By: Sara Bastian
Photos by: Isabel Lord
On October 5th, 2015, we saw a prominent player in the fashion industry – which defined an avant-garde era of unapologetic, loud bodysuits and disco pants – collapse. Put in less melodramatic terms, American Apparel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Why were we surprised to hear such news, though, when its overpriced, unvarying inventory often rubbed us the wrong way and made any purchase difficult to swallow? In the specific sector of the fashion industry targeted to the teenage and twenty-somethings’ demographic, there is a new wind blowing – an inevitable transformation in the modus operandi of this fashion branch – and it is knocking down companies like American Apparel, which functions through traditional operation and cannot continue standing on its two feet.
Priding itself on its anti-establishment attitude, American Apparel has offered trendy, youthful clothing since 1997, distinguishing itself particularly from other competitors through manufacturing solely in the US. American Apparel’s website boasts, “We believe that integrating our manufacturing, distribution and creative processes keeps our company more efﬁcient than those who rely on offshore or onshore sub-contracting.” This statement is idealistic and innovative in theory, but when all was said and done, the business failed to harness the beneficial convenience of domestic production as its manufacture was just as efficient and slow as companies who outsource (such as Gap, which has also been struggling to yield sufficient profits).
A few rough patches in the company’s history have also played a role in its recent unpopularity. The sexual harassment scandal surrounding the founder, Dov Charney, began to deface its image. Many more reports of his sleazy behavior (note his aberrant philosophy to hold meetings wearing only a thong) contribute to the negative, ambivalent public opinion of the business. Such misconduct automatically led to the questioning of the company’s ethical and principled “mission” to manufacture in the US. From his humble beginnings pioneering American Apparel, Charney possesses the responsibility to represent the company and uphold its reputation. It is merely in our human nature to see his actions as a direct reflection of the fashion line and its principles.
The obvious problem stems from the dominating success of “fast fashion” stores – including Zara, Forever 21, and H&M. Most of American Apparel’s decline originates from their standard business plan: to supply people with the same, classic looks. The crashing company fails to generate new inventory at the speed of Forever 21 and the like; its rigid stock tires, unable to hold onto the interest of its clientele.
Why is fast fashion so successful? Psychological research has found that part of the explanation is due to neurological activity. The low cost of the apparel induces a pleasure in the brain. Scott Rick, one of the researchers on this study and a professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan, says, “It seemed to be responsive not necessarily to price alone, or how much I like it, but that comparison of the two: how much I like it compared to what you charge me for it.” The experience of seeing an item that is appealing and a good bargain makes shopping enjoyable and provides the feeling of a successful experience. “Part of the joy you get from shopping is not just that you bought something that you really like and you’re going to use, but also that you got a good deal,” says Tom Meyvis, an expert in consumer psychology. Fast Fashion sparks this process. H&M and Forever 21 get shipments of new clothes every day, and Zara receives shipments of new inventory every two weeks. By constantly changing their merchandise, fast fashion shops dominate the attention of the customer, who feeds off of new options.
The question we then turn to is whether American Apparel and similar stores compete with fast fashion stores. As the technological advances of phones, computers, and new devices make simple daily activities easier and more enjoyable, we live in a rapidly progressing society that inadvertently trains our generation, American Apparel’s demographic, to constantly expect new versions and variations, and to become too easily bored by the same. Will American Apparel be left behind by a generation that is becoming increasingly less interested with its standard ideology? Top executives dismiss this imminent reality, as it vies to remain relevant with the converted consumer by conforming to fast fashion’s practice to produce more styles under short and frequent time spans.