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American Apparel selling to subcultures

I spend an enormous amount of time looking at American Apparel’s website.

I’ve never bought a shirt from them. I would never be able to fit into their oppressively skinny jeans and I don’t have that certain waifish look all their models seem to wear effortlessly. I mostly dress like someone who might have tried out for Soundgarden in 1994.

However, there’s something fascinating about the company and all it stands for. American Apparel has become something of a punching bag on the web, standing in as the go-to hipster apparel zinger for understandable reasons. The female models look vaguely like underfed ghouls and pants cost upwards of $100. That’s apparently what you have to pay to go logo-free.

My fascination goes beyond that, though. More than any other company, American Apparel has actively tried to court the counterculture as if it were a demographic. All this is the brainchild of founder/svengali Dov Charney. Charney turned a sweat shop-free clothing outlet into a more than $250 million a year business, marketing almost solely to hip urban 20-somethings.

That being said, Charney is something like the second grossest man on the planet. In a 2005 profile with Business Week, Charney admitted to freely having consensual sex with employees as a way to put them on the inside track, going to meetings pants-less as a means of intimidation, being in the middle of three sexual harassment suits from former employees, regularly posting Penthouse pages on the walls of AA’s offices and at one point began, uh, pleasuring himself during an interview.

Certainly, his antics behind the scenes have made him an icon in the millennial business age, but more than anything else, I think Charney represents a certain something about marketing in the new millennium.

Once upon a time, advertising was about hitting the most people that would possibly want to buy your product. In “Mad Men,” marketing genius Don Draper once uttered, “advertising is about one thing, happiness.” If you can convince someone  your product will make them feel good, they’re going to pick it up.

This has vastly disappeared in the new millennia, in a world where an ad going viral seems to be more important then someone picking up a product and walking out of a store with it. The extremely popular recent Old Spice campaigns did little to increase sales in the long run, with Old Spice Red Zone, the product spokesmen Isaiah Mustafa was holding, actually seeing a drop in sales, according to Brandweek.

What baffles me is that American Apparel sells its products with pure sex appeal, but the ads aren’t traditionally sexy. They appeal to a very small demographic and it apparently works. Their sales numbers reveal a bustling business. My problem comes up when we look at who they’re selling to and what that means for the culture as a whole.

American Apparel is blatantly selling to, to put it in the clearest words possible, hipsters. It is an object of the counterculture, but what does that mean? I keep coming around to it, but is it even a counterculture if you can market this successfully to it? Are you the alternative if you are a demographic?

The answer isn’t clear and it becomes murkier everyday. With everything from Blue Moon Ale, the Toyota Highlander and hell, even pornography like Suicide Girls is branded to appeal to an alternative culture, what does alternative culture mean?

Jackson Adams is a junior journalism major from Springfield. He is the Scout managing editor.
Direct questions, comments and other responses to jadams@mail.bradley.edu