It’s popped up on TikTok, through indie sleaze, a not-quite-happening trend that celebrates indie rock and mid-aughts hipster grime, and by way of Wes Anderson. (His tweeness is now a meme.) It has even penetrated the heights of luxury fashion, where Hedi Slimane, the artistic director of Celine, has sent skinny jeans and fedoras and women with bags in the crooks of the arm down the runways for more than a year now. (It’s especially cute because Slimane was the original architect of the luxury version of this look, at Yves Saint Laurent.) Even J. Crew — which created the first (and, to this day, only) great millennial suit, the skinny Ludlow — had the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform at its New York Fashion Week party last September.
But the real defining fashion statement of that time is one that, until now, has gone under-considered: the long, completely plain jersey T-shirt, made right here in the United States and priced at $28, from a seemingly ubiquitous white box store called American Apparel.
Kate Flannery, who from 2004 to 2008 worked first on the sales floor, then as a hiring manager at American Apparel, paints her career there in “Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles” as a microcosm of the millennial workplace plight: a nebulous role, with extraordinary leeway and a very low salary, at a buzzy, new, boundary-pushing company that has now essentially disappeared.
Like many millennials, she believed in her workplace almost like a religion, looking to her job to provide an almost messianic sense of purpose. (She compares her recruitment to the company to being scouted for a cult.)
But it is also a cautionary tale about the seemingly impossible dream of making clothing in a radical way, or even just ethically — in its production, its design and its marketing. Though allegations about the misconduct of American Apparel’s founder, Dov Charney, were circulating when Flannery first joined the brand, he — and his team, and even, to her surprise, Flannery — painted them as smear campaigns.
American Apparel was a proto-disruptor business. Though it was founded in the late ’80s, its rise and fall is fixed to the mid-aughts, in part because so many young people wore its clothes but also because its radical idea epitomized millennial hopefulness: simple clothes made domestically at affordable prices, marketed through postfeminist sexual freedom.
Charney set up factories in Los Angeles and gave workers who would otherwise find employment in sweatshops a rosier alternative. “We made clothes ethically, at reasonable price points,” Flannery, who still believes in the early promise of the brand, said in an interview. “We treated everyone well. And I think that that system — we proved that it could work.”
Borrowing his shapes from 1970s sportswear, Charney used provocative advertisements to make basics revolutionary. His models — the women who staffed his stores, whom Flannery was charged with finding — posed with come-hither brashness in tube socks with varsity stripes, zip-up hoodies over too-tight and too-short lamé track shorts, and spaghetti-strap skater dresses.
The clothes were jersey, velour, thin cotton, and looked vaguely athletic, though they were easily sleazed up. Its basics formed the foundation of the hipster aesthetic, blending easily into its lifestyle and mythology.
The business was making more than $200 million in revenue by 2005 and went public the following year. But by 2014, Charney had been ousted amid allegations of sexual harassment, and the company was plagued by financial mismanagement, filing for bankruptcy the next year. Gildan now owns the brand, selling a handful of products through Amazon.
Flannery’s special gift was understanding the “American Apparel girl.” Her job, after a few months working retail, was to fly to wherever a store was opening and populate the new location with employees who fit the ideal: “She’s cute, but she’s not trying too hard,” Charney told Flannery. “She’s no beauty queen, but she’s definitely hot.” She is, Charney said, using a word unprintable in a family newspaper, eager. Sexually liberated, casual, and a little retro. Maybe she’s got a visible zit, or big glasses, or looks a little awkward in front of the camera.
When Flannery made her first hire, she recounts in the book, Charney ran around the office brandishing a polaroid of the girl, shaking it in employees’ faces and telling them Flannery had vision.
That may sound more like a man casting a salacious music video or a spread in Hustler magazine than the leader of a groundbreaking fashion company, but that was exactly what made American Apparel so popular. If it were just great shirts and simplistically sexy rompers and coach’s jackets you could scoop up at reasonable prices after class but before a night out at a frat party or concert, it might still be thriving today. (In 2016, Charney bought most of American Apparel’s manufacturing equipment and launched Los Angeles Apparel, though its estimated revenue is small compared with American Apparel’s at its peak. Puck’s Lauren Sherman reported in June that Charney is allegedly working with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, on his clothing brand Yeezy.)
American Apparel courted controversy. First, with those ads, which were often photographed by Charney. “Meet Sophie,” the accompanying text read alongside a woman wearing little clothing; “Now Open” hovered above a model with her legs spread. Flannery recounts that people would often call the store assuming these were ads for an escort service. They were occasionally banned in the United Kingdom. But it was also Charney himself, Flannery writes, and the culture he created: sexually permissive, exploitative, an HR nightmare. He slept with employees, Flannery writes in exorbitant detail — she kept extensive contemporaneous notes, she told me in our interview — and when a fellow employee assaulted her, Charney offered her a raise and a car in exchange for telling the company’s human resources department that she had the situation under control. (Charney did not respond to a request for comment.)
If tech jobs allowed founders — mostly men — to smash up the status quo and reorient the world to their way of thinking, fashion offered megalomania on an even more primal level. Flannery concludes in her book that the entire fashion industry is inherently corrupt in its combination of “capitalism and sexism” that “makes women into objects.” In other words, it thrives on fantasy.
In the realm of luxury, controversy is a part of the package: the racy Helmut Newton photographs and Yves Saint Laurent fragrances with names like Opium of the 1970s and ’80s, and the 1990s heroin-chic phenomenon that colonized runways and advertisements with dazed, too-thin models. Amid #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, luxury fashion photography has become more self-assured, more about product and less about play, and designers seem to work with the goal of thwarting controversy.
In the meantime, mass-market clothing brands have also reoriented themselves around values instead of provocations, putting sustainability or inclusivity at the core of what they do. But when a brand at the scale and accessibility of American Apparel trumpets its ethics, it’s on a much larger stage than that of a European luxury brand, should it fall. And many of them have: There were J. Crew’s pre-pandemic financial struggles and 2020 bankruptcy, recounted in another juicy exposé, Maggie Bullock’s “The Kingdom of Prep,” released in March, and Ye’s short-lived partnership with the Gap, which imploded after a handful of lukewarm products and Ye’s embrace of white supremacy. At the even more accessible end is fast fashion, which began as the notion of cheaply produced clothes that kept up with the drumbeat of the runway and has spun into a parody of itself, with Shein growing unstoppably amid a bevy of controversy.
And perhaps because the clothes are often so straightforward and so widely consumed, people tend to form a deeper connection to these brands than, say, Dior — and therefore the decline of American Apparel or Gap has much larger cultural reverberations.
Looking back at those clothes is to see garments, from production to design, that fit precisely the bill of what shoppers still want. Most consumers younger than 40 say they prioritize sustainability — which is really a gussied-up word for quality, for something you can wear more than once or twice — and the simplicity of the company’s clothing meant that its dresses and leggings became wardrobe staples. Most affordable American fashion businesses seem fixated on iterating on the preppy wardrobe — Aimé Leon Dore, J. Crew, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers — which is simply too fussy to become the everyday basics that consumers seem to crave. Shortly before Gap announced it had poached a new CEO from Mattel’s top brass, the Business of Fashion questioned why shoppers were hunting for classic Gap-style clothes and finding them everywhere but Gap itself. (How the incoming CEO, outgoing Mattel president and COO Richard Dickson, will Barbie-fy the Gap remains to be seen.) As Flannery put it, the premise of American Apparel was that “your clothes become the backdrop and you take center stage.” Will any brand be confident enough to let us dress like ourselves?
What made that era, which spanned roughly 2006 to 2012, unusual was its combination of deep compassion — a primacy on ethics and changing the world through politics, your career or just plain capitalism — and its aesthetic of, well, “sleaze.” American Apparel embodied the moment better than any brand, band or politician could, with its valiant and all-consuming ethical business model advertised through notoriously pornographic photographs of its young staffers. We wanted to live clean and look dirty — or was it the opposite?
A previous version of this article incorrectly said when American Apparel was founded; it was the late ’80s, not the late ’90s. It also said J. Crew filed for bankruptcy before the pandemic; it filed in May 2020. This version has been corrected.