Fourth worlds and neo-Fordism: American Apparel and the cultural economy of consumer anxiety

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Littler, J. ; Moor, L. (2008)

This article examines the strategies of the ‘sweatshop-free’ clothing company American Apparel in the context of ongoing debates over the cultural turn and cultural economy. American Apparel’s key selling point is that it does not outsource: it manufactures in Los Angeles, pays ‘good’ wages and provides healthcare, yet the workers are not unionised and the migrant labour it depends upon is often temporary. These same employees are used in promotional material to create its brand identity of an irreverent, hip and quasi-sexualised ‘community’ of consumers and workers. A design- and brand-led company that nonetheless doesn’t see itself as a brand in any conventional sense, and markets itself as ‘transparent’, the company’s ethos turns on consumer anxiety towards the socio-economic injustices of post-Fordism. Indeed, it marks a partial return to Fordist modes of production by aiming to manufacture everything under one roof, whilst deploying modes of informality (and technology) stereotypically associated with the post-Fordist creative industries. This paper considers the complex dynamics of American Apparel’s emergence in a reflexive marketplace (in relation to what Callon has termed an ‘economy of qualities’) and discusses its problematic negotiations with ‘fourth worlds’, or the zones of exclusion Castells terms ‘the black holes of informational capitalism’.
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