Building a Brand by Not Being a Brand

Some people seek their calling. For others, like Dov Charney, it is bred in the bone. "I think I was born a hustler," said Mr. Charney, the fast-talking founder of American Apparel, the rapidly expanding youth-oriented T-shirt chain. "I like the hustle. I like selling a product that people love. It's nice when a girl tries on a bra or a tie-dye T-shirt, and it's, `Ooh, I love it,' " he said, affecting an ecstatic moan. Mr. Charney cultivates his faintly off-color persona, part garmento, part 1970's pornographer. In fact, he works it studiously, as attested by a photo of him in his store on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which shows him preening in a snug polo shirt and white belt, his mustache scrolling from his upper lip to his mutton-chop whiskers. He is nearly a ringer for the photographer Terry Richardson, famous downtown for bringing the aesthetics of soft-core pornography to fashion photography. The image is meant to resonate with a target market of 20-somethings. Urban hipsters — and some of their elders, too — are scooping up Mr. Charney's form-fitting T-shirts, underwear, jersey miniskirts and hooded sweatshirts, sold in white-on-white stores that double as art galleries. On the walls of the 26 American Apparels that have sprouted across the country and in Europe and Asia are snapshots of 1970's suburban proms and Christmas Eves, poster-size blowups of seedy Los Angeles storefronts, surfers, skateboarders and, not incidentally, scantily outfitted street kids vamping for the lens...Perhaps most important to younger consumers who have grown suspicious of corporate branding, there is not a logo in sight. A business built on the mystique of no mystique, American Apparel had sales of $80 million in 2003, which are expected to double this year, as they have in each of the last four years, Mr. Charney said. He is planning to open 14 more stores before Christmas. Fast outgrowing its status as an under-the-radar phenomenon, the chain is seen as a new model for the marketing of hip...Consumers may like Mr. Charney's management style, but industry insiders are more impressed by his marketing skills, which they say are in tune with a cultural shift. "There is a highbrow stand against commercial culture right now," said Alex Wipperf├╝rth, a partner in Plan B, a marketing firm in San Francisco. "People are sick of being walking advertisements for clothing. By stripping brands of logos and of pretense, by being more subtle in your cues, you are saying that you are more about quality than image."

By RUTH LA FERLA, NYT, November 23, 2004

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