Monday, September 20, 2010

10 things that American Apparel and Bratz have in common.

Demure and Preppy, of course those are the first two things that come to mind when I think of Bratz Dolls. Well, at least that's what MGA Entertainment Inc. (owner of Bratz)'s CEO, Isaac Larian, is banking on.
"Unlike the bare midriffs and tube tops that were popular during the "age of Britney Spears" when Bratz first hit the market, today's styles are more modest and understated, Larian said. So MGA's designers worked to make the new dolls "more preppy than sexy," which meant downplaying some of the traits that had made them unique in the first place: skimpy outfits, pouty lips, dramatic makeup and bling jewelry."

Wait wait wait, I said to myself. "Self, This sounds familiar... why does it sound familiar? OH RIGHT!!! to Businessweek:"

"American Apparel is going preppy, diving into more sophisticated garments such as blazers, pleated pants, button-down shirts, and more formal lace tops." Never mind that the "formal lace tops" are completely see-through.

That's right, two brands that have established their brands on edginess are looking to preppiness as the panacea to their problems, nevermind that decade of product rollout... there is no man behind the cornflower blue curtain in highwaters and a boating jacket...
Obviously, I have some thoughts, but before that; what else do they have in common?

Quick note: pretty much every link that I can find about American Apparel has an ad for the company that could be considered NSFW in some cases. I give you this blanket warning now. 

1) Maverickyness out of the gate.

Bratz hit the toy scene 10 years ago and became a phenomenon with young girls offering a legitimate challenge to Mattel's Fashion-Doll Juggernaught, Barbie.

Similarly, Dov Charney's American Apparel was founded in 1989 as a t-shirt manufacturer that built a factory in Los Angeles and paid all its workers a real wage. Its original line of t-shirts rapidly expanded surfing on its ideals of sustainability throughout the aughts. It is still the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States.

2) High Minded Ideals

In taking on Barbie, MGA Entertainment sought to offer a doll that appealed to an urban, multi ethnic customer base. This was largely successful and resonated with the ideas of spoiled, celebutants and divas who were so ubiquitous in the new in the early 2000s. This can also be seen in the Bratz movie, which features an ensemble of diverse girls and even explicitly stages an episode of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen. By offering a product to an under served market, MGA planned on profiting while providing aspirational figures of glamour and style to girls who did not see themselves mirrored in traditional dolls.

American Apparel has always been a study in controversy, before it became a fashion line, it was a t-shirt wholesaler committed to fair wages and sustainable manufacturing.

From Dov Charney's Twitter Feed.
It’s t-shirts that look good, t-shirts that feel good, and t-shirts that are made in a non-exploitative setting.

We designed the rate in such a way that the average person should be able to make $100 a day, that’s our target.

We want to pay more than the prevailing wages in Los Angeles, because we want to have the happiest work force we can have.

I have the highest-paid apparel workers in the world.
Their success can largely be explained by having a quality product that hit at the moment of the "green" trend that was reasonably priced, arguably more equitably made, and an attractive alternative to Jerzees or Fruit of the Loom in wholesale. These shirts rapidly became the preferred choice for the screen-printing set, just as the online sale of t-shirts boomed and the nod to greater sustainability suggested by the brand name resonated strongly with the youth market.

3) Niche Aesthetics that became fashion trends.

The first Bratz lines were very much based in an urban aesthetic that drew from a very few dolls with distinct edgy styles proved a solid gamble. Bratz became a byword for a fashion of dress that featured low cut jeans, sequins, heavy makeup, sexually provocative hem and waistlines, especially for young girls who were seeking to appear older and more independent. While these styles and tendencies were not entirely new, Bratz were the vanguard of a trend that led to Club Libby Lu and half a dozen other companies that would allow girls to live their diva dreams.

Similarly, the seventies inspired styles of American Apparel's first fashion lines appealed to the increasingly over the top stylings of teens and young adults. Combining this and keeping their patterns basic, the increasingly do-it-yourself generation Y was able to customize that clothing. American Apparel is a byword associated with "Hipsters," and their cool-but-not-at-all-cool aesthetic meshed well as the line went even further into pornographic inspirations.

4) Quality

Both brands established themselves early by the quality of the materials they used. For both, this difference was a profound motivating factor in customer activity as the brands established themselves in the marketplace. American Apparel's wholesale shirts have maintained their quality and appear to have maintained the commitment to fair labor practices.

Bratz dolls used actual fabrics in their doll's clothes at a time when Mattel was cutting back on the core line of Barbie's material costs. A girl opening a Bratz doll for the first time has a lot to explore. Based on my own observation of this activity by a relative around 2005; there are usually layers of clothing pieces, denim jackets, sequined scarves, patterned t-shirts, perhaps an imitation suede purse, vinyl shoes. A similar Barbie doll might be wearing layers, but generally those layers were plastic shoes, plastic cloth skirt and shirt, Velcro fastenings and that skirt, it didn't close all the way in back. The tailoring on the Bratz doll was competent, even if the design itself raised an eyebrow.

The sensory power of this experience cannot be understated for a physical product. These associations are powerful and the comparison between the two, or two similar, equally priced t-shirts one with an association with fair labor practices, cannot be understated as driving factors in consumer activity.

5) Fashion!

I'm reaching a little here, but it's true, both brands are built on the back of trends that reached their peek during 2000-2010. There seem to have been conscious choices to become trendy and popular above longer term thinking towards the maintenance of those aesthetics after that wave broke onshore.

Bratz are fashion dolls, and rightly so, they followed the trends of the day. What older girls and women are wearing will always affect what the dolls of younger girls wear. Can it be helped that the dolls looked a little like contestants on Flavor of Love at times? When a young Paris Hilton was the biggest female icon around? Let's just all thank mad men for bringing natural waists back to fashion.

Natural Waist is a term in clothing design, it refers to this type of shape.
American Apparel was soooo hot in the 2000s. It's no-explicit-branding brand aesthetic was distinctive and it's odd, quirky designs hit the mark. At the same time, as the fashion line overtook the wholesale t-shirt business in the public eye, it has become harder and harder to distinguish between the company, the fashion line, the t-shirts, the advertising, and the ideology of production, and the peccadilloes of it's Chief Executive.

6) The Public Eye.

With the sincere efforts of Bratz to expand into animation, film, television and beyond becoming a transmedia franchise (albeit an anthology lacking a unified chronology) Bratz became more than just dolls, it established itself as a mantra, "Brattitude". These extensions usually met with commercial success, though they are hardly classics of American Cinema. Their ads have also been criticized for sexualizing young girls:
The report cites Bratz dolls, in particular, for "sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas."

"Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality," the report says.

Isaac Larian, CEO of Bratz doll manufacturer MGA Entertainment, based in Van Nuys, Calif., says he "adamantly disagrees" with the report's assessment of the dolls. The company has sold more than 125 million worldwide in the seven years the dolls have been on the market, he says.

"These are the clothes that are worn if you go to schools anywhere in the USA," Larian, a father of three, says. "They are not sexy. Bratz dolls are caricatural plastic dolls. They don't even look like real human beings. They're cartoonish."
American Apparel on the other hand has also expanded into the entertainment industry, with blogging and porn!  To American Apparel's credit, at least this was consistent with its advertising campaigns. They have attempted to branch out from this singular advertising aesthetic, but this has been at best... litigious, or outright lies.

The response from The A.A. team has always been that this is their intention and that it is "artistic"

To Charney, American Apparel is a new frontier of sexual openness in marketing where the old rules no longer apply. The following quotes are from a Dateline NBC piece about one of American Apparels Sexual Harassment cases.
Charney... “this is a different kind of company.  We are trying to sell things through sex appeal. And if you don’t like the fact that we’re much more frank about and open about sex, then go work somewhere else.”
7) Controversy about Sexuality, abridged.

As I mentioned above, American Apparel has always been pretty explicit about its inspirations from pornography and well, let's leave off on the sexual harassment, that's a few thousand more words than we have time for right now, we have 3 more numbers to get to. But I'll leave you with this ad image for reference.
This one caused controversy in the UK in its original form, this iteration passed muster with censors.
Now, Bratz has often been accused of perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. Most commonly, encouraging the 5-9 year old set to start viewing themselves as "sexy" and to comport themselves in a way that highlights an objectified and limiting view of sexuality.

But it's one thing to make a doll that dresses in a slatternly fashion...

In-image commentary thanks to this is what happens when you google "slattern bratz"
... and quite another to make padded bras for 6 years olds. Which apparently happened in Australia.

Needless to say people found this at best, superfluous, and the ensuing outrage convinced stores to pull the bras. But while these are obviously questionable, much hay can be made about the rest of the fashions marketed to girl children, especially by the Bratz. (Relive me trying to find jeans that were not low-rise, hobbled or bedazzled for my 2 year old here)

8) The Law.

To say that these companies have been wildly successful only to spend it on lawyers is hyperbole, but it is clear that many lawyers have put down payments on G5s off the entanglements of these two companies.

Entire blogs could be made about the legal issues of American Apparel, in fact, I'm going to outsource even a fraction of this timeline elsewhere... take it away "The Week."

Aside from that helpful timeline, here are some in-depth articles about just what has gone on. This isn't even beginning to scratch the surface, but suffice it to say Dov Charney seems to be a bit of a perv, and the "non-traditional workplace environment" whether all parties agree to being in a "non-traditional workplace environment" does not seem to have led to the best financial management. The truly sad part is that the controversy about sexual and workplace harassment and abuse of white-collar employees is often pitted against the ideologically sound fair-wages of the factory workers. Forcing people to chose is a dirty ploy, you can't say "oh I may have sexually intimidated or insulted this person, but look at how my factory runs" and expect people to think it's 'ok'. At the end of the day it matters how your entire business operates and their current troubles only serve to put that point into clearest focus. More in #9.

Bratz's controversies begin with the design concept and just get worse from there. Now, I'm going to say right now, MGA does not have the same type of legal troubles as American Apparel. Not by a long shot. For all intents and purposes, MGA has less gossipy problems, lets call them differences of opinion. I've profiled Emily The Strange's issues with intellectual property ownership and at least compared to A.A.'s issues, these two legal battles are much more similar.
From the LA Times:

During the last few years, a legal tug of war between Bratz maker MGA Entertainment Inc. and rival toy company Mattel Inc. over the ownership rights to the dolls left the brand crippled. After a trial jury ruled in Mattel's favor, the wildly successful dolls all but disappeared from stores as MGA pulled back on manufacturing and retailers kept their distance.

But when a federal appeals court in July overturned the 2008 ruling and ordered a retrial, MGA's outspoken Chief Executive Isaac Larian triumphantly declared that he would be releasing a new line of Bratz dolls for the fall.
For more in-depth discussions of this cases, go here, here and here. Long story short, The first trial determined that MGA had created the dolls from designs contractually owned by Mattel, and the appeal determined that a mistrial should have been granted because the jury was tainted and overturned the verdict. The retrial is scheduled to begin in January 2011. Meanwhile, expect Bratz on the shelves this holiday season.

9) Times of Trouble

Both brands are now facing holes that they have to pull themselves out of to regain their former glory. Bratz was prevented from releasing several seasons worth of products while they were embattled in court with Mattel Inc.
At their peak, annual U.S. wholesale sales of the Bratz dolls and related products were estimated to be more than $500 million. Meanwhile, U.S. wholesale sales of Barbie dolls and related products fell every year from 2001 to 2005, from $825 million to $470 million, according to estimates from Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets.
Now, having lost years to the legal wrangling, Bratz must attempt to retake their place in the market having been completely absent. Can they recapture what made them successful in the first place when external tastes have changed?

American Apparel on the other hand, by its own internal mismanagement is in even more dire straits.
American Apparel shares trade at less than $2, down from a high of $16.80 in December 2007. The company teeters on the verge of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange (NYX) Amex because it has been late filing quarterly reports, and last week its accountant, Deloitte & Touche, quit, saying American Apparel's 2009 numbers may not be reliable.
10) Falling into the Gap. 

Both brands think that a more demure, less explicitly sexy look is the way to broaden their consumer base in times of trouble. But what would "toning it down" really mean to each one? And is that nod too little too late as consumer have tired of the old glitter-covered schoolgirl outfit. As the nation collectively scrapes off the caked and stale eye-makeup of the millennium and the decade that followed, what will remain?
“Kids are moving away from piercings,” Charney says. “We want to grow old with our customer. We want to be a traditional American clothier.”

"It's going to take a long time for Bratz to become what it was before because of the damage that's been done," Larian said. "But it still resonates with kids." 
Now, to be sure, these quotes are talking about different "kids" but let's take a look at what we can see already in this attempt to change ways and win us all back, hat in hand.
Unlike the bare midriffs and tube tops that were popular during the "age of Britney Spears" when Bratz first hit the market, today's styles are more modest and understated, Larian said. So MGA's designers worked to make the new dolls "more preppy than sexy," which meant downplaying some of the traits that had made them unique in the first place: skimpy outfits, pouty lips, dramatic makeup and bling jewelry.

For example, an earlier version of the Yasmin doll, named after Larian's daughter Jasmin, sports a long, thick mane of Goldilocks-style curls, over sized pink sunglasses and a skimpy gold swimsuit with pink ribbons crisscrossing her slender waist.

In a 2010 version, Yasmin wears a pink baby-doll top over gray leggings, a fitted navy-blue cropped jacket and studded black boots. Her earrings are smaller, her lips less Angelina Jolie-like and she has almost no exposed skin.
This idea seems to make a lot of sense for Bratz. Going into a second decade, and looking at the established record of media endeavors Bratz still has a chance, as long as it can broaden its aesthetic. Fun, Friends, and Fashion are all great concepts that still resonate, but as Bratz matures, it should return to fashion and really see what is there now.

Unsolicited Suggestion:

Christina Hendricks inspired and designed line of dolls. Classy as all get out, fashionable and zeitgeisty in a way that could lead to iconic looks. Broadens your market appeal and creates new and exciting images and associations for your brand. Take the original association you started with, that of girls who don't see dolls like them, and reach out to women who are trendsetters who are making waves because they are not traditionally the sort of women that you see in the celebrity pages, also consider Gabourey Sidibe and Beth Ditto. The list just goes on and on, and yes, I'll accept a credit card.

Ok, American Apparel lets take a look at how preppy will save your world.
Guys, I get it, as long as Dov is working there there will be sheer shirts, fine. But you know what this looks like? boring. Where is the color? your store is the only place to find clothes of certain hues and honestly, I try not to hate you for that reason. The generation that grew up on Ninja Turtles and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air demands color! I assure you that that won't be going away any time soon, even if the Thong Leotard should go into the room in the back behind the beaded curtain.

But since you're probably about to go bankrupt, I'm going to suggest you focus on the thing that you've always done best and that I really hope doesn't die in all this. Your factory and wholesale business. The worst thing about you American Apparel is that you are distracting from your ideological and reasonably ethical labor endeavors... with your grossly unprofessional other labor behaviors.

As far as your fashion line goes, as long as you're making basic tees and tank tops in a range of colors and you get your financial ducks in a row (good luck with that) you could sell chicken suits as your "new look" and you'd probably be ok. Do us all a favor and focus on the positive, and if you end up having to drop the fashion line all together, I doubt the world will miss it.

Can this sartorial change usher in a new era of classiness for the oh so demurely titled Bratz? Will American Apparel turn itself around based on the idea that a lace bodysuit with a button down shirt over it counts as pants? and more importantly... will Bratz Ponyz still look like whorish pigs? Will Dov Charney continue to comport himself as a whorish pig? only time will tell.

Tell me with a strait face this isn't a pig, I dare you. 

Originally posted on Saturday, September 20, 2010

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