armstrong: American Apparel is dead; think thrift, as in thrift shop

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By Dot Armstrong

dorothy-armstrong@uiowa.edu

Many hearts are breaking among the ranks of the young and fashionable. American Apparel, that beloved haven for patriotic hipsters, is now owned by Gildan. The Canadian T-shirt company bought out the made-in-America chain after CEO Dov Charney ran American Apparel into the ground.

Numerous allegations tarnish Charney’s record: seedy labor practices involving undocumented immigrants, ill use of employees, and sexual harassment. So it goes in the consumerist maelstrom. Though unsavory, none of the above charges strike me as shocking. American Apparel was too good to be true, after a certain point.

And the brand aligned itself so closely with visions of sexy ingénues that its ads passed for soft-core porn. Sure, I could take the company to task for contributing to the current climate of objectification and exploitation. It would be a righteous no-brainer to skewer Charney for his reportedly lewd behavior with women — Frank Bruni got there before I did, with a scathing piece in the New York Times — but I’ll forbear and turn my attention to the implications of American Apparel’s demise for avid consumers of color block crop tops and shapeless short dresses. There’s something more important beneath the basic sociopolitical critiques. Style mavens and aspiring hipsters, lend an ear; I’ll let you in on a secret. The revolution lies in the folds of your turtlenecks. Now is the time to stick it to the Man. And by the Man, I mean the gutted carcass of the fashion industry. American Apparel is no more, but the whole thesis of the store revolved around pinpointing the algorithm of edgy trends and marketing mass-produced garments toward folks who pretend they’re immune to marketing. What’s really hip, you ask? Breaking the cycle of rampant consumerism. Ignore the glossy propaganda of the corporations. Think outside the big-box store. Don’t mourn the passing of American Apparel; examine the subversive influence of your wardrobe-purchasing dollars.

Gildan gave you a perfect opportunity to critically consider your role in the spin-cycle of consumerism. You, the big spender, have the power to skew the system of mass clothing production. Resist conventional modes of consumption, and turn your wallets toward the well-worn mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a hackneyed refrain, but the record skips for a reason.

Thrift stores are the new American Apparel, the new frontier of counterculture couture. They are ubiquitous, diverse, cheap, and often local. Wherever there are clothed humans, there are thrift stores filled with cast-off treasures emancipated from the hypocrisy of the high-fashion rack. Iowa City and Coralville are home to such classic resale establishments as Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Plato’s Closet, Crowded Closet, Potentially Yours — not to mention favorites Artifacts and Revival.

Take me as an example. I write this while wearing a turtleneck of my own, a soft brown cotton specimen worthy of any classy label. I bought it for $5 at Goodwill. Though I don’t know its provenance, I can say with pride that it is secondhand: Even if bad labor conditions created the garment, I have not added my money to the garment industry as a whole. To me, participation in a culture of minimal-waste consumption takes precedence over seeking out ethically crafted, made-in-America items. Point being, I can be broke and morally alert by shopping for hand-me-downs. The shirt on my back continued to circulate through the system, reused, perennially stylish. If it assuages your pride, call it “vintage.”

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