‘Back to Basics’: The American Apparel guide to a brand comeback

“We are not politically correct, but we have good ethics,” reads the opening to a webpage on American Apparel’s new global e-commerce site, which officially relaunched Tuesday in 200 countries.

The statement sets the tone for American Apparel 2.0, as the much maligned brand reveals a revamped identity that embraces its past while ushering in desperately needed change. After filing for bankruptcy in 2016 and subsequently shuttering 110 stores, American Apparel took stock of its failures and prepared for a turnaround, aided by an acquisition by Canadian retailer Gildan. Though the company rejoined the U.S. marketplace as a digital-only brand in August 2017, Tuesday’s global relaunch marks a new era for a brand that spent most of the last decade mired in controversy.

Now with a new site and reformed marketing approach, American Apparel is focused on maintaining its brand DNA by sticking to what worked in the past and ditching the rest. To introduce a similar but refined tone and aesthetic, the company is rolling out its “Back to Basics” campaign to a global audience.

“We asked, ‘Do we completely rebrand? Or do we look at what was good and re-envision that, and lean into it more strongly?’” said Sabina Weber, director of marketing at American Apparel. “The latter is ultimately the perspective that we took.”

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The homepage of American Apparel’s revamped global site

With its fresh look — featuring a diverse array of un-retouched models that are still sexy without being too sexy — and expanded international presence, American Apparel is working to position itself once again as a global retail player and regain the devotion of consumers.

“Making American Apparel great again starts with a bold admission that the brand hasn’t lost its cool, its sexy design or marketing strategy,” said Jim Fosina, CEO of Fosina Marketing Group.

By scaling down inventory, smartening up its approach to sex appeal, testing new digital tactics, listening to consumer feedback and leaning on Gildan’s arsenal of resources, American Apparel is aiming to make an official comeback.

Rethink product
Before building out a marketing campaign, Weber said the first step of the rebrand was to parse down the company’s expansive inventory. The team honed in on what items defined American Apparel and resonated with customers, identifying specific products as essential, like hoodies and T-shirts. It retained these products while slimming down its selection of specialty products, sticking to garments like tennis skirts and bodysuits that originally helped set American Apparel on the map.

Significantly scaling back product served as the basis of American Apparel’s “Back to Basics” campaign, which it used to promote its return to U.S. retail in 2017 and maintained for the global site relaunch.

“We were over assorted, we had too many SKUs in the range,” Weber said. “We looked at what are the core products that made American Apparel really good. It’s always been a basic fashion component to a really good wardrobe.”

Reclaim sexy
Sex sells, but American Apparel recognized that one of its biggest downfalls was taking this idea too far. Its once tasteful and alluring campaigns soon became the target of significant controversy as they evolved into gratuitous nudity and suggestive imagery that its harshest critics said verged on pornographic. Gripes about the hyper-sexualized marketing only intensified as rumors emerged that founder Dov Garney was accused of engaging in sexual misconduct with several employees.


A controversial 2014 American Apparel advertisement

Still, sensuality was part of American Apparel’s DNA, and Weber said she felt compelled to maintain its sex-positive approach, particularly amid today’s political climate and the intensifying #MeToo movement. Rather than do away with American Apparel’s sexual side, she toned it down and reverted to the imagery of its early days.

“Being sexy is not bad,” she said. “The question is: How do you do it the right way, so that it’s empowering? It’s a sexy brand. We sell clothes that you feel good in. When you feel good in your clothes, there’s a confidence that comes out. That was our focus. If we had completely backed away from it, what would the brand be?”

Embrace digital
While American Apparel is in the nascent stages of reopening brick-and-mortar stores in select locations, Weber said one of the company’s primary challenges was its transition to a digital-only brand. Without the ubiquitous storefronts that once acted as “living billboards,” she said American Apparel has shifted focus to how it uses social media and works with influencers. As a result, the new site features user-generated social media posts and editorial in the form of the #AAblog, which includes interviews with “real influencers,” such as lesser-known artists and musicians.

While the brand historically does not pay influencers and just repurposes fan content, Fosina said the brand may want to rethink this tactic in favor of a structured influencer program that better reflects its new identity.

“The company needs spokeswomen — celebrities that embody the messages that resonate with the new branding,” he said. “This is an audience of customers that will follow the lead, but they need splashy evangelists to jump-start the resurgence.”

Listen to criticism
Above all, American Apparel went back and listened intently to the grievances of customers that foreshadowed its 2016 demise and continued to do so as it worked to rebuild. Social media listening became a pivotal tool for the company as it tweaked strategy leading into the global relaunch. It was comments from consumers on platforms like Instagram that inspired a shift to more uniformed sizing, Weber said, following several complaints about products running small.

“People are very vocal, and that’s why social media is so powerful. It behooves every brand to pay attention,” she said. “Now our XL is really a true XL. That came purely from the feedback we were getting. We realized that, yes, it’s hard to hear. But that we just had to go, ‘Yes, we suck.’”

Form a solid foundation
Beyond financial backing, the leadership of Gildan helped provide American Apparel with the resources it needed to revitalize, including more robust sourcing and manufacturing tools. One of the biggest changes brought on by Gildan was expanding manufacturing beyond just Los Angeles and into other countries where it already operates, like Honduras.

While this has ultimately helped the brand bring down costs and lower prices, Fosina said American Apparel will need to be savvy in how it markets its new global approach, as it long touted being California-born and -raised.

“Gildan will have to really watch how they deal with the American component of their positioning. The new company is not an ‘American’ company, but the fashion is uniquely American,” he said.

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