Consumers may forgive but can they ever really forget: American Apparel

by Kara Buffrey
by Kara Buffrey

Avid fashion mavens would recall the American Apparel controversy like it was yesterday. The company was continuously involved in scandal and outrage based around their hyper-sexualised campaigns and questionably indecent imagery – resulting in a rather public liquidation of its European stores.

Ask any advertising expert and they will tell you that sex sells. However, American Apparel provided a rare case disproving this. They were no stranger to questionable advertisements, generally centred around sex and youthful nudity. The constant streams of infamy proved to be too much for the brand which filed for bankruptcy protection for a second time in 2016.

So why are we bringing this up? You may have noticed in recent headlines that American Apparel has been a hot topic once more. Not only have they been acquired by new investors, but they have relaunched their website in the UK. A rebrand is apparent in their new PR and advertising campaign which is a volte-face from the evocative and downright sexualisation of fashion, to one that is seemingly focused around diversity and inclusion – a stark contrast.

But can they succeed in repositioning their brand, rebuilding their reputation and win back those customers whose trust and loyalty they lost? What of those consumers themselves?

American Apparel has always appealed to the wider audience in terms of offering sustainable fashion and ethical alternatives. This is evidenced by the Made in USA section on their new website, offering a select range of clothing made and sourced entirely from the USA. It seems they are using their new-found voice to drive the way for green fashion.

In just four years from 2000 to 2004, consumers bought 60% more clothing but kept each garment half as long, this statistic is only worsening with the concept of cheap, disposable fashion. With greater visual access to your favourite models and influencers via social media and the emergence of more affordable luxury fashion and fakes, this is an issue that will continue, emphasising American Apparel’s favourable new approach of sustainability.

This may be means for forgiveness, but how about forgetting? It is a brave move for a failed fashion line to dust itself off and try again, particularly in the form of a bricks and mortar store which has opened in Los Angeles this month.

A spokesperson for American Apparel was quoted in the Los Angeles Times stating that the store would give customers the opportunity to “take part in the full American Apparel experience”. In addition, I suppose there is little risk opening just one store of a brand that is so well known.

In the age of social media, ease of public declaration and complaining have become part and parcel of a millennials social media accounts, leaving everyday individuals with vast amounts of consumer power. Making a comeback like this is risky, however there may be a sense of appreciation in bringing back a controversial brand that could easily be slammed down on Twitter and Instagram.

From a PR perspective, you have to hand it to American Apparel – they have apologised for their past, which as any crisis communications advisor will tell you is absolutely the right thing to do.

That said, any attempt at a rebrand has to be genuine and not an attempt to capitalise on the movement driven by the likes of the #MeToo movement in a bid to win back fans. What they do both in the here and now and in the future, will invariably be under scrutiny until that trust is fully restored.

The signs do look positive though, as American Apparel’s brand marketing director succinctly stated:

Using real girls, showing diversity, fighting for immigration and standing for LGBTQs was being done by American Apparel long before anyone else figured out that there was a commercial value there”.

You really can’t argue with that; American Apparel had their scathes, but they were identifying issues within the commercial sector and refuting homogeny and stereotyping. With all brands rushing to make up for lost time in terms of championing diversity and inclusion (prime example: Christopher Bailey’s final collection for Burberry), perhaps American Apparel are simply re-entering stage left to remind the industry who championed it first.

Whatever the reason, American Apparel is back for round two, they’ve worked hard to make a comeback and I guess only time will tell how consumers will react to this vibrant brand.