Sweatless Shopping

The semiotics of T-Shirts


The American Apparel flagship store on Broadway in Greenwich Village looks like your standard trendy Manhattan clothing boutique. The bleached white of brick and linoleum throws into relief the racks of brightly colored T-shirts and sweats protruding from the shop's walls; lighted mannequin torsos overhead luminesce through matching tank-tops and panties. A pair of solicitous clerks—male and female Asian hipsters with matching close-cropped haircuts—flit from customer to customer explaining precisely where and how each item will shrink.

Linger a bit, though, and you'll notice that the main thing American Apparel seems to be selling is… American Apparel. Video monitors strewn about the store show company founder Dov Charney touring his L.A. factory, describing his "sweatshop free" business model, or serving up soundbites for protectionist poobah Lou Dobbs.

The quirky, manic Charney is the sort of executive who regularly elicits fawning profiles, not just for his frenetic personal style—you half expect him to announce a Tofutti break in the middle of one of his many interviews—but for his progressive business philosophy, which the company's mission statement terms a "hyper capitalist-socialist fusion model."

Actually, it's hard to detect much socialism in the model, even leaving aside the company's well-publicized tussles with at least one union. Sure, American Apparel's plants—all domestic—may sound like a proletarian fantasy, with cheap healthcare, massage and yoga facilities, and (more importantly) an average hourly wage around $12. But Charney regularly insists that this is simply good business practice, that subcontracting to foreign plants with dirt cheap labor has hidden costs.

That notion's borne out well enough by the company's rapid growth and solid profits. And, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it doesn't seem to require charging an arm for each ribbed-T or a leg for every pair of yoga pants. The Broadway store's bright but unadorned shirts sell for around $15 to $25, barely more than the average at Target, and nowhere near the $30 to $50 you might pay for the putatively trendy (but also uniformly hideously ugly) fare at the Union Square Diesel shop a few blocks away. For the relatively tiny markup, you get fabric noticeably softer and more comfortable than the standard T-shirt cotton, as well as nicer cuts. I finished my recon mission to the Broadway shop by picking up a baby-blue shirt with orange raglan sleeves for an eminently reasonable $22.

Still, you leave the store almost wanting to find something wrong with the company. Its press material is relentlessly self-congratulatory, and there's something noxiously finger-wagging about the flat-panel monitor in the front window looping a video montage by artist Luca Pizzaroni of garment labels announcing that the clothing in question originated in (for shame!) Qatar, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, or Ukraine. Their shirts are nice enough, but American Apparel's marketing focuses less on the quality of their fabric than on the erroneous notion that subcontracting cheap labor to the developing world is exploitative, and that their business practices provide a kind of visionary model for the garment industry as a whole.

That's almost certainly false: The company is able to offer its wares at a reasonable price due largely to a "vertically integrated" business model that depends to a large extent on minimal seasonal variation in their product. Their stock in trade is a kind of K-Mart couture; a line-up that's high-quality, but also relatively plain and unchanging. That's fine with Charney, who complains to Salon, "We keep feeding consumers these ridiculous choices," but the sentiment may sit less well with consumers who appreciate a bit of choice.

Assuming you likeAmerican Apparel's plain-Jane style—which I do—that's no obstacle to filling your closet from their catalog. But you have to wonder whether the more general trend toward socially conscious symbolic consumption—touted not just by Charney but companies like No Sweat Apparel and Adbusters Magazine's still-on-the-drawing-board BlackSpot Sneaker—doesn't have its pitfalls. The primary virtue of markets is their ability to aggregate and transmit local knowledge held by consumers and producers. But that local knowledge doesn't include any special expertise about which labor or business practices are likely to be best for workers or society as a whole. Isn't the allure of this symbolic consumption just an appeal to the fatal conceit writ small? Consider, after all, this update from the makers of the BlackSpot shoe:

Six months of searching in Asia for the right factory to produce the blackspot sneaker have turned up a big zero. None of the recommended "union" shops we checked and visited in Korea, China and Indonesia met our standards for working conditions, shoe quality and overall excellence. We've now given up on Asia, and have reset our sights on Poland and the traditional shoe manufacturing areas of Spain and Portugal.

Good news for the already relatively well-paid workers in Spain, Portugal, and Poland, one supposes. Probably less heartening to workers in Asian developing countries where, in the absence of existing infrastructure, low wages are the primary means of luring multinationals who still pay better than the average domestic producer. Now, maybe the BlackSpot will ultimately be a force for social justice, and maybe it won't. The point is that it's a lot easier to figure out whether you like the cut of a pair of jeans or the aesthetic properties of a shoe than it is to determine whether your purchase is promoting the aggregate welfare of humanity. The standard theory of how markets work—maximizing welfare by efficiently satisfying preferences—starts to look a lot stranger when our own (possibly mistaken) beliefs about what maximizes aggregate welfare becomes an input into our preferences.

Still, it's probably not worth kvetching too much about this kind of symbolic consumption. Even if shifting some production away from the developing world isn't in the best interests of workers there, American Apparel and its ilk provide a release valve for protectionist sentiment, channeling protectionist politics into relatively benign consumer activism. The American Apparel business model ends up cabined into those market niches in which it works best, and if the economic logic of its more socially conscious customers proves flawed, at least the existence of that option makes it less likely that the flaw will find its way into legislation. More importantly, I really like that raglan.