By Peter Maguire
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By Gustavo Arellano
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Photo courtesy American ApparelWe'll buy anything—or nothing—if we like the package, and American Apparel's new Huntington Beach store has the package we like: early '80s Oui magazine covers framed over the dressing rooms and toothsome employees in summer reruns of those barely there terrycloth running shorts with the contrasting piping, who physically resemble people from the '70s: skinny, unkempt, slightly pimply, overwhelmingly normal.(Full disclosure: Commie Girl gets her T-shirts from American Apparel.) In their unlikely hands, this is schwag that makes you glad to be alive/an American/reaching for your wallet.
It's odd, because we're supposed to love to hate the guts of this Los Angeles import, based on the antics of its leering, winking CEO: Montreal-born Dov Charney, 36, who is perhaps best-known for spanking his pud—something you'd expect of, say, Vice magazine head Gavin McInnes, whose pud is, well, immense and better-publicized but now eclipsed by that of Charney. Most famously, the American Apparel CEO is said to have masturbated in front of a Jane magazine reporter, whose story about him implied he got head from an employee later in the interview. He also faces a pair of sexual harassment lawsuits brought by three women who used to work for him, and he gives the appearance of someone cryogenically frozen in 1974 and thawed out after Sept. 11. Think Encino Man, but with actors.
And this sounds like the same old tired, feminist rant—but, strangely, despite much pontification, Charney's is not the CEO career arc the guy from Boeing used last year when he bailed after an affair. At least not yet. Definitely not in Huntington.
When it comes, the court ruling may change this, but thus far, Charney is, like others before him—Robert Blake and O.J., without the killin'—having it both ways. Charney didn't attend the opening of his store here recently, but his wire-rimmed-glasses-wearing, muttonchop-having, oily mug loomed large over the proceedings; he looks a bit like Napoleon Dynamite's Kip on testosterone. You could smell it, just like you could smell the sex, the innocent, perfumed sex you smelled when you stole your first Playboy in 1983. And no one seemed to mind. Sex is fun, usually, and it sells.
"There's nothing like this in Orange County, and I've lived here all my life," says sales rep Chelsea Geiger, 18, a dirty blond Huntington native in an American Apparel logo T-shirt saying something about "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter." American Apparel is known for selling logo-less clothing, but employees wear one-off logo T-shirts to stand out.
Had she met Charney? No. Did she want to? "I don't know. Maybe," she said, ambivalent, the way you were when you were 18 and had to meet the boss. What about the sex thing? Well, she shrugged, what about it?
As another employee told The Gazettein Montreal recently, "[Charney's] having his own sexual revolution, and he's not ashamed about it." And he's getting away with it, which is exciting and disgusting. His neo-'70s swinger world could come crashing down around him, but like virtually no other fashion CEO in recent history, Charney has created his own little retail world where the sexual revolution goes round and round like those signs with the blinky light bulbs. The mood is easygoing; the vibe is laid-back. And everyone seems to be here because they want to be here. It sounds like a good thing. You know he may have done this by hiring people who won't say no because they're too broke, too young, too willing (Charney has had several consensual relationships with employees). But deep down, you're nonconfrontational and you want to ignore it—and the décor and the vibe here are trashy-innocent, not trashy-hardcore, so maybe you do. You buy the T-shirt/velour hoodie/fitted polo.
And it's nice. The clothes are well-done, which is a great thing; many is the company/store using window dressing to sell nothing; American Apparel actually has something. It's the stuff you wish you could still find in thrift stores, the kind of stuff you would find in the trunk of a '69 LTD at the junkyard—but with rust stains that won't come out. It's instantly evocative of the late '70s/early '80s, yet anonymous enough that you don't look like you raided a vintage store. And everything is tailored for a modern fit, which sometimes means slimfit, the new silhouette, but other times just means skintight, just as it did in the '70s.
"This place is like a '70s running shop," says Kim Feterik, also of Huntington Beach, who is too young to have been in a running shop in the '70s.
"This is a little slice of LA," someone else says, galloping down the narrow stairs connecting the men's/unisex department to the women's on the ground floor, which is just a great floor plan, because everyone knows women buy more clothes. From the design of the merchandise to the layout to the location—the city's trendiest retail district, teeming with shops and bars—this is a smart store. Like its CEO, it knows that you'll buy something—anything; nothing—if you like the package. It just so happens that American Apparel has something, something big, in its package.