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Architecture + Branding: Sparse American Apparel retail store design shifts focus squarely on merchandise

1-Twin streams

After a disappointing Christmas holiday shopping season, many retailers, and especially fashion retailers, tend to dominate the business headlines for several weeks into the new year. However, for L.A.-based American Apparel, the troubles began much earlier.

On October 5, 2015, after tumultuous years, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California (source: wikipedia.org, printwearmag.com, cnbc.com, bloomberg.com, thinkprogress.org, thedailybeast.com, sfchronicle.com). Additionally, the suspension and eventual termination of founder and CEO Dov Charney in 2014 only added to the toxic cocktail the company had to weather (source: wikipedia.org, cnbc.com, bloomberg.com, washingtonpost.com, qz.com, racked.com, fastcodesign.com). In late January 2016, following a rejection of Charney’s bid, a Delaware bankruptcy court has cleared the path for the company to emerge from bankruptcy (source: cnbc.com, printwearmag.com). Nonetheless, the very public fight for control that ensued kept the brand in the public consciousness, but invariably did damage to sales, and to the already fragile brand reputation.

American Apparel Factory 747 Warehouse Street Los Angeles CA https___www.google

American Apparel Factory, side 3/4 view, 747 Warehouse Street, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

However, American Apparel was not always on such perilous terms.

After several years of operation as a wholesale operation, selling blank T-shirts directly to screenprinters, uniform companies and fashion brands, American Apparel expanded into retailing (source: wikipedia.org, thinkprogress.org).

American Apparel Factory Store 747 Warehouse Street Los Angeles CA 4 https___www.google

American Apparel Factory Store, front view, 747 Warehouse Street, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel Factory Store 747 Warehouse Street Los Angeles CA 8 https___www.google

American Apparel Factory Store, front 3/4 view, 747 Warehouse Street, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

Claimed as the fastest retail rollout in American history, the expansion into retail in 2003 was nothing short of impressive (source: wikipedia.org, ddimagazine.com, thinkprogress.org). Additionally, as a vertically integrated company, all 200+ retail storefronts are corporately owned and operated (source: americanapparel.com, wikipedia.org).

And these retail stores, although hard to define, are nonetheless rather easy to identify.

2-Street scene

A design strategy that mimics hiding in plain sight, many American Apparel stores do not shout their presence.

American Apparel Factory Outlet 285 Lafayette Street New York NY 1 https___www.google

American Apparel Factory Outlet, front view, 285 Lafayette Street, New York City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel Corso di Porta Ticinese 22 Milan Italy 1 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, Corso di Porta Ticinese 22, Milan, Italy (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 929 West Belmont Avenue Chicago IL 3 2009 https__ww.google

American Apparel (circa 2009), front view, 929 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

20150705_081805 APP 4001 Rue St-Denis Montreal QC

American Apparel, front view, 4001 Rue St-Denis, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Often nestled between, or ganged with other merchants and retailers, the typical storefront is flat, simple, and unadorned. Generally featuring a linear geometry with limited articulation, the architectural design tends to blend into the adjacent tableau, demonstrating a respect for the milieu and/or host building.

American Apparel 6922 Hollywood Boulevard Los Angeles CA 4 2011 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, 6922 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

20150831_065323 APP 345 7th Avenue New York City NY

American Apparel, front 3/4 view, 345 7th Avenue, New York City, New York

American Apparel 104 N. 6th Street Brooklyn NY 5 2012 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 104 N. 6th Street, Brooklyn, New York (source: maps.google.com)

As a rule, American Apparel stores are generally located in busy pedestrian mall, tourist destination areas, near major U.S. colleges and universities, shopping districts with significant foot-traffic, arterial main streets/commercial streets, and major central urban core/city downtown areas.

American Apparel 3-4 Carnaby Street London England 4 2012 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 3-4 Carnaby Street, London, England (source: maps.google.com)

DSC13098 APP 1504 6th Avenue Seattle WA

American Apparel, 1504 6th Avenue, Seattle, Washington

American Apparel 170 University Avenue Palo Alto CA 3 2009 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2009), front view, 170 University Avenue, Palo Alto, California (source: google.com)

Clean and unencumbered, with few permanent brand markers visible, the overall design exhibits an ephemeral, almost fleeting, pop up store quality.

Tending to be on the smaller side, in the sub-3000 square foot, American Apparel street-facing stores tend to feature a narrow yet deep floorplan, with limited frontage.

American Apparel 1060 Westwood Boulevard Los Angeles CA 2 2011 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2011), front view, 1060 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 1531 Pacific Avenue Santa Cruz CA 1 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, 1531 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, California (source: maps.google.com)

20160123_142802 APP 1392-1394 Rue Sainte Catherine Ouest Montreal QC

American Apparel, front view, 1392-1394 Rue Sainte Catherine Ouest, Montréal, Québec, Canada

20160123_143813 APP 1392-1394 Rue Sainte Catherine Ouest Montreal QC

American Apparel, front 3/4 view, 1392-1394 Rue Sainte Catherine Ouest, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Often proposing but a single facade, the front elevation, the interface with the crowd and passersby is clearly stressed. Large see-through windows, interspersed with doors featuring substantial glazing, allow for maximum visibility into the store. For curious on-lookers, passersby, and shoppers alike, the windows offer up a cornucopia of bold coloured merchandise, risqué signage, and racy mannequin displays. Juxtaposed against the mundane and sobering store aesthetic, the merchandising effort is quite clever.

American Apparel 988 E. University Blvd Tucson AZ 3 https___www.google

American Apparel, front 3/4 view, 988 E. University Blvd, Tucson, Arizona (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 499 Queen Street West Toronto ON 1 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, 499 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, the use of large print advertisements, covering up blank space across the building facade above the store windows, amplifies the visual height of the store, and serves as a funnel to direct attention and customers into the store.

American Apparel 338 Yonge Street Toronto ON 1 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, 338 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 250 W 125th Street New York NY 2 https___www.google

American Apparel, front view, 250 W 125th Street, New York City, New York (maps.google.com)

American Apparel 250 W 125th Street New York NY 4 2009 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2009), front view, 250 W 125th Street, New York City, New York (maps.google.com)

Overwhelmingly rectangular, and largely unimpressive design-wise, the street-facing stores make very limited use of parapet details, cornices, canopies, or awnings. Likewise, the stores seldom feature banding elements or wainscots.

Typically clad in a single tone or colour, white, black, or grey, some locations have even introduced various shades of blue into the narrow colour scheme.

American Apparel 18 North Street Brighton England 1 2009 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2009), front view, 18 North Street, Brighton, England (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 1130 Pearl Street Boulder CO 2 2014 https___www.google PEDESTRIAN MALL

American Apparel (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, 1130 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 51 Broadway New Haven CT 1 2011 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2011), front view, 51 Broadway, New Haven, Connecticut (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 619 E. Liberty Street Ann Arbor MI 1 https__ww.google

American Apparel, front view, 619 E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 619 E. Liberty Street Ann Arbor MI 2 2012 https__ww.google

American Apparel (circa 2012) front view, 619 E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel Utrechtsestraat 85 Amsterdam Netherlands 3 2009 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2009), Utrechtsestraat 85, Amsterdam, Netherlands (source: maps.google.com)

Without question, minimizing the physical store allows the merchandise at American Apparel stores to stand out.

3-Making a mall store

Although American Apparel had garnered a following at its street locations in urban areas, enclosed shopping malls remained ripe for brand expansion.

Case in point, in Canada, up until 2007-2008, most American Apparel store were street locations in urban areas (source: ddimagazine.com). In 2008, seeking to create an updated design suitable for major mall locations in Canada, the company worked with Montreal-based Ruscio Studio Inc. to craft a mall prototype (source: ddimagazine.com).

Much like the street-facing stores, mall-based stores feature expansive glazing, minimal exterior ornamentation, and a colour palette that consists of black, white, and little else.

20160123_140918 APP Les Cours Mont Royal Montreal QC

American Apparel, front view, Les Cours Mont Royal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Whereas many street locations featured mostly rectangular shaped floorplans, malls offered a plethora of irregular shapes.

20160123_140817 APP Les Cours Mont Royal Montreal QC

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, Les Cours Mont Royal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

20160123_141458 APP Les Cours Mont Royal Montreal QC

American Apparel, rear 3/4 view, Les Cours Mont Royal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

The interiors feature the brand’s signature wall-to-wall grid wall display system, dump-bins and random merchandising to maximize the space available for product, graphic design installations, and mannequins in store windows (source: ddimagazine.com, vmsd.com, storify.com).

20160123_140904 APP Les Cours Mont Royal Montreal QC

American Apparel, front 3/4 view, Les Cours Mont Royal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

20160123_140948 APP Les Cours Mont Royal Montreal QC

American Apparel, side view, Les Cours Mont Royal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

A neutral palette consisting of white walls, grids, and panels, set against whitewashed oak floors, washed in exposed fluorescent lighting, helps make the merchandise the focal point (source: ddimagazine.com, vmsd.com, storify.com).

American Apparel 55 Parsonage Road Unit 441 Edison NJ 3 https___www.google

American Apparel, interior view, 55 Parsonage Road, Unit 441, Edison, New Jersey (source: maps.google.com)

True to the brand ideals, the built environment at American Apparel does not serve to distract from, or take attention away, from the merchandise.

4-Mixed bag

Even though many American Apparel stores can be lumped together in broad categories, there are many other stores that don’t fit the mold quite as neatly.

Nonetheless, many still showcase many of the traits of their street-facing, and mall-based cohorts.

20160212_092501 APP 967 Mont Royal Est Montreal QC

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 967 Mont Royal Est, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Clean lines, large glazing, and limited architectural detailing serve to accentuate the product, and draw consumers into the stores.

American Apparel 950 Church Street Evanston IL 1 https__ww.google

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 950 Church Street, Evanston, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

DSC13486 APP 234 S.W. Stark Street Portland OR

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 234 S.W. Stark Street, Portland, Oregon

DSC13488 APP 234 S.W. Stark Street Portland OR

American Apparel, front view, 234 S.W. Stark Street, Portland, Oregon

Even when presented with multiple elevations, or even entire buildings, American Apparel makes limited exterior improvements, or brand personalization.

American Apparel 1441 Washington Avenue Miami Beach FL 3 2008 https__www.google

FUTURE American Apparel (circa 2008), front 3/4 view, 1441 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 1441 Washington Avenue Miami Beach FL 2 2011 https__www.google

American Apparel (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 1441 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 2927 Bristol Street Costa Mesa CA 9 https___www.google

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 2927 Bristol Street, Costa Mesa, California (source: maps.google.com)

Often times, the brand would even utilize the building in the colours in their current state, a decision simplified further should they be of neutral quality.

American Apparel 8701 Colesville Road Silver Spring MD 5 2014 https___www.google

American Apparel (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, 8701 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 47 Brattle Street Cambridge MA 1 https__www.google

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 47 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 502 State Street Madison WI 3 2011 https__www.google

American Apparel (circa 2011), front view, 502 State Street, Madison, Wisconsin (source: maps.google.com)

In other instances, American Apparel would apply its limited tone or colour palette of white, black, grey, or blue.

American Apparel 2654 Main Street Santa Monica CA 2 https___www.google

American Apparel, side 3/4 view, 2654 Main Street, Santa Monica, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 405 S. Washington Avenue Royal Oak MI 4 2012 https__www.google

American Apparel (circa 2012), front 3/4 view, 405 S. Washington Avenue, Royal Oak, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 405 S. Washington Avenue Royal Oak MI 1 https__www.google

American Apparel (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, 405 S. Washington Avenue, Royal Oak, Michigan (source: maps.google.com)

By and large, the stores serve the singular purpose to provide a place to hang clothes (source: sfchronicle.com). Amazingly, the simple treatment has become a brand signature (source: ddimagazine.com). Almost wholly taking spaces as-is, the brand relies largely on its sexually provocative advertisements, massive graphics, and counter-culture ethos, to help push its bold and colourful merchandise.

American Apparel 7726 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles CA 11 2011 https___www.google GREY

American Apparel (circa 2011), front view, 7726 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 7726 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles CA 10 2014 https___www.google BLUE

American Apparel (circa 2014), front view, 7726 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 7726 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles CA 3 2011 https___www.google GREY

American Apparel (circa 2011), rear 3/4 view, 7726 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

American Apparel 7726 Melrose Avenue Los Angeles CA 2 https___www.google BLUE

American Apparel (circa 2014), rear 3/4 view, 7726 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California (source: maps.google.com)

Almost reinforcing a “here today, gone tomorrow” feeling to many of the stores, a subtle sense of urgency can be inferred to call consumers to action to pick up a few basics, right now, before they sell out, or move away.

American Apparel 1133 Euclid Avenue N.E. Atlanta GA 2 2011 https__www.google

American Apparel (circa 2011), front 3/4 view, 1133 Euclid Avenue N.E., Atlanta, Georgia (source: maps.google.com)

In the end, that sense of urgency was highest for American Apparel itself, as stores shuttered, and/or relocated, as losses mounted for the brand.

5-A tragic Dov story

What is American Apparel without its sordid story?

For a moment in time, American Apparel, and its founder, were on an upward trajectory, and seemed unstoppable, almost invincible. Rising above the fray of its own making, the company seemingly thrived on the lurid, larger-than-life, bad-boy persona of Dov, layered with hints of sexploitation, helpings of 70’s porn vibe and endless reams of controversy. As though adding to the brand mystique and aura, American Apparel and Dov Charney had increasingly become synonymous.

However, the times have changed.

New CEO Paula Schneider has undertaken to return the company to profitability, streamline the product offerings, refocus on higher-volume SKUs, add new designs, rebuild the company image, and dramatically change the sexually provocative advertising the company was known for under Charney (source: bloomberg.com, thinkprogress.org, washingtonpost.com, qz.com).

American Apparel 802 N. San Vicente Boulevard West Hollywood CA 7 2014 https___www.google

American Apparel, front 3/4 view, 802 N. San Vicente Boulevard, West Hollywood, California (source: maps.google.com)

At forefront on many social issues, including gay-rights and immigration reform, and one of the few clothing companies exporting “Made in the USA” goods, American Apparel’s brand story remains a strong rallying point (source: wikipedia.org, vmsd.com, washingtonpost.com, sfchronicle.com, qz.com, theguardian.com, fastcodesign.com).

As the brand will invariably re-evaluate its store portfolio, as CEO Schneider plans to invest in new stores, further rationalizations and changes may still ensue (source: sfchronicle.com).

DSC08119 APP 4945 Sherbrooke Ouest Montreal QC

FORMER American Apparel (circa 2012), front view, 4945 Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal, Québec, Canada

American Apparel 4945 Sherbrooke Ouest Montreal QC 9 2014 https___www.google CLOSED

FORMER American Apparel (circa 2014), front 3/4 view, 4945 Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal, Québec, Canada (source: maps.google.com)

Fortunately, with its current architectural identity, which features few noteworthy architectural alterations, embellishments or reminders, closed or relocated stores could be quickly repurposed or rebranded, and should not linger on as constant reminders of past failures and brand miscalculations.

 

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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