annals of branding

american apparel.jpg

Pam and I went for a drive through Brooklyn over the weekend: the Heights, Bensonhurst, Carroll Gardens, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sheepshead, that sort of thing. My conclusion: Brooklyn is very large. Coney Island is very small. (In person, the cyclone’s more like a tornado.)

We drove right past a store called American Apparel in downtown Brooklyn. This is what it said in the window.

Made in L.A.
Sweatshop Free
Brand-Free Clothes

As brand propositions go, this one is interesting.

Some of the brand meanings are being “sourced” from the way the clothes are made. One of the triumphs of capitalism, and the thing that the Marxists had trouble grasping, is that the meaning of a product only rarely comes its production. Generally, only “hand crafted” products take on meaning this way. Usually, meanings come from marketing, not making. (This is one of the things that Charles Revson had in mind when he said, “In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the store we sell hope.”)

Still, there was an opportunity here. The specter of sweat shops and the hits taken by Kathy Lee Gifford, Nike and Benetton, meant that someone was going to seize the marketing, as opposed to the moral, advantage of working state side. (Frankly, until someone factors in the social good that is extinguished when members of the Third World are denied access to employment in off shore factories, I am undecided. More simply: buying “Made in L.A.” costs someone in the Third World.) As the AA website puts it: “Our goal is to make garments that people love to wear without having to rely on cheap labor.”

But American apparel doesn’t stop there. Theirs is a “via media.”

American Apparel is a youth-directed company, founded without the assistance of institutional investors. Having no political ties, the company has rejected established norms on all sides; we’ve dismissed both the corporate right and the politically correct left in favor of something new.

Oh, so it’s not one of those “let’s pretend this isn’t a business” propositions. No, sir. At first, this casual flipping of the bird in the direction of the Thomas Franks of the world seems gratuitous, but then you notice the obvious: AA is not a union shop. This is a middle way: anti sweat shop and anti union. Tools down. All out.

But not a brand? Really? There’s a name, a product, provocative catalogue, a well designed website, lots of images of stunning, young models, a front story, a back story. Not least, this brand, constructed and positioned to take on very potent meanings at the moment, is not on equity the way an ancient Cape Dory takes on water. Wishing can’t make it so. If is walks like a brand, and it talks like a brand, chances are that’s exactly what it is.

The history of branding is filled with “x, not-x” strategies. The oppositional move says, “You know x? We’re not that.” (Coke-Pepsi, Avis-Hertz, CBS-Fox, IBM-Apple and so on.) But the brand strategy goes a step further. It says, “We are not J. Crew. In fact, we’re not even a brand.” We could call this the Escher strategy in brand building. And one of these days, American Apparel, the brand that isn’t a brand, is going to be worth a lot of money.

5 thoughts on “annals of branding

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Yes, their claim of not being a brand is another step towards the public in the footsteps of Naomi Klein. Up to now, you pretty much had to be playing “inside baseball” to be up on the “no logo” meme. By coming right out and saying they’re not a brand (regardless of the authenticity of that claim) AA is raising the ante a bit. While I think the “no sweatshop” approach may have some impact, I’m a little more skeptical of the “we’re not a brand” message. Point is, are the clothes “rebel” enough to make the implicit rebel message credible?

    That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re going to be successful. But they are playing on a very crowded field.

  2. liz

    Grant, I learned about hatin’ on brands from hanging out with skateboarders in the late 1990s. The big brands were “evil” and “ruining the sport”. Cool people bought from little garage companies.

    And yet the boys all looked alike.

    And now Tony Hawk is a brand himself.

    Is branding inevitable?

    I don’t know.

  3. smack

    In an attempt to catch-up with you after March Break (Canada) and Easter I did a dedicated read of the past week of entries…

    Did I miss something, or read too much into March 23rd, to imagine a link with March 25th. Is AA following a “status strategy” like Yale and therefore doomed to be an also ran (or worse) next to the Gap’s of the world?

    It is always a pleasure to be at once inspired, provoked, and confused. Thanks!

  4. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I think you a missing a point of folk usage here: of course they are a brand, but they make “brand-free” clothing in the sense that their clothing doesn’t have a name or a logo on it.

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