The Anti-Brand

Che lives! American Apparel is not your average T-shirt
Posted December 4, 2006

American Apparel doesn’t believe in chain retail. It doesn’t splash its logo across the clothing it sells. And it prefers under-the-radar neighborhoods to Fashion Mall U.S.A. And yet, American Apparel is one of the hottest brands in town.

In less than three years, the company has opened more than 150 stores throughout the country. Fifteen are in New York (11 in Manhattan, four in Brooklyn). The latest one was unveiled in November in the Flatiron District.

That’s a long way from its wholesale beginnings, when founder Dov Charney started a vertically integrated clothing manufacturing company in Los Angeles.

American Apparel sells classic T-shirts in fitted and updated styles, such as “Baby” and “Cap Sleeve,” in a rainbow of colors. (A unisex baby rib short sleeve T-shirt runs $16, and without the sweatshop labor some manufacturers employ.) The line also includes tanks, dresses, knit pants, undergarments and accessories for men, women, children, babies and even dogs. And from the beginning, Charney has woven a kind of 1960s social consciousness into his venture.

Everything, from cutting to sewing to marketing, is done inside the company’s 800,000-square foot headquarters. While outfitting hipsters in fashionable comfortwear, Charney also wants to prove that garment manufacturing can be a profitable and a fair-labor enterprise on American soil.

Three years ago, the manufacturer began dipping its big toe into retail. The first two stores were in untraditional retail neighborhoods – Echo Park in Los Angeles and near New York University. The locations gave the company time to experiment with how to sell directly to the people who would be wearing its wares rather than the screen printers who would decorate them and resell them for $30 on the streets or in boutiques.

The bright, clean and modern spaces that showcased the product also showcased the message. Furniture and decorative items were sourced locally on a store-by-store basis. Colorful graphics were more likely to depict employees imparting the sweatshop-free message or rallying for immigration rights than Abercrombie-type models showing the latest wares (and their abs).

“The early store concept was as much about introducing consumers to the T-shirts as it was showing them the quality of the garment,” says Jordan Parnass, principal of Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture (JPDA, Brooklyn, N.Y.), which designs all American Apparel stores. “We were appealing to them intellectually as well as in a really tactile way.”

In a world where retailers are eager to brand clothing, store environments, even stairways, American Apparel stands apart as the anti-brand. The company feels its target audience – young, urban, educated individuals – rejects being a walking billboard for brands and responds to its anti-cookie-cutter approach.

As American Apparel’s message spread, designers began transforming the stores into places where people could shop and still feel connected to their communities. “We’re not a big chain like The Gap that’s going to drop an identical store everywhere,” says Parnass, whose firm has many liberties in designing for American Apparel, in part based on his 37-year friendship with the founder. “Each store has its own personality, one that connects people to their neighborhood.”

Since American Apparel feels its store locations say as much about the brand as its clothing does, designers scout new cities by looking to where the artists, kids and musicians are hanging out. More often than not, it leads them to transitional or up-and-coming neighborhoods where American Apparel’s bright lightbox is often the first to open its doors in many years.

In Park Slope in Brooklyn, American Apparel converted a former movie theater (the Flatbush Pavilion, which opened as the Bunny Theatre in 1912) into a 5000-square-foot store complete with a live studio for Viva Radio (an Internet radio station underwritten by American Apparel) and a performance stage. In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, the retailer occupies a garage and auto body repair shop turned retail space that retains much of its former industrial character. Two large aluminum and glass roll doors open the storefront to the sidewalk.

The upcoming Manhattan store, at Fifth Avenue and 19th Street near Union Square, is in a former military surplus store, where the windows had been boarded up. “We waited a number of years before getting our feet wet on Fifth Avenue,” says Parnass. “But we felt like if we were going to do it, this was the location that spoke the message Charney was trying to bring.”

Once a site has been identified, how do designers approach the store design, since each location is treated as a blank new slate?

Miguel McKelvey, designer and project manager for JPDA, says it’s a balance between expressing the brand’s attitude and letting the regional flavor shine through.

“As much as we’re creating modern, elegant and bright new spaces, we’re also trying to play up the building’s character that already exists,” says McKelvey.

For example, designers preserved the pressed tin ceiling that was discovered underneath an acoustical drop ceiling at the Park Slope store. The former theater’s marquee was also upgraded with colorful lighting, giving new life to the historic signage and to the neighborhood itself.

McKelvey says that while most retailers might square off a diagonal angle inside a store so that it conforms to a design standard, he’ll play up the strange diagonal to add visual interest.

To support that free-form style, designers continue to experiment with all aspects of store design. For the fixturing, they’ve used white millwork display cubes, horizontal ribbon walls and gridwall. One display staple is a pipe and fittings system called Speed-Rail by Hollaender Mfg. (Cincinnati). “It allows us to do a lot of different things and fit into a lot of spaces that otherwise could be problematic,” says McKelvey.

But even when designers find a useful product, they’re still not likely to use it the same way from store to store. American Apparel is now experimenting with powdercoating techniques for the Speed-Rail and adding edgelit T5 fluorescents to the display units.

Lighting gets both a functional and fun treatment, such as the decorative colored fluorescent triangles that hang underneath the exterior marquee and adorn the ceiling at Park Slope. Inside, a combination of different lamps creates the bright store aesthetic.

Beneath shoppers’ feet, the company has experimented with everything from white and colored epoxy to multi-colored sheet vinyl. At the new Carroll Gardens location in Brooklyn, designers chose bamboo flooring to create a warmer and more residential feeling.

“It goes back to this idea that we’re constantly trying to create a store that’s not exactly the same as the one we made before,” says McKelvey.

While American Apparel would love to change the world, it’s currently content to turn it on its side and raise people’s expectations of what a retailer can do – whether it’s transforming blighted neighborhoods into viable retail centers or paying a living wage to garment workers in America.


Client: American Apparel, Los Angeles

Design/Architecture: Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, Brooklyn, N.Y. - Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, Brooklyn, N.Y. - Jordan Parnass, principal; Darrick Borowski, designer, project manager; Miguel McKelvey, designer, project manager; Dana Jaasund, designer, project manager; Tobias Koch, designer, project manager

General Contractors: S+P Design and Developer, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Carroll Gardens store); Supreme Construction, Staten Island, N.Y. (Williamsburg and Park Slope stores)

Outside Design Consultant: PI Mechanical, New York, N.Y. (MEP consultant)

Fixtures: Hollaender Mfg., Cincinnati; MFried, Brooklyn, N.Y.; AFL Display Group, Concord, Ont.

Flooring: D&M Bamboo Flooring Co., Roselle, Ill.

Lighting: Specialty Lighting Group, Hoboken, N.J.

Mannequins/Forms: MFried, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Signage/Graphics: Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, Brooklyn, N.Y.; American Apparel, Los Angeles

Exterior Sign: Mandeville Sign Inc., Lincoln, R.I.

Photography: ©Frank Oudeman 2006, Frank Oudeman, Brooklyn, N.Y.