January 12, 2009

American Apparel Unisex Ear Muffs.

Perhaps I’m missing my old hipster-haven home of Brooklyn, I’m not sure, but lately I’ve been really wanting to wear ear muffs. I knew that American Apparel had been adding accessories to the line, so when I couldn’t find a pair second-hand locally, I thought I’d give their website a check and, sure enough: new unisex ear muffs available in four colors.

I received the red ones. My initial surprise came from a flimsy-looking tag that said “real sheepskin.” I had made the mistake of assuming they’d be synthetic. They are made for American Apparel by Montreal-based importer/exporter and manufacturer of wool and sheepskin products RicardoBH. The business sources its wool from South America and Turkey, countries where sheep are raised for food, and sheepskin is a biodegradable by-product of the process of using the entire animal.

On its site, American Apparel explains its choice in choosing RichardoBH: “Founded in 1992, the father-daughter business is family owned and operated, which has allowed them to create products like our new sheepskin earmuffs with the utmost attention to detail and quality.” This represents, then, a new move for the vertically-integrated American Apparel: to import select products instead of making them in their own factory. While at first this approach threw me, as “made in downtown L.A.” is the company’s calling card, it does mean that AA can choose to work with manufacturers that honor similar principles and support them by offering their products to AA’s vast, avid customer base. This will hopefully give a few more U.S. and Canadian manufacturers legs in standing up against the pressures to outsource to countries where regulations permit economic exploitation of their labor force.

I’ve written in the past about the things I love about American Apparel. Waylon Lewis (elephant’s ed-in-chief) has too, highlighting their fair labor standards and vertical integration (and I’ve heard he’s a fan of their underwear but I can’t verify that). Several innovative and responsible aspects of the company seem to outweigh what’s lacking to me: their advertising. Being made “sweatshop free” in downtown L.A. by employees paid a good wage with benefits—and showing that such mindful measures can make for good business—was a huge step forward for the entire fashion and retail industries. Throw in working for immigrants’ rights along with added green steps that the company has taken and I find its breakneck growth unsurprising.

The Guardian just named the brand label of the year, not even giving their organic line or solar-powered L.A. factory a mention. AA also uses energy-efficient bulbs throughout, which have a high color rendering (similar to daylight) which helps worker productivity in creating a more pleasant environment. The company also encourages employees to use alternative forms of transportation through subsidized bus passes and a bicycle lending and maintenance program. In addition, fabric scraps and cotton fibers are recycled for use throughout the factory or in new products like the Recycled Cotton Beanie. The first eco-friendly store was
just opened as well, on 9th Avenue in New York City. Features include recycled tile, locally sourced wood flooring and an LED storefront sign.

Strangely, none of these steps are loudly featured on the company’s website. Perhaps American Apparel is just one step ahead again, in that building sustainability into its business makes good sense, rather than being a passing fad or mere marketing tool.

Their core strength, of course, is that they’re on top of hipster trends, like the ear muffs—another example of everything old is new again. Or rather, what’s 80’s is automatically hipster-y: Ray-bans, mullets, soft old school tees, fanny packs… a cultural trend that doesn’t seem to be losing any steam.

After wearing American Apparel’s pair for a few days I have to say that they are very comfortable, and just plain fun. The black adjustable plastic headband, although cheap looking, forms perfectly to the head, and stays put much better than the pairs I remember from my youth. The sheepskin itself is soft, warm and yes, does muffle sound slightly. I am not a huge fan of the red style—I feel that the shade they chose was a bit of a miss. But at least cars will be able to spot me when I wear ’em out running!

This product is a fun, practical example of how a simple purchase in fact ties in a consumer’s attitudes and choices on many levels. Do you choose not to wear animal products, or are you encouraged by the fact that these will eventually biodegrade (unlike synthetics, which are however recyclable)? Are you psyched about American Apparel’s teaming up with like-minded manufacturers, or would you rather buy products made in the US, via what you know and trust is fair-labor?

Who would have thought that all of these considerations would come into play with a pair of ear muffs? I think that is the main reasons why I appreciate this company—their style, and watching what comes into play in making their business more responsible.

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