Desperately Seeking Made in USA

Tell me why, tell me why?

Why do fools fall in love?

--Herman Santiago & Jimmy Merchant

I want so much to love American Apparel. In fact, I'm desperate to love its products, its company, its CEO. I'm itching to buy something besides farmer's market broccoli or grocery store free range chicken. A pretty skirt and blouse, or maybe some cute flats for spring would be nice. My son Matt and daughter-in-law Erin found Hanes men's white athletic socks at Target. Bless them for looking at labels. But really? Socks? That's it? Cathy and Lois (see my last post) mentioned American Apparel, and so did daughter Stephanie and son-in-law Dennis. Supposedly American Apparel manufactures all its clothing in downtown Los Angeles. Has a store in Berkeley. Driving over to take a look, I'm hoping it's the USA Mecca I need. Like I said. Desperate. Hate that feeling.

In sixth grade I had a crush on a boy named Reid. He lived a block away and attended the local public school, which made him mysterious and appealing (husband Don's a public school boy, too). Almost everyone I knew then, like me, attended Catholic school. I sat in the stands at the baseball field near our house that spring and watched Reid practice. For hours I sat there, like a silly fool, watching this brown-haired, blue-eyed 13-year-old fiddle with his catcher's mitt and throw one ball after another. Went on for months, clear through late summer. Me watching and hoping and desperate, him pitching and clueless. Now, walking into the American Apparel store in Berkeley, I wonder if the salesperson approaching me can sense the desperation in my pathetic American-consumer soul.

"Hi, welcome to American Apparel, a Los Angeles-based, vertically integrated company." Ok so maybe the willow-limbed, legging-clad ballerina-ish salesgirl doesn't say that right off the bat. Maybe she says "Hi" and I pull out my notebook and pen and say: "So, everything in here is actually manufactured in the USA? That's pretty amazing." She says her scripted line about vertical integration. Returning to the Made in USA theme I say: "Even these sunglasses? Really? Made here?" I point to a clear plastic bin filled with cool looking plastic shades. "Oh and I love these. Are these made in L.A.?" I'm fingering leather coin purses, purple velvet hair bows, and paisley silk scarves. Ballerina-salesperson, folding her arms across her chest, explains: "Well, actually, all of those items are from what we call our Vintage Collection. We buy old stock--it's unused but hasn't sold--from other companies. So I guess they've been made lots of other places." I back away from the "vintage" merchandise and look around. Every tag I read says "Made in Downtown LA. Vertically Integrated Manufacturing. Made in USA." It's like a mirage in the desert. I pull out tag after tag after tag just to see it over and over again. Finally. USA rules this store.

There are nice v-neck cotton t-shirts and hoodies. Striped (navy/white, grey/ivory) sweaters to wear over leggings. Hooded three-quarter length rain-jackets with plaid lining. Wool camel colored capes. Lots of pants, though no jeans (what is it about denim that makes it the domain of offshore manufacturing?) And there, in the back of the store, a smattering of baby / toddler items. Teensy Elmo / Sesame Street t-shirts and miniscule sweatpants. So adorable. Finally, something I can buy for my first grandbaby, due to Steph and Dennis in mid-April. What a relief. Mind you, as I shop and yes, buy, I push away everything I've read, every red flag I've seen online about American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney. It's like I'm on a bad date with a jerk but he's so cute I don't want to believe it. So let's just stay with the good stuff for now. Just while I buy a few things. Like I said. Desperate.

"Vertical Integration," according to the American Apparel website, "minimizes the use of sub-contractors and offshore labor. Knitting, dyeing, sewing, photography, marketing, distribution and design all happen in our Los Angeles facilities." The company makes apparel for men, women, kids, and dogs. It's committed to "not blindly outsourcing, but knowing the faces of our workers and giving them an opportunity to make a fair wage." A "sweatshop free" environment, the average American Apparel sewer with experience makes $12,000 a year or more, plus healthcare (and there's an onsite medical clinic), subsidized lunches, massages and use of the company bicycles. The building in L.A. carries this banner headline along the top floor for all the city to see: "American Apparel is an industrial revolution."

Since all work is done on the premises, American Apparel boasts rapid turnaround: from design concept to store in only eight days. Business blogger Kevin Meyer, of Evolving Excellence, has featured American Apparel on his site a half-dozen times over the past few years. He says American Apparel "should basically embarrass the heck out of any company executive that thinks they have to outsource to find cheap labor." He says if American Apparel "can manufacture low margin clothing efficiently enough at a U.S. factory to beat the sweatshops, then anyone can…a 5,000 person, $500 million low margin company, operating from a single factory in the least business-friendly state of one of the highest 'cost' manufacturing countries. Beating the overseas sweatshops and still growing rapidly. Are you embarrassed yet?" Sounds like American Apparel stands alone in the clothing industry as an example of how U.S. business can resusitate manufacturing right here at home.

Mr. Meyer tells us the good news about American Apparel. But…after spending time on the company's website, I feel embarrassed for entirely different reasons. I have to wonder: does the good outweigh the troubling? Coming up: What would my Dad think of Mr. Dov Charney? And would he want me to buy from American Apparel?