TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL

Today’s Chinese shoppers are the American Jews of the 1950s, says American Apparel

American Apparel Hong Kong
Wearing simple leotards is exhausting. (American Apparel)

When it comes to clothing and accessories, China’s wealthy are label-obsessed. Signature Rolex watches, Hermes belts adorned with a large gold “H,” Louis Vuitton bags stamped infinitely with “LV.”

That’s an issue for retail chains like American Apparel, known for its logo-less clothes, as it tries to expand aggressively in China. It’s “one of the points against us,” says Dov Charney, founder and head of the California-based company that makes intentionally simple clothing (and revs them up with not-so-subtle ads).

But Charney, who is known for his off-color ideas, thinks there’s hope that logos in China will soon lose their appeal. Such has been the pattern with the fashion sensibilities of the nouveau riche in Japan, Europe and the US, he says. “They’ll learn it’s a little déclassé to show the brand. As people mature and become more comfortable with themselves… they’ll become more interested in design and the cache of the brand.”

Charney’s prime example: the newly wealthy Jewish communities in Canada and the US after World War II. “You see that with the Jews in the 1950s. At first, they want to show they got the money… over time people reject brands,” he says. Charney, who grew up Jewish in Canada, said he learned from his mother that it was “classless” to show exterior branding. In the US, the LV monogram was ubiquitous by the early 2000s, but the pendulum reversed as “stealth luxury” labels like Bottega Veneta cropped up over the next decade.

American Apparel 3

It’s not a bad theory. Already Chinese shoppers have begun shunning Louis Vuitton, the most popular luxury brand in China, because of its overexposure. China’s youth are also gravitating toward fashions that speak more specifically to their unique identity. That may be why American Apparel’s first mainland store in Beijing, opened in 2008, is one of the company’s most profitable. Last month, it opened its first store in Hong Kong, adding to its four stores in Beijing and Shanghai.

But the company’s luxury pricing is an issue. American Apparel’s wares are at least twice as expensive as comparable logo-less basics offered by brands like Uniqlo. AA wares sold in China are roughly 50% more expensive than they are in the US, according to Charney, even though its target consumer in China is less affluent. “In my unofficial survey of American Apparel in China, it is still super niche,” says Philana Woo, associate publisher of Jing Daily, which tracks China luxury news. “The same hipster subset that could afford American Apparel in the US could not in China,” she says.

The clothing chain describes its wares as “aspirational.” At the moment, the aspirers are foreigners living in China, Chinese nationals who have lived abroad, Chinese celebrities, and, oh, the occasional Chinese national with a penchant for stretchy cotton jumpsuits.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search