Back in 2016, US retailer American Apparel filed for its second bankruptcy deal in two years. It marked the end of a tumultuous run for the brand – one marred by controversy over sexually-charged campaigns and rumoured corruption.

Fast forward 18 months, and the retailer is back with a new owner and a brand-new identity. Well, sort of… 

After relaunching as a digital-only retailer in the US last year, it’s now followed suit in 200 countries worldwide. 

So, what’s different, and will it lure shoppers ‘back to basics’? Here’s more on the story, as well as what we can learn from the relaunch.

Toning it down

American Apparel has always aligned itself with the notion that sex sells. Starting out with a suggestive and slightly sexed-up image, its advertising campaigns became overtly sexualised throughout the noughties, with critics eventually calling out the brand for being deliberately salacious – even verging on pornographic. 

Today, American Apparel has not entirely shed its sexy image. That would perhaps feel too jarring considering the brand is so synonymous with brazen self-expression. That being said, the brand has certainly toned it down, instead reclaiming its ‘sex appeal’ in a much more positive way.

This seems to have been spurred on by a change in internal culture. Once led by former CEO, Dov Charney, who was accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct during his time at the company – American Apparel has now implemented an all-female executive team.

Meanwhile, in light of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the brand is clearly treading carefully when it comes to how it portrays female sexuality within fashion. 

Imagery on the new website and across its brand channels is still made up of scantily-clad models. However, the difference now is that it feels far less submissive, with women projecting an unapologetically sexy and empowered image. 

There’s less of the sense that women are under a male gaze, instead appearing confident and spirited in their own right. Kudos to the brand for also incorporating greater diversity, as well as taking a stance against ‘perfection’ by using untouched imagery (much like ASOS).

Interestingly, while there is typically less male skin on show than female, men are also photographed in the same style (and posed positions), as the brand is clearly keen to avoid any sexist undertones.

Going online-only

One of American Apparel’s main problems was rapid and costly expansion amid poor in-store sales, which eventually contributed to its closure of 110 retail outlets.

Now, the brand is back with a digital-only strategy (despite rumours that it will re-open brick-and-mortar stores in select locations soon).

But of course, in order to compete with ecommerce powerhouses like ASOS and Boohoo, American Apparel will need to offer an impressive online customer experience.

So, do the signs look good?

There’s definitely more of an editorial feel to the new site, with the AAblog including interviews and features with ‘real life influencers’ – i.e. lesser-known creatives. Meanwhile, the site also pulls in user generated content, allowing users to ‘shop the best of seen and submitted’ from #AAselfies. 

#aaselfie user generated content

This is likely to appeal to young online shoppers, with these features helping to aid search and discovery on-site.

In terms of logistics, American Apparel is far from ASOS standards. From a global perspective, international shipping fees are annoying, and could even be a potential deal-breaker for some. As a result, the brand is clearly hoping that its product is desirable enough for shoppers to buy in.

Re-focusing on quality

Under Don Charney, American Apparel refused to outsource manufacturing, instead insisting on LA-based factories and higher-than-average wages for workers. While this was largely overshadowed by Charney’s sleazy reputation, it did contribute to the brand’s ethical USP – which continues today under its ‘sweatshop free’ promise. 

However, with manufacturing also contributing to former debt, the retailer has taken the decision to split production between the US and global countries including Mexico and China. This has helped the brand to retain its promise of creating high-quality clothing, while also allowing it to cut costs.

Transparency is key to this approach, with American Apparel offering customers the chance to choose between an US-made item or its globally produced equivalent. Both items are identical apart from price.

This seems like an odd move, especially considering it undercuts the brand’s original premise. However, in a sense, it’s also a shrewd way of sticking to its ethical principles, while also recognising that not all American Apparel shoppers care about where their clothes are made (as long as both are sweatshop-free).

Again, the fact that it is upfront and honest about its approach is refreshing, and at least gives shoppers greater choice.

In terms of the product itself, American Apparel has reduced its inventory to focus on basics like t-shirts and hoodies, with additional speciality items that most resonate with core consumers. This is another smart move, as shoppers are perhaps more likely to view the brand as niche or somewhat cult as a result. In turn, it could help to differentiate the brand against retailers with expansive inventories like ASOS. 

What can we learn?

It remains to be seen whether American Apparel will once again find success. In such a competitive market, there’s still a lot to be desired in terms of what it offers consumers.

As a digital-only brand, its website could be far better, while its new approach to manufacturing could also come across as contradictory (and potentially alienating to some).

However, there are still positives to be drawn from its relaunch. 

Ultimately, the brand has been smart by staying somewhat loyal to its recognisable brand identity (sexy, bold, and youth-inspired fashion) while ditching the seedy undertones. Personally, I think it’ll need to work hard to convince shoppers that this is truly the case – its insistence on scantily-clad models might still be too much for some, especially in today’s increasingly progressive market. 

But then again, a greater focus on diversity, body positivity, ethics and quality production certainly helps. Female empowerment will need to be front and centre for the brand to truly distance itself from its former reputation.

Can it become cool again? As long as it sticks to its back to basics approach, and proves it can offer real value for online shoppers, I think it’s got a fair shot.

Related reading:

Nikki Gilliland

Published 4 May, 2018 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

724 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (0)

Comment
No-profile-pic
Save or Cancel
Daily_pulse_signup_wide

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.