LOS ANGELES — An 11-year American Apparel veteran is back in the graphics and design seat.
This story first appeared in the April 15, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The Los Angeles-based firm informed employees Tuesday afternoon that Benno Russell will return to the company Wednesday as design director of branding.
“Benno’s back in the house,” chief executive officer Paula Schneider told WWD. “I think he has a wonderful reputation with the internal staff here. They think he’s extremely, extremely talented so that’s great, and then the opportunity to sort of understand the history of the brand and the DNA of the brand, I think it just adds a lot of value.”
The position had previously been filled by a temporary hire.
Russell left the company in December 2013, when he was art director, and continued to do some consulting work before officially leaving in spring 2014 to focus on his branding agency Pacific Design Solutions. He’s currently in the process of winding down that business.
He reports to Cynthia Erland, who was appointed senior vice president of marketing in February. Russell’s hiring follows the appointment of Joseph Pickman, a former Band of Outsiders designer, who was brought on to head up men’s design.
It’s part of an executive reorganization at the company under Schneider, who was tapped in January to right the struggling firm.
American Apparel reported a loss of $68.82 million last year. Revenue was off about 4 percent to $608.89 million. The company’s shares are trading down about 38 percent so far this year to a recent market value of $112.81 million.
“It was an easy decision to go back on board. That’s for sure,” Russell told WWD. “I think that the company had a lot of procedural [issues] and a lot of the drag on the company was very kind of mundane, technical stuff and that’s obviously getting dealt with. I don’t think American Apparel ever benefited from being unstructured.”
Russell’s first stint at the company involved heading up the art department, which handled advertising, marketing and photography. He oversaw a team that had at one time ballooned to as many as 35 people.
The company’s frenetic pace called for a nimble team that could match the previous rapid-fire store growth, which, at its height, called on the department every few days to outfit an entire store with graphics, Russell said.
“There was a very kind of intense but symbiotic relationship with Dov [Charney, the ousted founder]…and we came from very different places in terms of our tastes and our kind of design ethos. He likes Americana and a lot of maximalist information overload and I’m kind of a minimalist,” Russell said. “And so we kind of complemented each other and sparred a lot creatively. A lot of interesting stuff came out of that dynamic.”
Russell described his initial stint at the company as exhilarating. But things changed as the business came under pressure and the art department, according to Russell, began to lose autonomy and the team he oversaw shrank. By the time he left American Apparel, the department was down to less than 10 people.
Expect no major shift in direction on the design and creative services end, Russell said. Instead, he’ll rely on what worked for American Apparel: black-and-white imagery and bold, minimalist type in advertising. He arrives as the retailer continues to evolve its marketing, dropping the former risqué ads under Charney for more wholesome imagery.
“Our plan is to grow [the department] slowly, but we have to kind of reexamine how everything was done,” Russell said. “In the old days, Dov wanted a different ad to go out every three days. We have to recalculate and re-strategize. We’ll respond to that and rehire.”
Schneider delivered her strategic plan to the board of directors Tuesday morning and, in it, laid out the game plan for turning the business. “It went very well so we’re all moving forward,” she said.