Harriet Walker: Something that cool was never going to last long


The troublesome birth, runaway success and lingering death of American Apparel is symbolic of a force stronger than governments, law-makers and market forces put together: it's in the grip of the unpredictable and vengeful wrath of Cool.

The same values that spawned the firm are killing it. Known as a bastion of West Coast liberalism and anti-dogmatic fashionable subculture, championing gay rights and celebrating a 21st-century international urban bohemia, AA has apparently eaten itself.

Despite a reputation for well-made, stylish basics, AA's political values were tied to a brand ideology of laid-back, hyper-sexualised cynicism. By 2005, the label had become synonymous with a social caricature named rather derisively as The Hipster, an urbane 20-something with plenty of time and cash.

Pre-crash, these long-limbed ectomorphs gambolled in Hackney Fields or Williamsburg with abandon – golden youth clad in AA's signature trichot V-neck T-shirts, matching leggings and geek-chic glasses. The recession turned them into an object of scorn and loathing.

The Hipster was a youth movement founded solely on image; there was no righteous social impetus or cultural integrity and seemingly little substance. AA, it would appear, was born of similar principles.

It's normal for brands to want to police their image in a specific way. But when stringent entry-level checks get in the way of real life, clearly this is unsustainable. A friend of mine recently went for a job at an AA store in Berlin , only to be told she didn't have the "right look". She is a very pretty, slim 21-year-old. Presumably she was held back by her healthy glow and gregarious nature.

Charney is a hands-on figure within the business; the ad campaigns featuring sullen teens in a variety of revealing contortions were his vision. So too were his staff, an attempt to create a Hipster utopia that has more than lived up to its name.

But the clothes, although a little on the small side (a "large" there is a size 12 anywhere else), aren't half bad. £20 seems a tad steep for a white T-shirt, but at least it won't shrink in the wash.

If AA does manage to limp through this unpleasant chapter, perhaps they will be the reformed Hipster on the high street: less focused on appearance, and less likely to simply turn up the volume on their iPods when real life interferes.