American Apparel

The proudly American brand specialises in basics that aren’t made for basics

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg

I had the opportunity of hosting American Apparel’s Sr. Third Party Sales Manager/Buyer, Adam Kalnin, when he was in South Africa at the beginning of the year.

Along with a hangover straight out the Old Testament, hanging with Adam resulted in so much knowledge that for a minute I thought he worked PR for AA. I decided to document our evening's chat so that I could hand in the slips and write off our evening as “work”. 

So why was I having so much fun with a Sr. Third Party Sales Manager/Buyer? Well prior to joining the company four years earlier, Adam worked as a professional dancer and performer (and has the legs to prove it). From Broadway to pop music tours, to a few shows that are probably on your hard drive right now, the guy has thrown shapes all over the world. 

Why’s this worth a mention? Because it’s a reflection of American Apparel’s hiring policy and how they’re famous for doing things a little bit differently. How the brand would, say, take a chance on someone with no real prior experience but based on his tenacity, self-discipline and eclectic knowledge of world trends, decide that he’s the best man for the job.

“Although the transition from dancer to sales seems a bit extreme, it was actually very natural. I had developed social and presentation skills from performing that worked great in an office environment.” 

There’s a reason why these basics cost more than you might be used to paying. With a business model and company principles that are something of a rarity in the industry, everything is made at the American Apparel factory in downtown Los Angeles, which pays a living dollar wage and offers healthcare and steady employment. 

In fact, garment workers at American Apparel are paid up to 50 times more than the competition. Where a garment worker in Bangladesh earns around $600 a year, an experienced American Apparel garment worker can earn $30k+ with full benefits. The company claims that their employees don’t have jobs, they have careers; and coined the term “Sweatshop-Free” in 2002.

“Decisions are based on longevity and creative integrity rather than just turning a quick profit. We’re not afraid to do things differently; we embrace it.”

Case in point the company’s Vertical Integration Model, which is efficient, sustainable and makes sense for the brand’s “Made in the USA” tagline. By leveraging art, design and technology at the Downtown LA campus, the brand is able to pay garment workers fairly and sell garments profitably so they can maintain their business and grow.

But come on, did I honestly spend a night on the tiles with an American Apparel employee without discussing the brand’s very sexy, un-airbrushed aesthetic? Of course I didn’t. We discussed it all, extensively, along with some other stuff that you might know about, but was definitely off the record.

“We’ve always believed in presenting a realistic representation of our products. Our models are typically friends, employees and customers of the company. I think other brands feel a bit more pressure to be ‘real’ lately, but there is still a lot of progress to be made. Our customers appreciate this aesthetic and have come to expect it from us.”

Yes there’s some infamy surrounding AA, but what can’t be denied is that it’s the largest sewing facility in North America, paying garment workers fairly and turning out quality clothing.

So what’s the trick? How did American Apparel build such a powerhouse brand based on raglan shirts and bodysuits?

“Connecting with consumers and forming a relationship with them in order to gain and retain their loyalty. When you’ve achieved this, you can better understand their inclinations meaning branding, sales and authenticity come naturally.”

Need more convincing? Check out the story behind some of America Apparel's NSFW imagery, here