Get a Life – 2/25/05

By Erica Cerulo

Walking out of Japonais last Saturday, I commented to my little brother that we were leaving just as the tight-T-shirt-wearing hordes of metrosexuals were making their entrance. Entrusting their shiny cars to the valet, the latecomers talked urgently on their cell phones. The men were clad in tops meant to show off all of their hard work in the weight room. They seemed oblivious to the fact that there is such a thing as trying too hard.

Must this new breed of boys wear a uniform as synthetic as their hair and skin color? At what point did guys switch from putting on to painting on T-shirts? Apparently, I am supposed to be attracted to a man who likes to admire the guns from beneath a bicep-hugging black tee, but my loyalties remain with the basic variety: the sexier and more subtle classic immortalized by James Dean.

Thankfully, I am not alone. Recently, there has been a movement to take the sleaze out of the tees, and Chicago’s new outposts of American Apparel are heading the campaign. At the store’s Gold Coast and Wicker Park locations, shoppers can find hip tees that retain an endearing quality that has been lacking of late: they are 100 percent cotton.

Although the collection is based on the brand name-free classic T-shirt, the shop stocks an array of other merchandise, almost all of which is entirely made of cotton. For the ladies, there are $26 dresses and $15 jersey scarves. For the men, there are $32 fine-knit polos and rows of jackets. What the goods lack in Lycra, they make up for in styling. The fit is divine, finding the perfect balance between fashion and function.

Unlike Mr. Dean, though, American Apparel has a cause. With a factory in downtown Los Angeles, the company proudly proclaims its wares “sweatshop free.” The store displays poster-size images of the tags of other makers that scream “Made in Cambodia” (or Thailand, etc.) to highlight the company’s mission. According to The New York Times, the workers are paid an average of $13 an hour, and American Apparel manages to keep the prices competitive. What does that mean for us? The birth of an addiction.

The only thing paint-like about these pieces is the Sherwin-Williams color palate. While they certainly sell the basic white, the tables are also stacked high with reds and pinks and blues and greens, combating the drab winter shades by bringing on the spring ones. In keeping with the socially conscious nature of the company, they also have a new line called the Sustainable Edition, which is made with 100 percent USDA Certified Organic Cotton, and includes a neutral-colored thong at $9.

The Walton Street store is overtly hip while still being welcoming. The smiling salespeople are eager to wait on you but aren’t so eager as to provide a constant reminder that they probably work on commission. With its stark, white-on-white decor, the place feels like an art gallery, and in a way, it is. American Apparel has re-mastered the art of the T-shirt.