After American Apparel

My search for ethical clothing, in my own lazy way

When one of my high school teachers came into the Levi’s store I worked at as a teenager, I had glimpse into my zero thinking fashion future.

As I watched him select and buy seven pairs of jeans, each the same style and colour, I thought “that’s some serious dedication to thinking as little as possible about your clothes. That will never be me.”

But after Gildan purchased American Apparel in January, finalizing the Los Angeles-based brand’s almost 10-year spiral into bankruptcy, it occurred to me that I’m not actually that different from my teacher who committed to giving zero fucks about what pants he wore.

For me, not thinking about my clothes was about relying on American Apparel’s old-timey promise to pay their workers decent wages, while also providing benefits, daycare and training.

In stacking my wardrobe with American Apparel, I used to count on looking halfway decent while not contributing to the ugly pitfalls of fast fashion, which include low-quality clothes, dismal labour practices, and as evidenced by the death of more than 1,100 workers in the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, a callous disregard for workers’ basic safety.

With American Apparel slipping into the hands of Gildan, a global company based out of Montreal that has faced accusations of poor labour practices in Honduras and Haiti, it seems I have to start thinking about what I’m going to wear again.

For Leah Barrett, a professor in George Brown’s school of fashion studies, American Apparel’s demise shows that brands with more local supply chains and higher costs are going to have “really dig in” to figure out what consumers value beyond price.

Barrett said she is not exactly sure what it would take to make local supply chains, and their higher price tags more attractive to North American consumers, but she sees pushing back against the allure of fast fashion as an uphill battle.

“Fast fashion was just such an attractive combination of latest runway looks, great prices, available everywhere, I mean it was so easy to just go for it,” Barrett said.

For George Brown fashion student Angela Frias, knowing that similar clothes were available for cheaper in other stores was part of the reason why she wasn’t buying American Apparel very often in recent years, even while respecting their efforts at better labour practice.

“Of course, because I’m a student you try to save as much as you can,” said Frias. “So when it came to American Apparel, I love their clothes but it was just too expensive.”
By the time I visited American Apparel’s Queen Street West location during its final day on Jan. 29, the scene was more reminiscent of a yard sale than a high-priced basics clothing store. Ninety-five per cent of the clothes that weren’t xxx-small or xxx-large were gone, as well as the aura of an international brand with revenues that were once in the hundreds of millions.

With the garment and fashion industry now largely a global phenomenon, Barrett said that those seeking to make ethical clothing choices within their means will have to do some extra legwork around understanding how a brand’s clothes are made.

For me, the legwork so far has been asking my generally smarter and more conscientious friends what brands they wear. One of the standouts in my search so far has been Toronto’s own Muttonhead, a brand which promises that all of its clothing is designed and made in Canada.

According to Muttonhead’s co-founder Meg Sinclair, this local focus, while a central value, also allows for the brand to have a more hands-on relationship with the production of the clothes.

“We work with a lot of local manufacturers, our lead times are lot faster and we have a lot more control over what’s actually happening at the factories,” she said. “If something goes wrong we can go up there and check in and come up with a solution.”

As Sinclair and I discussed Muttonhead’s operations, which include stores in Roncesvalles and the Beaches, I’m compelled to congratulate her on running a brand that seems to steer clear of fast fashion.

When I asked Sinclair what’s wrong about fast fashion and she said, “everything,” it’s obvious it was never a question for her.

As I try to forget my fling with American Apparel, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muttonhead becomes my new main squeeze, helping me look good, be ethical and give zero fucks about my clothes.

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After American Apparel