Eulogy for American Apparel

I am turning thirty this year, which I can’t prevent, and which I didn’t expect to want to prevent because I can hardly imagine anything cornier than dreading turning thirty. But at this point my body has more or less spoken up and insisted that, barring special occasions (which are at its discretion and not mine), it’s done staying up late and metabolizing fast food and alcohol, so I might as well march over that threshold already. I anticipated being much cooler about it, and theoretically I shouldn’t be worried because many, if not most, of my friends are older than me, and I’ve watched them swiftly transform into self-possessed, professionally established, better dressed versions of themselves who say things like “Actually, I feel much worse when I don’t go to the gym” with total conviction.

Not to mention, as Roshan Abraham once tweeted “is it weird that everyone gets hotter in their thirties now,” which is, in my experience, is observably true, although I’m still convinced I will be the lone exception because over the past eight years I have, to put it generously, aged like a two-term president, in spite of the fact that I am a shopgirl by profession and that the only living things in my care are six or so extremely low-maintenance houseplants. So as much as I’d love to believe that I am destined to become my better self in my incipient thirties, I remain skeptical. Which is why I took it perhaps a little too personally that American Apparel went out of business this year.

It seems a little on the nose that the brand responsible for clothing me for the entirety of my twenties would vanish along with them, but on the nose things happen all the time. Take, for example, the 79th Annual Academy Awards, in 2007. As you may remember, The Departed won for Best Picture, notable at the time because it seemed to represent a major comeback for Martin Scorsese (netting him his first Best Director win), but in retrospect, notable because it has a higher and more significant volume of flip phone usage than any other Best Picture winner. The flip phone was a prop rich in its emotional vocabulary, and it is gloriously memorialized in nearly every frame of The Departed. Flip phones vibrate violently on tables, snap shut in moments of anger, and in the film’s climax, two flip phones, one red and representing Jack Nicholson and the mob, the other blue and representing law enforcement, both ring for Leonardo DiCaprio at the same time as he looks with anguish between the two and struggles to decide which call he will answer.

The iPhone was available to buy three months later. And just like that, The Departed was a period piece, and though flip phones were still broadly used in the following couple of years, their era was indisputably over. That is how American Apparel’s dissolution made me feel. One minute my “youth” (scare quotes) was a going concern, a slowly spreading ooze like the blob from The Blob. The next it was a neatly bounded territory, frozen in place like the blob at the end of the movie The Blob.

It’s hard to mourn something that seems representative of your twenties without lapsing into nostalgia, but rest assured, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. American Apparel, for all its wearable basics and USA manufacturing, earned its cache more through carefully curated (and often all too authentic) sleaze. It felt low-rent and porny, a decadent throwback to the 1970s, another era with fin de siecle values despite not being at the actual fin of the siecle. In its heyday it was gross and unflattering and tacky, and in 2007, the year of The Departed’s Oscar win and the iPhone’s release and the most abject depressive episode of my life, it was all I wanted to wear.

When I heard it was going out of business, I made a list from memory of every item I purchased from American Apparel, an autobiography in seventy-two garments of varying trendiness that, when written out on paper and filmed on my iPhone slowly pulling out of a close zoom, bore an uncanny resemblance to the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with cotton spandex blends instead of occult objects of frightening power, although to me at age 20, the difference would have been marginal. In 2007 I was away at college and in the rubble of an emotionally abusive relationship without any real friends to speak of. My isolation provided me my first and perhaps only authentic opportunity for self-reinvention.

In American Apparel I found the wardrobe for the person I wanted, however wrongheadedly, to become. I spent hours on their website, memorizing every piece of clothing and reading countless product reviews, which, given that they consisted mostly of young women announcing their heights and weights for size reference, carried more than a slight whiff of thinspo message board. I was obsessed to a degree that I recognized even at the time was humiliating and weird. I got dressed up every night to go nowhere, and the selfies I took alone in my room in my carefully chosen outfits (because there are no other photos of me from that time) break my heart to even look at. I was academic in my study of a brand that I had imbued with the power to transform me from unglamorously self-destructive to glamorously self-destructive. I think about the (also 2007) paparazzi shot of Lindsay Lohan in her grey American Apparel hoodie that caused the style to sell out and realize I must not have been alone in that unbearably sad ambition.

Over the following years I slowly rebuilt my life and outgrew my attachment to the American Apparel fantasy. The Deep V ts-hirts I had prized as though they were couture found their way into pajama rotation, having lost their power to beguile me with visions of a youth unwasted, as though all youth isn’t inevitably wasted.

As the feverish love I felt for American Apparel dissipated, so did their reputation as a standard bearer of hipness. The recession was in full swing, and along with it came a rejection of the ironic, post-morality ethos that pop culture had enjoyed in the early 2000s. Everything that had once seemed fun-gross now seemed gross-gross, probably because it was.

When I returned to American Apparel it was to shop for clothes rather than a lifestyle. Instead of willing myself to transform into an embodiment of its ethos, I bought clothes that seemed to belong to the person I already was and that fit with the life I was leading. A grey wool cocoon coat with pockets large enough to fit a donut in each without breaking the line of the garment for my first winter in New York. A pair of high-waisted, wide-legged pants one summer when that was my heart’s desire, but they weren’t to be found at any other store. A color-blocked fisherman’s sweater in a palette reminiscent of the ’84 Olympics press materials. A White t-shirt onto which I ironed flocked letters spelling out “HERE COMES DRACULA.” And at the end, during their liquidation, mostly relics. I wanted something tangible to remember it by before it was gone for good and the adult life I had already been living became inscribed in stone.

Which is bullshit, I know. My twenties will not become a distinct, calcified personhood, never to be seen again, anymore than American Apparel will be gone as long as it lives in my closet (and friends, I’m an enormous pack-rat). If my twenties are the blob from the end of The Blob, the rest of my life lives in the question mark that ominously, yet cheekily sidles up to THE END in the final shot. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

This piece was written for the July 2017 edition of the Final Fantasy Reading Series.

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