Those are two of the biggest questions that faced the team tasked with relaunching American Apparel, which has recently reinvented itself as an online retailer after the company shuttered all 110 of its stores early last year. (An L.A. store will open early next year.)
Now owned by Canadian manufacturer Gildan, American Apparel’s classic hoodies, leggings, and bodysuits have returned; its notorious founder has not. And while you won’t find sexualized images of underage-looking models in its new campaigns, the company is not backing away from sexiness. This time around, though, the models are mostly over 21, and there’s more diversity of shapes, sizes, and skin colour.
“We very strategically needed to find a way to lean into the positive aspects of the brand as well as acknowledging that there were some mistakes in the past,” says Sabina Weber, American Apparel’s director of marketing. “It was a really important step to go, ‘Where did the brand take it too far, where it became uncomfortable?’”
Here, Weber tells Refinery29 what it meant to reinvent American Apparel in the #MeToo era, and why the brand isn’t shying away from sexiness — or hard nipples.
I associate American Apparel with the mid-2000s, when I was in my 20s and in university. What about the brand do you think will resonate with young people in 2018?
People are very passionate about this brand because it actually stood for something long before it became cool or profitable to stand for something. It stood for things like immigration reform and LGBTQ [rights], and fair pay, and the opportunity to have a good job — those are all things that, in 2018, millennials really care about.
A lot of the pieces look very familiar. Is this a nostalgia play? Are the aughts cool again?
I think there is a little bit of a nostalgia play. We are initially coming back with our best-selling pieces: the tennis skirts, the disco pants, the leggings, the sweats, the crop tops, the hoodies. There is something about these pieces that are timeless. You can style them depending on whatever the current trends are, or you can kind of just make them your own and have them be a kind of platform for your own self-expression and style.
We’ve actually been able to bring our price points down a little bit because we have such great operational stability now. And we've got a broader size range now, which is very important because we need to speak to more women and more bodies.
American Apparel is owned by a Canadian company now, and the clothes are mostly manufactured outside of America. What does the name mean anymore?
It’s not America Apparel, it’s American Apparel, which speaks to an ethos rather than an actual destination. The founding principles behind American Apparel were about what America stood for… There was this sense of being in a place that supported a dream — that you could come here, you could work hard, and make a better life for yourself.
Given the history of the company under founder Dov Charney, what considerations were made relaunching the brand in the#MeToo era?
The biggest question was: Do we keep the brand sexy? We decided that we are a sexy brand and we cannot back away from that. There's nothing wrong with being sexy — sexy is powerful, and owning your sexuality is an incredibly powerful thing that you should not be shy about. It is your choice how you decide to present yourself in the world. Now there are more women on the team — before it was mostly men driving the marketing decisions. So we can go, “This [photo] is really beautiful, and this one not so much."
What makes you say, "No, that’s not the right kind of sexy for us”?
It's so subtle. It's probably more of a look in [the model’s] eyes. They should look like they feel good about themselves as a woman. When I’m feeling good and strong and sexy and confident and I'm having fun wearing an outfit — that's is the ultimate vibe I want to get when I'm looking at these pictures.
What does being sexy even mean in 2018?
I think being sexy is knowing who you are, understanding that you have value in the world and what your talents are. That creates a sense of confidence that is sexy and that’s what we hope to capture. It ultimately has very little to do with the actual body parts.
Some of the campaign images do include bare bums and hard nipples. You didn’t want to take all of that out?
No. That's such a big part of the brand — natural breasts, natural girls. Having a conversation around the nipple is kind of interesting because there are people who feel uncomfortable seeing a nipple. But, it's a nipple, it's not pornographic, but it does create an interesting dialogue. If you follow our Instagram, people actually comment on it: “It's nice to see a nipple — it’s beautiful.” They have no problem with it.
So what’s different with the American Apparel ads this time around?
We still use real girls, but we shifted the photography — just a little bit. It’s still flash photography, but the girls are looking right at the camera now, they're not being shot from the top down. They're older — that was a big, important step for us. For the most part, they're 21 and above. And we have added more diversity in the mix, so you're going to see lots of different shapes and sizes. The other thing we do is tell their story. We have a blog, we introduce the women, we tell who they are, what they're passionate about so that they're seen as a whole human being rather than just an object.
Why does that matter? Why not just use regular models and not bother with real-people stories?
I think millennials and late Gen Z customers want to feel like they are part of something — they don't want to feel like they're being fed something else everyone has already consumed. We are selling basics, we are not selling a custom-made Balenciaga bag that there's only 10 of. We are selling a T-shirt. People need to feel like they can put their money behind it, that it’s a product that you can feel really good about purchasing, which is not something you can say a lot about other brands anymore.
This interview has been condensed and edited.