Give Me Tomatoes or Give Me Nail Polish: How American Apparel Missed a Handmade Opportunity

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a bottle of nail polish at American Apparel. I’d noticed how shiny and red my friend Sarah’s nails were while we were out to brunch that morning. She’d just bought that color along with a one of the grey hues from American Apparel. Given that we’re both design/branding nerds, we wound up talking about the controversial brand for a little bit.

Sarah told me the line of nail polish had just come out. It sounded unique because the colors were textile-based or had some other industrial influence, so people would see some shades in the line not typically found in other polish lines like OPI or Essie.

There happened to be an American Apparel in the neighborhood we were in, so after walking Sarah to her car, I headed over to check out the nail polish.

I picked up a color called Factory Grey. (I love the color grey.) It’s the second bottle from the right in the top row in the photo below. I snapped the shot with my phone and posted it to my microblog.

American Apparel Nail Polish In-Store Display, Jan. 18

Last weekend, I finally had time to sit down and paint my nails. I snapped this photo.

American Apparel Nail Polish in Factory Grey

A friend asked me how I liked the polish, so when she stopped by my apartment last weekend, I loaned it to her.

And that was it. Girl hears about pretty polish from friend. Girl finds polish, buys and shares with her friends. End of story.

Then yesterday, another friend who saw the photos I posted of the nail polish sent me an article with news of a product recall. Nitrolicious shared an internal memo allegedly from American Apparel regarding the recall:


Due to some quality issues with the glassware used in the American Apparel nail polish we are requesting all bottles be taken off the sales floor immediately. We are working closely with our vendor to improve the product, and will be shipping an improved polish within 5-10 days. Please remove the nail polish from the floor and store it in the back. We will let you know how to dispose of it on the Monday back stock conference call.

THE ABOVE IS CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION FOR EMPLOYEES OF THE COMPANY ONLY. If customers inquire about the nail polish, please inform them that we are preparing our new stock and that they should check back soon. Also, let them know that we are launching 6 new colors for Spring! Give them a card to the store and encourage them to call and check if we’ve received our new shipment.

Your compliance is appreciated. Please contact me directly with any questions.

Thank you,


I was sort of bummed out about it, but didn’t think about it too much. I don’t bite my nails, and if it came out that there was something wrong with the polish itself, I’d remove it and stop using it.

A little later in the afternoon, the same friend (who had been thinking of buying the polish herself) sent along an update on the recall posted in Jezebel with an update purportedly from American Apparel:

“As for the vendor, here’s what the company press release had to say:

For the initial run of 60,000 bottles… the creative directors found a true family-operated nail polish manufacturer in New York City with… the techniques and secrets the family had been using since the early 1970s – symbolized best by the 91-year-old grandmother who still fills the bottles.

Wonder how that 91-year-old grandma is doing right now.

Update: Looks like the bottles were to blame. An American Apparel rep emails:

After receiving a few reports of bottles breaking, we made the internal decision to do a voluntary recall of the bottles on both a retail and public level.

We chose this small US manufacturer to produce our nail polish because we support their business model and have a fondness for family who runs it. However, one of the realities of all manufacturing is first-run glitches. We worked all last week with the manufacturer to make the improvements necessary for the second run. Another reason we sought out a US-based company is so we would be able make changes and now, we can investigate what went wrong as quickly as possible. We still believe in the factory we’re working with and the new polish will be in stores within the next two weeks.

We will offer an exchange of two new bottles or a $10 giftcard for anyone who brings in a unit from the original run or a receipt.

On another note, one thing we’re taking very seriously is the disposal of the bottles we had in the stores. Even though our polish was DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde-free, we don’t want our stores just tossing it in the trash. We’re using our internal shipping and distribution line to arrange a pickup and removal of the polish to make sure it gets done right.

Now, THAT is a story. After reading that, I thought to myself, “What a wasted opportunity this was.” Apparently, the company had shared some of this information (along with cool details on what inspired each polish color) in a press release in December. But that information wasn’t anywhere near the point of purchase, out in front of the people ready to spend money. Why would you rely on a press release to deliver your brand story for you?

As far as I was concerned, the only things that were special about this nail polish were that it came in unusual colors and that is was recommended to me by a friend.

Listen, a tomato is a tomato is a tomato. Some tomatoes taste better than others. But to a person that doesn’t care much about tomatoes, tasting better isn’t enough to make a story about that one tomato spread.

But if you bring someone who likes tomatoes even just a little bit to a farm, and you show them fields full of 20 varieties of tomatoes . . . tomatoes in red, yellow, or with pale green stripes. . . round or oblong, smooth or bumpy and kind of ugly, then you’ve educated someone who has the capacity to be passionate about tomatoes and given them a great story to share with their friends.

They will take your gift when you offer them tomatoes, and they will share the tomatoes and the story, and then their friends will never look at tomatoes the same. (That actually happened to me, by the way.)

What if this were the American Apparel story instead: You walk into the shop, and next to the nail polish display you see a sign that looks like a white board with a white filigreed border.

Just like so.

On the white board, in hand-written marker, it reads:

“These bottles are part of an initial run of just 60,000 bottles made for American Apparel by a family-operated nail polish manufacturer in New York City that’s best symbolized by the 91-year-old grandmother who still fills the bottles.

We chose a small US manufacturer to produce our nail polish because we support their business model and have a fondness for the family who runs it.”

That would have been a really fun story that the type of people who shop at American Apparel would have LOVED to have shared. I would have told my friends that story. I would have probably tracked down that grandmother ’cause she sounds cool as fuck and made a YouTube video of her filling a bottle of my Factory Grey polish. American Apparel would have loved it, it would have gone viral and we’d all be famous.

And then … AND THEN … when the news broke (no pun intended) that the glassware was too delicate to be safely shipped or transported, American Apparel could remind everyone who already bought a bottle that this was a very small, exclusive shipment of the product. But because their devoted shoppers were some of the very first people to try this product, they’d be happy to replace the polish for free when the new, perfected shipment arrived in stores.

Then buyers would have felt special for a second time (the first time being when they realized they were buying a limited edition product), they would have been more forgiving and would have spread the positive part of this story faster and more frequently, thereby helping American Apparel sell more nail polish.

Whether we’re talking about tomatoes or nail polish bottles, it sounds as though great stories are better left in the hands of 91-year-old grandmothers than big companies.


15 responses to “Give Me Tomatoes or Give Me Nail Polish: How American Apparel Missed a Handmade Opportunity

  1. Yeah, but i think putting up that story wouldn’t have helped them much. I think it’s INTERESTING that American Apparel does care about working with a family company, but it seems so at odds with their very very corporate image.

    • I wholeheartedly disagree. Their image – at least to me – is anything but corporate. Their marketing is homegrown, featuring their own customers as models (in hypersexual, borderline pornographic ads – SO not corporate) and they follow an anti-sweatshop, locally-sourced production model ( They’re the anti-corporate large clothing retailer. That’s why THIS story should have been shared specifically with their shoppers. As one of them, I can tell you I would have cared.

  2. I was wondering when you’d get to the tomato bit, but you tied it together very nicely! I agree that any backstory involving little old ladies, families, and home values are more fun to share then press releases. Also, you have lovely hands.

    • Thank you for the compliment!! I think they are starting to look like they cook a lot but I like ’em. Glad the tomato part kept you in the story. Thank you for your comment! (New post went up yesterday on the food site too … ! Writing all over the place!)

  3. Emily, you are so correct about this.

    In school, journalist Stephen Kinzer came to many of our classes to talk about story writing and I spent a decent amount of time talking with him one-on-one. He continually emphasized the fact that there is a story in everything, and that a lot of the times you have to dig a little below the surface.

    He stressed the importance of looking beyond the norm and finding the color; the smaller details that may go unnoticed. Often, that’s where you find the hidden gems! And that is something I constantly strive to do in my freelance work, which is more creative than journalistic.

    Just imagine even a feature headline in the news: 91-year-old Grandmother Bottles Americal Apparel Nail Polish. It’s simple, but interesting and captivating. Having that information displayed proudly in-stores would have made for more intrigue regarding the nail polish, and as you said, made the buyer feel more unique.

    Great analogy, great points, and great writing as usual.

  4. I find the entire story intriguing. Without the “power” of the internet, we may never have known the story – only because an employee submitted that letter to a website.

    While there’s a whole private label industry of companies designing and producing items that are then sold under a different name. (“Vera Wang” at Kohl’s is actually made by Random Company XYZ) But that is such an old-school way of doing business.

    I feel like this issue reflects what’s happening to American Apparel, and what may be their largest downfall. They went from a small, homegrown, different type of company to another large corporation. Sometimes just because you CAN expand that quickly and vastly doesn’t mean you should.

  5. In re: “Why would you rely on a press release to deliver your brand story for you?”

    No company relies on a press release to tell its brand story for them. The purpose of a press release is to get the word out on new happenings, usual to media folks or conscious customers, so that a reporter or blogger like you can cover a larger story and from a perspective much more unique than the one coming from the company’s marketer or PR person who writes the release.

    Since it was only an initial run of 60,000 bottles, and with a price point of $6 for a bottle of nail polish, it’s probably not worth the dollars to market the story of a family-run factory, with a cool 91-year-old bottle filling granny just yet, plus with the initial glitches (for which they are exhibiting truth and transparency in the matter in which they’re removing the polish from shelves and disposing of it in an environmental conscious manner) maybe American Apparel was waiting to see how the polish would perform first before putting up information about the story behind the polish in their stores. Maybe that’s a good thing- more people could have potentially been inspired by the story and purchased it, and if that were the case there’d be more broken bottles out there.

    • In the interest of “truth and transparency,” though: why the “confidential” internal memo rather than a straightforward press release? Was the leak intentional, and if so, why leak to jezebel, a site that regularly slams Dov Charney and rips on American Apparel?

      I can’t wrap my head around whatever “logic” justifies an initial response of instructing employees to lie to customers, and withholding details of a product recall from the public in a case where the product could potentially cause bodily harm.

    • Alisa — Thank you for stopping by, and for your comment.

      First off — I understand the purpose of a press release. I was a journalist for years, and now spend quite a bit of time getting pitched myself. I understand that no company *should* rely on a press release, but my point is that American Apparel seems to have done just that.

      There were a couple of blogs that highlighted the cool aspects of the product including the grandma angle and the color inspiration angle (,, but I believe that the company should have had that information front and center in a display somewhere near the point of purchase so that every potential customer could have embraced the story.

      I don’t agree that they were taking a “wait and see” policy, and don’t agree with the tactic. If a consumer-facing company sucj as American Apparel has a product worth making and selling, then they should back it as a product worth marketing. And effective marketing means telling a memorable story.

  6. chrisbean- i’m not sure, good point. the only thing i can think of is that maybe the recall was not something that they’d want to put out a press release on… i do not know what sort of legal obligations are tied to issuing formal product recalls, i.e. you hear about recalls for bad beef and car seats and the like, but are those sent out after a certain number of instances? the leak to a site like jezebel does make it all the more confusing, but i guess we just don’t know the impetus for that whether intentional or unintentional.

    as for “instructing employees to lie to customers,” have you ever worked for any corporation, or anyone? that seems to be part of the deal, whether a for-profit venture or even not-for-profit like a library. here are two instances of lying recently which are sad and have nothing to do with nail polish:

    1) a friend of a friend works as a librarian for a small library in a state and county which will remain unnamed. she found out that the county commissioners were targeting her library to close due to budget cuts. nevermind that her library has a packed parking lot, is located in the poorest town in the county, and that many of the teens who are minorities hang out at her library for Internet access b/c they don’t have computers at home (so much for Obama’s dream to make Internet access available to all!). This info that it is to close leaked in a memo, and now she is instructed to not say anything or not give any details to patrons because it could jeopardize her job at other libraries in the system. How f*cked up is that?

    2) Last week I went to a local Walgeeen’s store. All of registers except camera and make-up were just replaced by the self serve computer system. A cashier who is maybe 70 years old and who is usually a cashier there that I know was helping to orient us customers to the new computers. “But what will happen to your job?” I asked her. She replied, “This is more efficient, it will be better for you.” and again I said, “What will happen to your job? I see you here all the time?” And again she said something like, “This will be better and more efficient.” Then I asked her, “Do you like this new check-out system?” And she just sighed and looked at me as her eyes were watering and I know she couldn’t say anything actually truthful, so I apologized to her and walked out. These are two instances of having to lie for your company. I could walk out on the street today and find five more.

    The Internet and blogging and the like is what makes PR people cry in their pillows because they can’t control the truth or curb the spread of truth, which in a way is a good thing.

    • The story about having an employee give instructions on how to use the machine that’s replacing her is incredibly sad. And it’s happening all over the country and has been for decades. That really, truly sucks. Alisa, if you haven’t checked out the new book Linchpin by Seth Godin, I suggest you do so. I think you will dig it and get a lot out of it.

  7. Emily, thanks for the recommendation, I will try to check Linchpin out from my library here in Chicago… it sounds interesting. and yes, it is happening everywhere, and so prevalent. Another example: my 60-something mother working loyally for 11 years at a corporation, then given instructions to train a new young employee, a temp-to-perm, and a few days after her small company gets bought out by a larger one, my mom gets laid of and the employee she was training gets her job due to “right-sizing.”

    Ah, well, truth be told I am under employed myself and off to do some work now. Easy to get sucked into the black hole that is the blogosphere, eh? Have a good one, Emily, I’ll try to peek in on your blog from time to time. :)

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