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 cyclones 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.
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 doesnt 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 its not one of those “lets pretend this isnt 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? Theres 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 cant make it so. If is walks like a brand, and it talks like a brand, chances are thats exactly what it is.
The history of branding is filled with “x, not-x strategies. The oppositional move says, “You know x? Were 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, were not even a brand. We could call this the Escher strategy in brand building. And one of these days, American Apparel, the brand that isnt a brand, is going to be worth a lot of money.