Socially Conscious Shopping That Doesn't Suck | Chicago Antisocial | Chicago Reader

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Socially Conscious Shopping That Doesn't Suck

American Apparel and Lush finally go brick-and-mortar in Chicago.


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'Tis now officially the season to consume, and whoever glued shut 200-some locks at that strip mall in Louisiana last weekend is my new hero. But if donating to charity in the names of loved ones this year just doesn't feel right, the least you can do is fork over your cash to companies that seem to give a hoot what happens to the world when they concoct an internationally successful brand of cosmetics, for instance, or manufacture T-shirts by the millions.

American Apparel's ads in hipster mags, where hot, half-dressed waifs strike "does-my-butt-look-fat?" poses to sell T-shirts, make me feel kinda funny. Why does a socially conscious company have to oversexualize its product? But I guess if hot, half-dressed waifs get people to stop supporting sweatshop labor, I can look the other way. American Apparel's enormous Los Angeles factory employs more than 3,000 people, and the folks who sew the clothes make an average of about $13 an hour. Health insurance is available for $8 a week; dental insurance for about a buck. The company also offers paid vacation, a bicycle-sharing program with free lock and helmet, free massages on site, English classes for non-English speaking workers, and more.

"Every aspect of the production of our garments, from the knitting of the fabric to the photography of the product, is done in-house," according to the mission statement. "By consolidating this entire process, we are able to pursue efficiencies that other companies cannot because of their overreliance on outsourcing." Plus, they recycle over a million pounds of fabric scraps a year, and their Sustainable Edition line offers some styles in certified organic cotton.

Last Friday Chicago's first American Apparel shop opened in Wicker Park, thanks to Joe Lauer and Jena Frey, the married 25-year-olds who also run the super-cute Division Street boutique Penelope's, where the inventory emphasizes small and local lines. (This weekend, coincidentally, there's a 15 percent off sale in celebration of the shop's two-year anniversary.)

Late one night in June, at a taco stand in Los Angeles, Lauer and Frey ran into Dov Charney, American Apparel head honcho. They'd met one other time, nine months earlier, when Charney came to Chicago to see how their shop and others were showcasing his products. The encounter was "totally random," Lauer says, but right then and there Charney asked the couple if they wanted to help him open retail stores here.

They scouted out three spaces--one next to Earwax at 1563 N. Milwaukee, one in the old Agnes B. store on Walton near Bloomingdale's, and one in Evanston--and helped pick out fixtures, signage, and graphics. Only the one on Milwaukee is open so far, but though the decor wasn't even finished when I went in, it was still pretty exciting: the company's minimalist cotton T-shirts, yoga pants, A-line skirts, thermals, hoodies, warm-up jackets, jogging shorts, and undies are as soft, sturdy, and sexy as those from more upscale labels like Velvet, James Perse, Ella Moss, or Juicy Couture but cost a lot less--a basic tee is $15, drawstring fleece pants are $32. And according to some press-on lettering near the entrance, their "profitability is a testament to the fact that the model can be applied to many companies and industries worldwide." Can I get a witness?

Another success story you might be happy to hear is that of Lush, a ten-year-old brand of ecoconscious, anticruelty bath and body products handmade in small batches from organic fruits and vegetables, essential oils, natural clays, and safe synthetics. Lush opened the latest of its 277 shops at 859 W. Armitage on November 4--much to the delight of fanatics like me who'd previously been ordering our banana custard body cream and calamine and chamomile facial cleanser, our Mask of Magnaminty and Fig and Leaves soaps, from Canada or begging friends to bring back as much as possible from trips overseas.

Walking into the Lincoln Park shop was such a treat: bath bombs the size of ice cream scoops piled high in wooden bins, slabs of soap stacked like cheeses on tables, facial cleansing putty rolled up like fat sushi, crumbly hunks of solid bubble bath, clusters of shampoo bars that looked like the sprinkled tops of cupcakes, and row after row of moisturizers, lip balms, shaving creams, shower gels, deodorants, and dusting powders. Somehow all the fruity, spicy, sugary fragrances wafting around together didn't curl my nose hairs; in fact, the place made my mouth water.

Out of curiosity, I dipped a finger into a little metal bowl of Sacred Truth--a facial mask made with wheatgrass, green tea, ginseng, and papaya, displayed on ice along with other especially perishable products--and put it on my tongue. It didn't taste good, but neither was it get-me-a-doctor toxic--a reassuring quality in something you're going to slather all over your face.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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