I love swag. I do. Free stuff! I have a menagerie of acquired t-shirts in my closet ranging from production companies to Bar Mitzvahs.

It was through my swag infatuation I discovered American Apparel. I was given a t-shirt that fit perfectly and I googled the name on the label. This was back in late 2003. There was only one retail store for American Apparel, and it just so happened to be walking distance from my house in Echo Park.

In 2003 “outsourcing” was the worry de jour. I was touring around the country at the time, and there were two kinds of towns – those that were complaining about the pollution left by factories and those towns that were just left by factories. American Apparel was made in the USA – more specifically in Los Angeles. It was great – reasonable label-free clothes made three miles away by people that were paid a decent wage. A Prius pizza delivery uses more fuel. That was something I could buy into!

The first time I went into the store front I was engaged by a bunch of enthusiastic kids that fancied themselves as stylists. I rarely ever interact with anyone who likes their job, especially when that job is retail. These people were the exceptions. They liked clothes, liked talking about clothes and were excited about American Apparel. They boasted about their company’s mission statement. And I was given a 10 percent discount because I lived in the neighborhood! Almost as sweet as swag.

However, even though at times I wanted to, I could never fully embrace the company. It’s like my relationship with tofu – yeah, it’s good for a lot of reasons – but it’s also kind of gross.

“Gross” meaning the cult of personality of the founder Dov Charney. He is a now slightly under 40 hipster who wears his sexuality (literally) on his sleeve. Think Angelina Jolie pre-Brad Pitt…only very oily, hairy, and male. He famously started masturbating during an interview with Jane Magazine, boasts about sleeping with employees and is solely responsible for those saucy advertisements.

I’ve never liked the ad campaigns for AA. It’s not that I am afraid of sexy images of 15-year-old girls. It’s just that you can only be so edgy until you fall off into parody. It’s like, okay, we get it – you’re a pervert – is that all you got? I like my perverts to have some depth (see: J. Edgar Hoover).

Your feelings on it would depend on whether you view Hugh Hefner as a stud or as a one trick pony.

I won’t defend the advertising but I will say that not buying AA clothing because of the sexual nature of the ads and opting instead to buy Chinese imports from Walmart because it seems more wholesome…is ridiculous.

With some consumer power comes some responsibility.

So, almost overnight American Apparel started to use the condensed Starbucks business model. Suddenly, there were stores everywhere. According to the latest press release (in Aug. of ‘07) the company now has 157 retail locations (half of which are on Sunset Blvd.) in 11 countries. The business boomed and then they announced a merger with Endeavor Acquisitions in December 2006. They will go from being a private company to being traded publicly. Will they still be sweat-shop free? Their idealistic mission statement was taken off the website.

Then it started happening. The sales people started becoming more and more like Emo Gap Store rejects with a fraction of the vocabulary. The clothes started becoming more shoddy. I bought three garments at one time and they all shredded after the first wash. Where I used to be able to walk in and exchange an item with no questions asked, now it’s a lip smack and a, “Yeah, we’ve never done that.”

To which I asked, ”How long have you worked here?”

“Like almost (dramatic pause emphasized by author) a year.”

“Uhm, do I still get the ‘hood rat discount?”

To which he replied with yet another lip smack, “Yeah, we don’t do that anymore.”

I can deal with the apathetic yet snotty sales people. I can deal with the nauseating advertisements that were provocative back before Gray Davis was recalled. I can deal with the occasional pair (or two) of defective yoga pants. I can deal with the lack of a mission statement. I can deal with having to pay full price. I can even deal with neon colored clothing (which should be listed as a crime against humanity).

I just can’t deal with all of them from the same store.

Now I’ll buy all my t-shirts from China, but all my produce from a farmers’ market. I’m hoping the two cancel each other out.

With some consumer power comes some responsibility.