'This is a Revolution:' An Excerpt From Kate Flannery's American Apparel Memoir
Chapter 2 of ‘STRIP TEES: a Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles,’ goes inside American Apparel’s LA Factory in the mid-aughts.
The Factory sat back from Alameda Street, hidden from the road by a chain-link fence woven with orange bougainvillea. I drove right past the entrance—the unassuming opening in the hedge was easy to overlook—and I had to turn back around to find it. I double-checked my MapQuest print- out and slipped the card Ivy gave me back into my wallet. This was the place. Once I saw it for the first time, I’d never miss it again. The official headquarters and manufacturing center for American Apparel was a hulking warehouse painted millennial pink, and it poked out of the craggy wedge of no-man’s-land between the Fashion District and Skid Row like a determined flower.
Emblazoned across the top was a huge banner that read:
AMERICAN APPAREL IS AN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
On the east side of the building, the message echoed in Spanish:
AMERICAN APPAREL ES UNA COMPAÑÍA REBELDE
Just reading it made my heart beat faster. I knew my future—the exciting one I was always meant to have—waited for me inside. I pressed hard on the gas pedal and zoomed through the unpaved lot, cranking up my window when a rising cloud of red dust threatened to infiltrate my car and grunge up the outfit I had agonized over all morning.
What to wear to the Factory?
The name, so Warholian. Loaded with instant mythos. It would have to be something simple, but special, like the classic Cali style that Ivy and the girls were wearing at the bar. I rummaged through every piece of clothing I owned, trying to find something that passed, but every item had a screen print, a lace appliqué, a bedazzlement somewhere, ruining everything. In the end I settled on a black cami I usually wore to sleep, and paired it with maroon surf shorts that were so tight you could see my middle name. They’d do. If I looked in the mirror and squinted, I might have passed for an American Apparel girl.
But there was still something so ordinary about my look. Something was missing.
I immediately thought of the hat.
It was a classic black felt floppy with a little bit of white contrast stitching along the band. It had been my mom’s in the 1960s and now it was mine, a little connection between me and her all the way out here. As the youngest, I got all the hand-me-downs. My mother had a practicality so baked in, she even passed down her own initials to me so nothing with a monogram would go to waste—a bunch of old-fashioned jewelry and embroidered cloth handkerchiefs I never had much use for.
But the hat was cool, just my style. I had worn it on the plane so the crown wouldn’t get crushed in my suitcase and it made the journey intact, but I hadn’t had it on much since I arrived. It was a statement piece, and now it had found its role—it was obviously the perfect thing to wear to the Factory. Vaguely vintage, but utilitarian in the LA sunshine. I was glad I had been smart enough to bring it along in the move.
I was ready now.
Everything was just right, or as right as I could make it, as I weaved a path through the haphazardly parked array of dented pickups and mini-vans on my way to the front doors of the Factory. The outdoor lobby was an old concrete weighing station with two giant elevators and a card table manned by a yawning security guard, unimpressed by my hat.
“I’m here to see Ivy,” I told him.
“Take it to the top,” he said. “Seventh floor.”
I crowded in and peeked under my brim to check out the eclectic mix of garment workers and sleepy hipsters who filled the elevator, and did my best to be cool and blend in. But inside, I was fizzing with nerves.
I had to leave this Factory with a job offer. This was my shot—one last hurdle to clear before I could start living a real life in LA. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears as I stepped off the elevator into a sterile white hallway bookended by a set of orange doors. I checked my watch. I was right on time, but where was Ivy? I tried to distract myself by examining a series of Polaroid snapshots, blown up and pasted on the wall.
In them, a blond girl in red sweatpants and a triangle bikini top prowled a playground at night. In the first one, she’s hanging down from the monkey bars, peeking back at the photographer. In the next, she’s midspin on the merry-go-round, her hair caught in her mouth. In another, she’s straddling a swing with an impish smile on her face, nose scrunched up, defiantly.
I recognized the look right away—the smile of a teenage girl up to no good. I could practically hear the lukewarm Zima bottles clanking in her backpack, the flick of the lighter igniting a swiped Capri from mom’s purse.
I knew this girl because I was this girl, or at least I had been recently. There was something so honest about the shots—just a real-life girl going about the business of girlhood, not really modeling. She didn’t even have any makeup on.
It was so simple, but it worked. I couldn’t stop looking at her. “That’s Natalie,” a voice said. “She’s great, right? You’ll find her roaming around here.”
I turned to see Ivy, who had materialized by my side in a pair of pirate boots and leggings, her curly hair in a topknot stabbed through with a Bic.
“Great hat. I love,” she said.
I beamed as she leaned in for a hug. I was already off to a great start.
The elevator door opened again and unleashed another handful of employees ready to start their workday, all in head-to-toe American Apparel. A girl in Keds breezed by us in a cropped sweatshirt and a tennis skirt. I couldn’t tell if she was channeling the 1950s, or a 1980s revival. All the looks were timelessly chic, their fashion inspirations hard to pin down.
“Let’s start our tour with Retail Operations, the headquarters for the brand,” Ivy said, swinging the orange door open into a clean white room with long conference tables and tall potted plants nodding toward the windows. A coffeemaker gurgled in a corner as a sea of beautiful employees opened laptops and unwound chargers, the room looking more like a Hollywood movie set than anything resembling the crummy office purgatory of Urban Outfitters.
What I noticed right away was that the whole operation appeared to be the veritable melting pot that my public high school had always promised America to be. Racial and cultural diversity fueled the creative nucleus of this brand—there were no old white guys in button-downs, not a single Boomer to be found. No one looked to be above the age of twenty-five, and I quickly clocked that the majority of the employees were young women.
Young women squinting at computer screens, dispensing orders, consulting with one another, rushing through with armfuls of swimwear, tags fluttering. Occasionally a few interloping guys would breeze through, wearing the same basic T-shirt in different colorways, practically interchangeable with each other, but it was obvious—women ruled here.
Ivy gestured across the room, and the Retail department began to transform before my eyes.
I realized I was looking at the corporate version of Bryn Mawr—a powerful woman behind every big desk. They orbited around the desk of one woman in particular, whose authority seemed to be radiating from the giant bun on top of her head.
“No, no, no,” she screamed into her phone. “New York needs three thousand black bodysuits yesterday! Start making them tomorrow so we can start selling them by Friday afternoon.”
Ivy looked at me and smiled, sensing my excitement. “That’s Roz.
Nothing gets made without her approval, she’s a total genius.”
Ivy and I hooked arms and continued our tour down to the fourth floor—one of the two floors devoted entirely to production—as she explained the mechanics of American Apparel’s vertically integrated manufacturing system. Product development, design, marketing, and manufacturing, all were housed under the Factory’s singular roof. That way, if a bikini had the wrong fit or fabrication, or wasn’t quite the right shade of cerulean—“Or if something’s a superseller, like Roz’s black bodysuits,” Ivy mentioned—production counts could be tailored accordingly, and the new products would be sold in stores immediately, while your competitors twiddled their thumbs, waiting months for a response from a foreign sweatshop on the other side of the world.
“It makes sense and it makes a profit,” Ivy said.
It was truly brilliant—why didn’t every factory operate like this instead of outsourcing jobs people already needed here in the States?
We stepped onto the fourth floor, a bright open space filled with windows and light, humming with sewing machines. Dozens of garment workers worked side by side in smooth choreography to create quivering piles of kelly-green men’s underwear, which were quickly stacked up at the end of the assembly line. A new pair came into the world every ninety seconds.
I looked around and noticed sign-up sheets on the bulletin boards for free English lessons, and sign-out sheets for the company masseuse, on call to relieve any kinked necks or numb fingers that might flare up during the workday. I’d find out that at the end of each shift, tranquil spa music and a yoga routine in Spanish would warble from the speakers—a cool-down lap for the body and soul.
This was clearly no sweatshop.
I stared at the pile of green briefs, growing larger by the minute, and a thought occurred to me: How would wearing this fair-wage underwear affect the people who wore it?
Clothes harbor feelings, I knew from experience. I have dresses I wear when I want to feel worldly or sexy. A black turtleneck gives me the confidence of an eccentric genius. The right kind of leather moto jacket makes me invincible enough to tell a street harasser to fuck himself. And clothing retains memories, that was definitely true, too. I had sweaters I retired from my wardrobe because I’d been dumped in them, hoodies I’d donated because I had to send a pet over the Rainbow Bridge while wearing them. Some kind of emotional osmosis happens with clothes and the people who wear them, so it stands to reason that garments ethically manufactured are a wellspring of good vibes.
You feel good wearing them because someone felt good making them.
These undies were made by skilled laborers, compensated fairly for their efforts instead of being sucked dry by the capitalist parasite. There had to be good karma in buying ethical underwear like that. Maybe you’d spend the year that you wore them having satisfying sex, or at the very least avoid shitting your pants.
Maybe that’s why this company was so successful and growing so rapidly. It was such a simple concept—treat your employees like human beings and be richly rewarded.
Suddenly a ruckus disrupted my daydream, disturbing the peaceful din on the floor.
The garment workers had stopped their work. Some of them were climbing up on their stools, clapping above their heads like they were at a concert. Some were still working, their hands flying along on autopilot, but their attention pulled to a corner of the room near the stairwell. All of them were cheering.
Out of a swinging door emerged a little man in a pair of aviator shades, bouncing with manic energy. He was high-fiving the out-stretched hands of the workers closest to him, a flip phone pressed to one ear while another waited in a holster on his belt loop.
He was wearing a tight, white terry cloth polo and matching short shorts, thin as a piece of printer paper. Manicured muttonchops angled across his cheekbones beneath a mop of wavy brown hair. He looked like a 1970s carnival barker, or an extra from Dazed and Confused. He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, but an air of boyish buoyancy rolling off him made him seem much younger.
“WHAZZZUP?” he yelled, throwing his fist in the air. His other still held a phone firmly to his ear.
The workers cheered louder as he gave the air a few pumps. He stood still for a second or two, basking in the adulation, and then disappeared through the swinging door, gone as quickly as he came. Everyone quieted down and got off their stools, settling back in behind their stations, and soon the room filled again with the hypnotic hum of the sewing machines, an industrial lullaby.
“That’s Dov,” Ivy explained, but she didn’t need to. I already knew this man had to be the ethical capitalist she’d told me about at Little Joy. And it seemed like everything she said about him was turning out to be true.
“He rides the city buses early in the morning and finds his workers on the way to their awful sweatshop jobs in the garment district, and he brings them here instead. How many CEOs do that?” Ivy said.
I tried to recall the CEO of Urban Outfitters—all I knew about him was that he was a Republican. But here, everyone seemed to know Dov, and everyone seemed to love him.
“Dov cares about all of us like that. We’re a family here. Everyone works together for a common goal—to make the world a better place. This is a revolution,” she said. “And not just a revolution in manufacturing, but a fashion revolution, a sex revolution. A revolution in advertising, industrialization, globalization!”
I hadn’t ever heard anyone speak genuinely of a revolution. Apart from the time Gloria Steinem came to school to speak and what I’d heard on my parents’ Beatles records, social revolutions seemed to live in the 1960s, resulting in the birth control pill and the Black Panthers.
But Ivy used the word “revolution” freely, setting it loose so that it was a real, live thing running around, and I was ready to revolt. Something radical was happening at this Factory, and I needed to be a part of it.
“Let’s take some shots on the roof,” Ivy said, a digital camera in one hand and mine in the other.
In all the morning’s excitement, I’d forgotten that the reason Ivy had come up to me in the first place was to model for the company. All I had on my mind was where I would fit into this operation, what my job would be. I was hoping I’d be assigned a desk with the Amazonian women of the top floor, but Ivy said she had talked it over with Roz, and where I would be of most use would be at AA001, the Sunset Boulevard retail shop in Echo Park—the very first American Apparel store. “You can help out Anarah,” Ivy said. She explained that the stressed-out store manager had a kid and needed someone to help her hold down the store.
I felt a seeping sense of disappointment, snuffing out all the exhilaration of my morning tour. Working retail felt like something I had out-grown and left behind in the last millennium like a pair of capri pants. I knew I could be so much more than just a shopgirl.
I tried to protest. “I have a degree,” I told her, and instantly regretted it when I saw the look on her face.
“Oh, big whoop,” she said, laughing. “Hard work is what will get you noticed here, not some piece of paper your parents paid for.”
I could feel my face burn hot, I was too embarrassed to argue. She did have a point. I came looking for a job, and I’d leave with one—that was what was important here. I wanted to be a part of this company. I’d do whatever it took.
I agreed to work at the retail shop for $10.50 an hour, forty hours a week, minimum.
“But there’s overtime,” Ivy said. “Lots of it. Prove yourself at the Echo Park shop, and you’ll move on to other roles quickly. What is it that you really want to do? Write? Take photos? Design clothing? Travel? Live abroad?” she asked.
All of these opportunities were available to me, if I put in the work now.
“Or you can go anywhere else, and pad the pockets of some greedy pig in a suit you’ll never meet,” Ivy said.
Her words stung, but I knew they were true. I hadn’t told her about how soulless working for Urban had been, but she was describing my own experience back to me like a clairvoyant.
“Not at American Apparel. Here we hold each other up,” Ivy said. “Here we’ll change the world—together.”
It was an exciting, inciting monologue I would come to know well, one I would soon memorize myself, one that was aptly nicknamed The Hustle, and one I could deliver with the passion of a hellfire minister at the drop of a hat. The first time I heard it was that day at the Factory, and I believed every word.
I was wearing all new clothes.
We had swung by Roz’s desk to pick up a black velour romper with crisscross straps, a brand-new sample that hadn’t hit the stores yet, and it needed to be shot today.
Roz was still shouting into her phone, barely noticing us. She was so tall she had to duck the midcentury light fixture swinging over her desk when she stood.
“Who says we can’t?” she said.
A tinny voice stammered on the other end.
“We can, and we will,” Roz shouted. “This is American Apparel, we can do . . . anything we want,” she yelled into the phone, slamming it down into the receiver. I feared for whoever dared to tell Roz no.
Not me, I was obedient. I followed Ivy’s instructions to change in a small dressing room around the corner, leaving my old outfit folded in a neat pile on the floor, my floppy hat on top. The romper fit great—it suited me so much better than what I had worn. Like all the other American Apparel styles I had seen that day, it, too, had a kind of fashion dichotomy. It looked like a bathing suit from the 1940s, but could double as a 1970s roller girl outfit.
The tag inside said, classic girl.
I checked myself out in the mirror and sized myself up.
Did I look like a model? Not exactly. But a Classic Girl? I could pass for one of them.
Ivy led me onto the roof, squinting at her Canon, fiddling with the settings. The camera looked expensive, and she didn’t seem to know how to operate it.
“Shit, wait. How do I turn this flash off ? Hold on a sec,” she muttered, her brow furrowed with concentration.
I looked off to the downtown skyline, wavering behind me like a giant postcard.
Click click click.
Ivy’s camera started snapping away.
“No, wait, I’m not ready!” I squealed. I hadn’t even been looking, hadn’t known we had started. But when Ivy flipped the camera around, I was surprised to see what a nice shot it really was. I was leaning against the wall, my face propped in my hands, not looking tense or self-conscious at all.
And I did look pretty great in the skimpy romper, second-wave feminism be damned. Its high cut made my skinny legs look a mile long on camera, and it felt natural to have my picture taken just the way I came—no makeup besides a little mascara, my hair just the way I did it back in the mirror at home.
“What’s going to happen to these pictures?” I asked.
I wondered if I’d get posted up somewhere at the Factory like Natalie the playground girl, welcoming future visitors to the Factory from my spot high on the wall.
“Oh, they’re just a test,” Ivy said. “They’ll go in the database, maybe get used for a hang tag, or the website. Maybe nothing at all. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll be getting your picture taken here,” Ivy said. “Get used to it.”
The shoot was over as quickly as it began. It was painless, really. Just a few snaps, nothing major. The last order of business was having my Polaroid taken—“Dov likes to see the new hires every week,” Ivy said, waving the photo back and forth as it developed until a vision of me in the romper bloomed into frame.
With that Polaroid, it all became official. I was an American Apparel girl now.
Ivy gave me orders to report to the Echo Park shop the next afternoon, and I walked out of the Factory completely in awe of everything I had seen that day. I’d found a job, and it also felt like I had found a purpose—how strange to find both things in one place.
I crunched through the parking lot on the way back to my car, feeling every inch the American Apparel girl. The Factory’s magic was a fog around me so thick that I didn’t realize I was still wearing the velour romper until I was halfway home. All the clothes I had worn to the Factory—including my precious hat—were still stacked neatly up there in that dressing room on the seventh floor.
The hat I’d need to get back, but everything else could stay. That outfit was like the crusty old husk an insect leaves behind on a tree after it transforms, and I was ready to be rid of it.
Excerpted from STRIP TEES: a Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Flannery. All rights reserved.