LOS ANGELES, United States — Paula Schneider, American Apparel Inc.’s new chief executive officer, wants the brand to be as provocative as it was under expelled founder Dov Charney. Just with less skin.
“It doesn’t have to be overtly sexual,” Schneider said in her first wide-ranging interview. “There’s a way to tell our story where it’s not offensive. It is an edgy brand. And it will continue to be an edgy brand.”
Schneider, an apparel industry veteran who has led private-equity backed companies and ran the swimwear division at Warnaco Group Inc., has been in the job only a month and is still formulating her strategy. But it’s already clear that she wants to build on the battered chain’s underlying strengths.
Marketing will be less sexualised and will instead take on the social issues of the day, including gay rights and anti- bullying. She also plans to highlight the chain’s made-in-America wares and remind consumers that it pays factory workers much more than those toiling overseas.
“No one knows we’re the biggest apparel manufacturer in North America,” said Schneider, who provided a tour of the company’s Los Angeles factory where she has her office. “That message hasn’t been told. It’s taken a back seat.”
Charney declined to comment.
Schneider’s arrival brings to a close a tumultuous era, during which Charney was accused of sexually harassing female employees and being an erratic manager. American Apparel’s inherent strengths, including a strong connection with millennial shoppers, have been overshadowed by coverage of Charney’s tabloid-ready personal life, criticism of the chain’s suggestive advertising and financial woes that forced the company to raise cash several times to survive. This all came to a head last year when the board fired Charney, a decision that was upheld in December when Schneider was named CEO.
Schneider intends to impose corporate discipline on a chain that was for years managed in an ad hoc fashion. She’s already hired a new head of planning and forecasting to make the company better at matching production with demand, which could save money on overtime and reduce markdowns.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, and it’s mostly in the fundamentals,” Schneider said.
Colleen Brown, who became chairman of the board in December and helped recruit Schneider, said the lack of strong systems and processes is holding the company back. American Apparel doesn’t even have an organisational chart, she said.
Charney “has built an incredible company — quite an incredible brand, but in many ways this is the hardest way to run a company,” Brown said in a separate interview at the L.A. factory. “There’s not an ability to do the routine stuff and just have it happen without worrying about it. The routine stuff takes work here.”
Schneider and Brown have a lot of work to do.
In the third quarter, the last to be reported, sales fell 5.3 percent to $155.9 million. The shares sank to 53 cents on 2nd December before rallying later that month after the company received interest from a potential buyer. The board is currently evaluating that approach. The shares gained 2 percent to 93 cents at 2.22 p.m.
The fact that Charney endorsed Schneider as his replacement helped ease her arrival at a company where loyalty to the founder remains strong. She first met with Charney in October when he was suspended from the company and his return was still a possibility. She then won the job and initially Charney was to remain at American Apparel.
That didn’t happen after Charney turned down the position because he didn’t like the terms. He remains committed to returning to the company in some capacity.
“Walking in here, it wasn’t a fight,” said Schneider, who still talks to Charney on a regular basis.
So far top executives have stayed. That includes Marty Bailey, chief manufacturing officer; Pat Honda, president of wholesale; Nicolle Gabbay, president of retail; and senior creative director Iris Alonzo.
The company’s spring marketing campaign will focus on the top 100 styles at American Apparel in a bid to remind consumers of all the basic items it offers — like a short black skirt, Schneider said. She’s also looking at doing more collaborations with artists and designers.
The brand can also broaden its appeal, Schneider said. She is currently tallying up all the styles the company sells, and their target shopper, to find holes in the assortment. She said American Apparel can do a better job going after more 30- something women and moms.
“The beauty of this company is that it’s a millennial customer,” Schneider said. “So many people are trying for that and have no way to get there. We have that. And we can expand the demographics.”
Schneider wanted to make it clear that American Apparel isn’t running away from sex. She pointed out that the company’s major promotion for Valentine’s Day was called Pantytime — including a YouTube video of models dancing in their underwear
“It has to be a little sexy,” Schneider said. “We sell lingerie. We sell hosiery. You just make sure we aren’t crossing the line. It should be about empowering women, empowering people.”
By: Matt Townsend; editors: Nick Turner and Robin Ajello.