American Apparel Made Play Clothes for a Generation of Millennials

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Photo: Onnie A. Koski/Getty Images

When I first moved to New York in 2007, I passed the same American Apparel billboard every day on my way to the subway. It showed Woody Allen dressed as a rabbi in a scene from Annie Hall, an image that puzzled me. This is a fashion ad? I remember thinking. Then it shifted to a dorsal view of a woman in jeans, soon to be garlanded with graffiti that made me uneasy. It read, “Gee, I wonder why women get raped?” I was never clear if the graffiti was blaming women for dressing this way, or some kind of feminist critique. The sign became a bellwether of what was going on in the neighborhood, like the “Neckface” graffiti I saw crawling everywhere or, as the recession hit, the ever-multiplying “Store for Rent” signs.

I’d been unaware of the chain throughout college, but now I saw that everyone around me was buying its neon basics — like Garanimals for a generation of young adults. Soon, I started to acquire them, too: the shiny “disco” leggings whose shine faded into fuzzy matte after I wore them too much, the high-waisted interlock skirt that I deluded myself into thinking was a great office-to-club-and-back-to-office piece, and the zip-up sweatshirt that everyone on the Lower East Side seemed to have been standard-issued upon arrival. After spending years trying to stand out, it was comforting to fall into the 20-something uniform. But more than that, in a city where I always felt like a have-not, it was a small evening-out of the vertiginous playing field. I could run with a crowd of young socialite-adjacent people, and we might all be at the dive bar in the same poly-cotton blends. They claimed to be broke and were drinking cheap beer, so who’s to say they weren’t just like me? It was magical thinking, just like the idea that I could be captured in a party image and be vaulted to downtown fame, Lana Turner in dollar-store shutter shades. The illusion that I could keep up with the Joneses didn’t last long, but I still have those clothes. (Ironically, I can no longer dream of affording that neighborhood.)

It’s an understatement to say that American Apparel has seen better days. Its saga over the last few years — lurching from founder Dov Charney’s ouster to bankruptcy to, now, a new (Canadian) owner and an unclear future — has been something to behold. I don’t know that it’s held the same resonance for today’s crop of 20-somethings, but it really had an impact on mine. While the ads radiated sleaze, the clothes had a kind of simple innocence to them, like the standard-issue ’70s gym staples they were based on. Maybe that’s why, on my timeline this weekend, I saw nostalgia for its glory days bubbling up as reports rolled in that AA will be shuttering stores in a few months. Some people were asking for suggestions to replace favorite staple items — should they try Everlane or Outdoor Voices? Others were mourning what boiled down to their youth.

In recent years, I’ve only visited the store to find components for Halloween costumes, and the clothes all seemed insanely shrunken, leaving me to wonder if they had changed or I had. That said, I still wear everything I bought back then, especially a soft gray sweatshirt that’s worn-in just so. I’m currently accepting recommendations for a substitute.

American Apparel Made Play Clothes for Millennials