Waking up from the American Apparel dream

american_apparel_priyanka_karthikeyan_file
Priyanka Karthikeyan/File

As every good hipster knows by now, American Apparel is disappearing — the whole company has been acquired, and the Telegraph Avenue location will shut its doors in April. Soon to be gone are the days of a little-bit-out-of your-budget-but-uber-cool-and-super-ethical American born metallic purple leggings and velvet plunge neckline bodysuits so sex laden that your hair frizzes and matts as you struggle into it.

The Los Angeles-based clothing company was purchased by Gildan — a Canadian wholesale t-shirt and underwear manufacturer, or basically the least sexy thing in the world — for $88 million, with an additional $15 million to purchase the remaining merchandise. And you can have a slice of the last of a 19-year-old staple for 40 percent off either in store or online.

Known for producing its clothing in LA warehouses rather than abroad, as is the trend with most in the fast fashion industry, the company allowed its buyers to feel socially conscious as well as cool. It may have even equated the two. But their social justice image didn’t go much deeper than a catalogue — the past years for a company have been rife with sexual assault allegations and settlements involving the CEO and a high-profile mass-firing of immigrant factory workers with questionable papers.

So was it all a dream? Can we really dress cool and feel, like, not shitty about it?

The fast fashion industry — stores such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21, which produce clothes cheaply and quickly — has risen to dominate over the past decade. The brands copy looks seen on the runway and turn them into mass-produced cheap clothing in a matter of weeks. But the efficiency of this process leaves treatment of people and the environment out of the equation.

In 2012, a factory fire at Tazreen Fashions factory, which produces clothes for Walmart, killed 112 people in Bangladesh. In 2013, a Bangladeshi factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring 2,500 more. The building housed five garment factories, including some that produced clothing for the Gap, Walmart and H&M. Minimum wage for Bangladeshi workers is about $68 per month, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Additionally, according to the EPA, about 84 percent of all US clothing is thrown away rather than recycled or reused. Like other organic materials, cotton and wool produce greenhouse gases while they biodegrade. And like other petroleum products, synthetic fabrics just don’t biodegrade — at least not for hundreds of years.

“So was it all a dream? Can we really dress cool and feel, like, not shitty about it?”

But smaller scale businesses are combatting this practice. While working in India, Cambodia and the Philippines, Marisa Heyl was inspired by both the beauty of the textiles women were creating, and the empowerment that employment through artisanship gave the women who made them. With this in mind, she created Symbology — an ethical fashion line with its roots in the artisan fair trade model.

“Symbology is the perfect merging of my two greatest passions — fashion and women’s empowerment,” Heyl said in a text message.

The brand doesn’t want to be be viewed as a charity, but instead a lifestyle change, according to Symbology’s Director of Digital Marketing and Sales Taylor Ready. She said viewing ethical fashion as a “charity act” was an early stage of the industry, which she doesn’t believe is a viable business model in the long run.

“We focus on the women as master craftsman, as opposed to buying something because you feel bad,” Ready said. “These are beautiful clothes made by very talented women.”

Sica Schmitz worked in the fashion and costume design industry her whole career, but after discovering the darker side of the industry, she decided to enter the market of ethical fashion. She opened Bead & Reel, a retail store focused on ethical practices, in 2014.

Bead & Reel supplies clothing from about 60 retailers — most of which have fair trade certification, and those that don’t have signed contracts promising to meet certain ethical standards such being child labor and sweatshop free. But she said it’s harder to find suppliers that meet these standards than one may think. For example, even though clothing may be “made in America,” that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been made in a sweatshop.

“(Sweatshops in LA are) a really big problem actually,” Schmitz said. “I don’t think it’s realistic that a $4 shirt made in LA is not made in a sweatshop.”

She added that it’s important that customers do their research when shopping, because a lot of brands will advertise in ways that make them seem ethical but don’t actually mean anything.

But with clothing, like with most things, higher quality means higher prices, which can be challenging for college students on a budget. And for stores such as these, women in their early 30s with full time jobs are the target demographic, with t-shirts from Bead & Reel costing closer to $50 than $4.

Gabby McNamara, president of ReUSE, a campus materials exchange program, said another way students can be more sustainable in their choices is through thrift shopping.

“I do try to do thrift, I love to do thrift shopping,” McNamara said. “There are quality things there that people have already used, and I feel like I’m putting less strain on the environment and people that are making these clothes for us.”

McNamara suggested online thrift sources such as thredup.com and swap.com, as well as local stores such as Crossroads Trading Company.

“But with clothing, like with most things, higher quality means higher prices, which can be challenging for college students on a budget.”

She added that her dream would be to open a store that recycles fabrics into new clothes, but this is a relatively uncommon practice because it’s expensive and time intensive. She she hopes one day this will become an easier and more widespread practice.

Zha Maloy, fashion director of the Business Careers in Entertainment Club, also recommended thrifting as a way for college students to expand their closets while maintaining their budget. She said she keeps her closet filled with durable basics which she accessorizes — “coats and shoes make the outfit.”

Bead & Reel also has a section on their website for reused free trade clothing. Schmitz added that shopping ethically doesn’t have to mean changing completely overnight, and instead you can buy a couple of fair trade pieces and build up a new closet over time.

One of the mantras of the ethical fashion industry is “buy less and buy love,” according to Schmitz, and she said she herself has changed her shopping model so that she buys one $100 shirt that she would want to wear three times a week instead of 10 $10 shirts.

Stores like H&M may be making strides towards more ethical models — H&M has a Conscious Collection which aims to recycle clothing. And Levi Strauss has committed to using less water during their production.

So maybe millennials have been pressuring these big business after all — according to Schmitz, at the end of the day, retailers want to sell what people want to buy.

“I have a lot of really loyal customers, I think more and more people are … into (sustainable fashion),” Schmitz said. “Customers have the power in the end, fashion brands are gonna start doing that.”

 

Contact Pressly Pratt at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article misspelled Sica Schmitz’s name.

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  • Thanks for this. It’s so true that just b/c something is made in the USA, doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in sweatshop conditions. I’ve been to many garment factories in NYC and many are really terrible places. I’ll be sharing this with my friends/followers!

  • ShadrachSmith

    Hipster fashion is the latest name for the ancient American custom of young adults expressing their independence by dressing in ways that annoy their parents. Hipster=Callow, really.

  • Matthew James Boelk

    http://www.groceriesapparel.com – has a great selection of All organic and made in USA basics, for any Bears with a hole in their heart. You can also visit our Factory in LA!