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American Apparel wants to bring vintage to a corner near you.

November 25, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

Can you mass-market vintage?

American Apparel, the influential brand that put a hipster T-shirt store on every corner, is giving it a shot.

California Vintage is the new retail concept from the Los Angeles company: an inviting shop stocked with secondhand clothing and augmented by a few American Apparel staples such as T-shirts, leggings and socks. The first California Vintage in the U.S. opened last week on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.

The idea was born when employees noted that the company's basement sample room, brimming with vintage clothes, would make for a pretty brilliant thrift store. There weren't quite enough clothes to fill a store, said Mathew Swenson, brand manager for American Apparel, "so we hired some girls and they started shopping -- going to rag houses and small thrift stores." Since then, the company has become a regular buyer from secondhand apparel dealers all over the world.

From Day 1, American Apparel managed to tap into some sort of collective longing to be mistaken for downtown 1970s and '80s scenesters. Now, with California Vintage, they're trying to out-cool themselves. These days, in young, fashion-savvy circles, there's more cachet in saying, "it's vintage," than in shopping at a corporate store, even American Apparel. Pair this with an increased interest in eco-friendly and "recycled" fashion (the new moniker for vintage) in the marketplace, and you've got yourself a next-generation retail model.

Compared with American Apparel, famous for its sexually charged ad campaigns and its founder, Dov Charney, who shoots the campaign's photos, California Vintage is positively staid. Signs and ads consist of the store's name in white block letters against an expanse of 1980s-era hot pink.

California Vintage is the first chain of vintage stores owned by a publicly traded company. (American Apparel merged with acquisitions firm Endeavor Acquisition Corp. last year in a deal that's expected to close next month.)

But a good idea is nothing without strong follow-through. And it's in the execution of the concept that California Vintage falls short.

First, the store's small size -- 1,200 square feet -- means it can't provide the fertile hunting grounds offered by local vintage emporiums such as Jet Rag and Wasteland. And instead of choosing vintage pieces on their own distinctive merits, the buying team identifies trends and buys bulk quantities of items that speak to those trends. "We can actually respond to trends more quickly," Swenson said. "The merchandise isn't a random selection. . . . We can put out a call for trench coats and have all the rag house and stores we work with send all their trenches."

This kind of buying, which, on the surface, appears to have the consumer in mind, means there are only a couple dozen different items in the store at any given time. It eradicates part of what's fun about vintage shopping: unearthing singular items -- stuff that no one else has. Still, the high-volume buying might work if the selected apparel was extraordinary in some way. But it isn't. In fact, it would be easy to find a healthy cross-section of the shop's current inventory of cropped leather jackets, well-worn sweatshirts, '80s-era beaded sweaters, plaid button-front men's shirts and "Daisy Duke" cut-off jeans in any Goodwill store anywhere in the world. (The company opened the first California Vintage store in Mexico City in June and recently rolled out two in Germany.)

And though the prices are within reason ($61 for leather jackets, $50 for oversized retro sunglasses and $26 for sweaters, sweat shirts and Levi's 505 jeans), they're still a notch higher than the average for nondesigner vintage in L.A.

Ultimately, California Vintage seems geared toward the amateur vintage shopper: first-timers or those easily overwhelmed by thrift stores. As an intro course, you could do worse. But as much as the indie-spirited company would hate to admit it, this is what always happens when big corporations co-opt fringe business models. They add water and stir.

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emili.vesilind@latimes.com

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