guest post by Chicken John
American Apparel is a cool company. Hailing from East LA, they make shirts that actually fit, tube socks that feel good to wear and their hiring practices are sterling. Their advertisements are amusing, sexy and are the rococo of our time. Super hip. When comparing them to the Gap, or to the Levis Strauss company; there seems to be little in common. Better products. In touch with what is going on. Turning fashion on it’s head. They tend to put their stores in urban locations, staying away from malls. They have over 260 current stores in 20 countries, with plans to open another 20 this year.
The Starling. Do you know the story of the English Starling? In 1890 a helpless romantic named Eugene Schieffelin released song birds that had some connection to Shakespeare. He thought that having the birds singing would be beautiful. Without realizing it, he introduced an invasive species entering a healthy but fragile eco system. The Starling became an infestation by the 1930’s. The word ‘meddling’ comes to mind.
American Apparel rented a storefront on Valencia Street at 20th in the Mission District of San Francisco. As many of you know, San Francisco is the city of Art and Innovation. The Mission district is a unique little niche of local independent business’. For the most part. But Valencia Street is devoid of any chain stores, except one: T-Mobile. Valencia Street is to SF like Bourbon Street is to New Orleans.
I’m wearing an American Apparel shirt as I type this. It’s all so confusing. Because although I want to believe that American Apparel is a progressive company with my values and stuff… I gotta wonder if I’m not just projecting that onto a blank canvas that they are providing for me? I think of the Starling. What began as a romantic gesture turned into an infestation. The Valencia Corridor is a fragile eco-system. No place like it exists anymore. Anywhere. It is not uncommon or rare. It’s a singularity. Weird little shops. Neat night life. Holistic healing potions. Bike lane. Cafes. Books. Wicken shops. A friggin pirate store. And an American Apparel?
I don’t see it. Not the store, I can totally see American Apparel on Valencia Street. And Starbucks. Abercrumbe and Fitch. Urban Outfitters. I don’t wanna see it, but I do. The thing that I don’t see is why? Why do they want to be the Starling of Valencia Street that displaces and starves the indigenous species? Why do they want to be the company that sets the prescient? Can’t they see what I see? Don’t they know that once one store get in, the fight becomes harder and harder? American Apparel is saying that the T-mobile store hasn’t set a precedent. Which is defeating their own argument. With 2 (!) formula retail chains on Valencia, it will be nearly impossible to defend the next formula retail store.
American Apparel in my opinion is unwittingly assaulting the very thing that made the company relevant. And as far as it opening the store, I think of it as the leading edge of a wedge, with the other end being Wal-Mart. The next thing that gets tolerated. Like the experiment with the frog and the boiling water. We have to JUMP right now!!! Or the next store will be slightly more obnoxious.
And I think that this is possibly a larger trend. We find ourselves calibrating to products. Brands. Unwittingly, and sometimes even knowingly. But maybe American Apparel doesn’t realize they have become a HUGE company? Maybe that’s what happens. Whatever it is, it’s kinda amazing. This is it, right here. Where culture and commodity collide in confluence of confusion. You have a few different arguments to chose from… but at the end of the day you find that you’re arguing on which path to take.
Because we all wanna end up in the same place.
So I report this story from this perspective. If you are interested in following this story further, or if you would like to come to SF’s City Hall on Thursday at 2:30 to participate in the Planning Commissioners to either approve or deny the permit application, you can find the latest about this issue on the Stop American Apparel 988 Valencia blog.
UPDATE 1: On February 5th by unanimous vote The San Francisco Planning Department denied American Apparel a conditional use permit to open a store on Valencia Street. [update by Scott]
UPDATE 2: American Apparel has posted a peace offering on the window of 988 Valencia. [update by Scott]
photo by hexodus