Goodbye, American Apparel. This is premature, and I’ve said it before — in my head — as the company has teetered on the verge of dissolution for the past six years: that is, nearly since my tenure working there. But this time, it seems like AmApp, as we know it, might slowly fade and even disappear — finally. The end may, graciously, be in sight.
My memories of AmApp should have faded by now, but they refuse to, and my delight at ousted CEO and noted all-world creep Dov Charney’s public shaming, and the struggles to pare back, re-privatize, and restructure the company, is impossible to diffuse or mitigate. American Apparel was my first job after college, and my first job as a New York City resident. It’s also the worst job I’ve ever had, and reflecting back on it, I catch a bone-chilling glimpse of a portal I could have passed through in life if I had only maintained a tiny bit less respect for my psychological well-being, and liked “blog house” music a bit more. My condolences go out to those who stuck it out longer than I — who didn’t hitch a ride out of town on what little they had left of a sense of self-worth.
I only worked at American Apparel for two weeks, but in my mind, it was at least six months. I had just moved to New York City, looking for an immediate solution to a bill-paying problem. I was recommended a quick fix by a friend who had a reasonable, on-the-floor situation at a location in the West Village; she took some semi-fashionable pics of me, guided me through some paperwork and sent me to an “open call.” This is American Apparel’s normal application process, in which lines of fashionably dressed hopefuls line up in front of one of the five to 59 storefronts in their metropolitan area and attempt to sell themselves as being of an appropriate demographic, or having the right interest set, to qualify for employment.
It’s more like what I imagine it’s like to audition to be in a party scene in a movie. A bunch of self-important managerial types your age basically give you the once-over and gauge if you would be acceptable for AmApp patrons to look at. On the application, I recall having to list some music that I liked. I’m sure I wrote what I thought they wanted to hear, and I can at this point only imagine how horribly embarrassing it was.
This whole demoralizing and demeaning process, however, could not have prepared me for the main event. This is not to say “woe betide the straight, goofy-looking white dude,” but being one of these, I was stuck in the stock room during business hours, which is one of the worst places I — in my admittedly limited experience — have ever been. In the attire that was fashionable there at the time (subpar dress clothes, long cardigans, chambray shirt) I looked like a young professorial type. They wanted everything tucked in, which emphasized the beer tummy I had acquired across my college years.
So I was assuredly at the bottom of the sexy scale for the Chelsea AmApp store. It was almost reassuring to know my place; other jobs have made me, at turns, almost apoplectic with nerves because I didn’t know exactly where I stood with the management. But there it was clear: I was literal dirt, or maybe nothing at all.
This sense of stability had cons, as well as pros. At first, I thought I could hide away in the basement, and occasionally draw some menial tasks out to artfully avoid less savory ones. But I could steam sweaters in the corner for only so long. Eventually, stock had to be taken upstairs; matte leggings had to be straightened out and counted. My broke-down, withering-looking manager — my senior by only a couple of years — would pause to consider my movements every so often, and corral me to the next circle of hell. In an effort to get things done more expediently, I would avoid meal breaks. I soon realized that this guy — who shared an aura with the pimply, “You want fries with that?” guy from The Simpsons — would do everything in his considerable power to not allow me to leave until tasks were completed, no matter when my shift was slated to end.
My tasks included taking full inventory of the store, and restocking it as needed, a process which inevitably lasted into the wee hours of the morning. This was never outlined, or even admitted to, by my shrinking violet of an overlord; he didn’t have the cojones. It was constantly “just another half-hour,” and it would be this for four hours. The psychological toll this exacts upon a person who is counting and recounting cheaply made articles of retro prep clothing cannot easily be articulated. Time becomes a gaping hole, a dark cavern you can only peer into like a near-blind mole. Eventually, you lose track of yourself, and leave your body; then suddenly you’re taking a cab you can’t afford back to Brooklyn at 3:30 in the morning, with a mandate to open the store at 9 a.m. the next day.
Perhaps much of what I am describing is par for the course in clothing retail work. Here’s what, I think, is not: the assistant manager who was an aspiring DJ and half-raved around the stockroom to Crystal Castles blasting on half-blown computer speakers, the number of different types of nearly identical leggings — what other major outlets have attempted so many ghastly varieties? — and the dangerously low, soul-crushing morale, which was (for many of my co-workers) masked by an affected aloofness. This was not “We’re in this together,” or “Every man for himself” — it was, to most who worked there, “I want you to suffer more than me so that I can feel that my life is better than someone else’s.”
An advisor to American Apparel once claimed that the company was “selling the American dream,” and Charney himself has used similarly propagandistic language. I would tweak that claim slightly: Working there awoke me to the grim, sobering truth about the American dream. In many ways, it was an important and humbling experience. I can thank American Apparel for not just my ability to fold pants better than anyone I know, but teaching me something about New York City. It threw into stark relief that I am nothing and thoroughly unimportant as a speck in this city and world — a plankton, not even a small fish, in this vast, vicious ocean. My two weeks at American Apparel played out like a morality tale of sorts for me. Maybe it made me the man I am today, or maybe it just gave me a new complex or two. Regardless, a premature au revoir to you, horrible place.