The Manufacturer: Why American Apparel Dominates the T-Shirt Market

American Apparel's signature brightly colored t-shirts. Photo: Nardine Saad

Los Angeles was instrumental in the concept of glamour, American Apparel just builds off of that, fashion expert Christina Johnson said.

While Hollywood played the leading role in much of the t-shirt’s history, the downtown-LA based company is launching itself to the forefront of the American fashion stage.

CEO Dov Charney in one of his American Apparel stores. Photo: flickr commons (Creative Commons licensed)

Dov Charney is the company’s notorious founder, who gets a lot of press because of the sexual harassment lawsuits brought by his employees. In the suits, the employees claim that Charney took photos of them in various states of undress to be used for ad campaigns.

Charney, originally from Montreal, went to college in Connecticut and would buy American-made t-shirts to sell to his Canadian friends who wanted in on these American icons.

“It sort of started with an obsession with American culture and the iconic American t-shirt,” said American Apparel marketing specialist Ryan Holiday said. Charney started the company in 1989 and opened the first American Apparel shop in 2003. In 2008, American Apparel’s retail sales reached more than $341 million, increasing 62 percent from the previous year, according to the company’s annual records. There are 143 stores in 11 countries.

“The first reason to buy American Apparel is the clothes are fantastic,” Holiday says.

Holiday shoves open the cage door to an aging elevator in American Apparel’s downtown LA headquarters. Black and white posters of women in leotards and tees line the white service carriage walls. The doors screech open on the seventh floor and Holiday steps out into a hallway leading into American Apparel’s white showroom. Pop music bleats from the speakers throughout the white room and boldly colored garments hang from the white fencelike display walls.

“So the things come in there as yarn they get knitted into fabrics then they get dyed, cut and they come here where they’re sewn,” he says as he breezes through the showroom into the factory. That’s possible because the company is “vertically integrated,” which means the manufacturer is responsible for everything from product development, to knitting the yarn, to sewing and distribution.

“The cycle is all done concurrently and simultaneously,” Holiday says as he waves to a bay of employees constructing and sewing individual pieces of a single garment. “You might hear that a company is working on their fall line in July. Our product development cycle can be as short as a week. So, an idea can go from a concept in someone’s head to something you can purchase in one of our stores in London, or some foreign country, inside a week. And that’s what vertical integration is about.”

Though Hollywood disseminates western notions of dressing worldwide, the t-shirt has become synonymous with LA fashion partially because of American Apparel, Johnson said.

American Apparel catches up with some company patrons at their annual factory sale. Source: AmericanApparelVideo

“American Apparel started…with that very fitted high quality sort of excellent t-shirt and that’s why we’re so successful in the wholesale industry,” Holiday says, almost shouting over the whooshing of the machines. “Screen printers and uniform companies, that’s all they really care about it.”

American Apparel shirts are thinner, more fitted and more expensive than regular tees. Each garment dons a tag declaring it is proudly “Made in Downtown LA,” which simultaneously sets it apart from other manufacturers that outsource their labor and have come under the sweatshop stigma. However, some consumers care about the garment’s durability and affordability before they even consider where the garment is made.

Helena Botros, 24, from Palos Verdes, Calif., said she only buys their t-shirts and tights, but their aesthetic became a turnoff.

“At first I thought I really liked them because of their models. They use real women–everyday people–to do their modeling. But then they crossed the line of social acceptability,” she said. “They don’t really cater to full-figured women, be it above a size 12, if that’s full-figured in our society, so that’s a problem.”

However, she does think their business model is great and gives her a sense of pride.

“I’m a patriot at heart. Having things made here means American jobs, which makes me feel good,” she said. “I like to say things are made in downtown LA.”

The factory boasts more than 5,000 workers at capacity. Holiday said they churn out well over a million products a week. Factory workers are paid $13 to $18 an hour, with health benefits if they are full-time. Many of them are immigrants. When the company is hiring, the line of applicants winds around the building, Holiday said. The company pushes its Legalize LA campaign that calls for immigration reform and employment for undocumented workers. This business model–divergent from most t-shirt retailers that use overseas sweatshops to produce their tees–has gained American Apparel respect in the fashion industry.

“Dov’s here [in the factory]. So, Dov’s walking these floors and seeing what’s being made and if there’s problems or he notices inefficiencies, they’ll get fixed really quickly,” Holiday says as he points out yet another advantage he sees in the vertical integration model.

To American Apparel, it’s about more than the t-shirt, it’s about a proactive lifestyle and it just happened to begin with the beloved garment. In turn, American Apparel clothing appeals to socially conscious consumers. Wearing an American Apparel t-shirt promotes this work ethic in the same manner, albeit more subtle, that a t-shirt printed with Coca-Cola’s logo would promote the soft drink.

“This is a company operated and run from the perspective of the customers who shop there,” Holiday says. Company employees, aside from factory workers, are of a much younger generation, which helps the company be “more in tune with customers,” he says.

Dominique Nottage, a visual merchandiser for Nordstrom, loves that American Apparel offers more than just t-shirt fare, that she can find one item in a variety of colors and that the garments are made in the U.S.

“They are setting the standard for manufacturing American-made apparel. They help to stimulate the economy so I think a lot of manufacturers can learn a lot from them,” she said. “As far as setting the standard for t-shirts, American Apparel offers a lot more in the way of color and the fact that most of their shirts are unisex.”

But some industry veterans are put off by the company’s self-proclaimed edge.

“Their ad campaign is so inappropriate and very sexual,” said Angie Awadalla, a freelance stylist who is an account executive for Sovereign Code, an LA-based apparel company. She believes American Apparel is “overrated.”

“Their stores feel so overwhelming for me. It’s too compact and not very shoppable,” she said. “The way it is merchandised feels very 80s and not modern and trendy.”

Awadalla said she bought an American Apparel shirt once but never wore it. The only positive she sees in the company is that their clothes are made domestically but sometimes that isn’t enough for what she considers a hefty price tag.

“It is important that I have clothes that are made in the US and I own a lot of it,” she said. “However, sometimes it comes down to what an individual can afford. I can go and buy a tank at Forever 21 for $6 versus $19 at American Apparel.”

On the sixth floor of the factory, Holiday speaks above the whooshing sewing machines and the workers’ Spanish chatter. He is wearing faded blue jeans, a purple American Apparel crew-neck tee and sneakers. He says masseuses wander the floors to alleviate the workers’ tension and workers are required to get up and stretch every hour. It’s 79 degrees on the November afternoon and it’s even warmer inside the factory. A cool breeze and natural light pour into the open windows causing little need for extra light–another way the company has cut costs.

While American Apparel manufactures everything from underwear to dresses to head bands, its most popular item is the basic t-shirt.

“American Apparel appeals to so many,” Johnson said. “They’re making a t-shirt sexy. They’re making knitware sexy and something about their publicity campaign definitely has an edgy aesthetic.”

The company’s gritty ads use “real people” as models including company employees and friends rather than professional models. Holiday said they do this because their clothes are meant to look good on “real people,” who are their target consumers, not models.

NEXT: The Printer: Behind the Screens

About the Author

Nardine Saad Nardine Saad is a t-shirt aficionado and has nostalgically hung on to tees dating back to middle school (she usually sleeps in those). Her favorite t-shirts are a loose fitting white tee and one that says "Rock Like An Egyptian." She is a candidate for a master's degree in online journalism at the University of Southern California. These stories comprise her master's thesis project.