult actress Jessie Andrews worked as an American Apparel clerk and model before segueing into harder stuff. Her trajectory was perfectly logical: What could be more in the spirit of American Apparel’s clothing than to take it off entirely?
Throughout the seasons, American Apparel trafficked in variations of the same: t-shirts, bodysuits, pleated schoolgirl minis. Some of the ads have the candid quality of a Polaroid, others the studiously vintage look of the sort of golden-lit magazine cover that makes me crave a splash of freckles and a smear of coral lipstick. It’s hard to distinguish one shot in 2004 from another photographed ten years later—though perhaps a bit easier to identify those created after 2014, when Dov Charney, the company’s founder, was ousted as its CEO following a string of sexual harassment lawsuits. (Hint: There’s a lot less nipple.) The ad copy usually appeared in close-set Helvetica font: “Skirts and Sweaters,” “Sweaters and Jeans,” “Crop Tops!” American Apparel trademarked “Pantytime.” It was always Pantytime.
This unwavering vision reinforced the brand’s basic niche but also projected a certain conception of sexiness that drew its inspiration from the 70s. It’s no coincidence that my reliance on American Apparel peaked the same year I dated a string of men belonging, like Charney, to Gen X—a cohort that, as one of my boyfriends broadly defined it, came of age after the baby boomers but, crucially, before porn arrived on the Internet. For them, the Photoshop-free sight of pubic hair, small tits, and full-coverage underwear—all hallmarks of the AA aesthetic—weren’t so much “alt” as a lo-fi ideal. Counting two of these attributes as natural advantages, I was happy to purchase the third.
Perhaps the men I was with didn’t understand this, but American Apparel capitalized on it, and herein lay its broader appeal: American Apparel did not merely normalize hypersexuality—it made convention and kink look strikingly similar. The brand’s invitation to naughtiness perfectly fit what the Slovenian philosopher Slovaj Zizek has called the New Age’s “superego injunction.” to “have a good time.” Whereas we once repressed our libidinal desires, now we feel compelled to display them. This is less of a choice than command, as advertising slogans remind us: Be happy, be sexy. The hot pants that, to my teenaged self, promised liberation now risk feeling obligatory, and it’s hard to say why I’m wearing them: For the pleasure or the grade?
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I’m afraid the answer might be the latter. While many will remember American Apparel’s ads for their sexiness, I can’t help but look and see a standard. In one, a girl wearing hot pink leggings and a nude bra sits, legs in the air, looking flirtatiously over her shoulder. The photo is multiplied, so 15 of them stare at me. It's a racy image, but like the Rockettes or Warhol’s soup cans, the power is in the pattern. I wish to believe attraction is conditioned on specificity, but I still itch to pull on a matching pair of nylons and slide into a box beside her.
Apparently, not enough people share my impulse. While Charney has blamed American Apparel’s failure on corporate malfeasance, it’s hard to say if he’s right. Apart from the short-lived normcore trend, genericism as an aesthetic is out, or at least, it’s been consolidated at Uniqlo and infused with magical sweat-wicking properties. Perhaps I’ll shop there once American Apparel has breathed its last, or I’ll start dressing like a so-called hipster. (What, after all, is more middle class than the narcissism of minor differences?) After sending a steady flow of emails advertising their site-wide sale, the company announced this week would be the last to purchase its clothes online. I’ve already stocked up: In the last month alone, I ordered several items at a deep discount, including a cheetah print bikini, a jacquard tube dress, and a second pair of booty shorts in a lighter wash. Their denim is surprisingly durable–thick, heavy, uncompromised by stretch. I suspect they'll last for a very long time. My only option is to outgrow them.