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American Affair By Maureen C. Wyse
On their website, American Apparel presents
a short documentary profiling founder and CEO Dov Charney as a flighty,
fun and hip business owner. He appears to have a jovial relationship with
his staff, and knows all the right things to say—sweatshop-free,
worker benefits, advanced technology and (some) sustainable, organic cotton.
American Apparel also touts their downtown LA warehouse—the largest sewn
garment facility in the country—as a one-stop shop for everything but the
cotton picking and spinning. And with 97 percent of all apparel sold in the U.S.
being made outside of the U.S., it is quite impressive. It’s hard to shake
a stick at a company claiming to pay the highest wages in the garment industry,
$12 per hour on average, plus paid time off, affordable healthcare, company-subsidized
lunches, bus passes, free ESL classes, on-site masseuses, proper lighting and
ventilation and even a bicycle lending program. Plus American Apparel is the
only apparel manufacturer of its size committed to recycling all of its scraps.
So what’s the problem?
Recently defunct Clamor Magazine published in their Fall 2006 issue an exposé questioning
the ethics of American Apparel. The gist of the piece was that while the sexy
clothes appeal to the rich niche target market of liberal progressives…what’s
really behind the hype? The feature cleverly and pointedly exposes the anti-union
stance of, and sexual harassment allegations against, founder and CEO Dov Charney.
While American Apparel has always been the place I’ve wanted my t-shirts
to come from, questioning their standards and contrived intentions now plagues
I sighed as the seam on the inside right armpit of my newly purchased sea foam
green, Sheer Rib Long Sleeve Turtleneck—American Apparel’s RSAS306—began
Aside from actually being fashionable, fitting well, and available in pleasing
colors devoid of obnoxious words, phrases or worse, brand names, the clothing
is surprisingly poorly made. Charney boasts his technology manufactures the best
product, but with the amount of cash he is sitting on, even after paying employees
their phenomenal wages, one would think the clothing would stay together while
worn. Or that perhaps the garments would be preshrunk to some degree, so that
first washing doesn’t transform it into your little sister’s midriff
top. The predictability of the fabric and quality of sewing is simply sub par.
American Apparel has acclaimed name brand popularity worldwide and raked in $275
million in the last year. Plus they recently merged with Endeavor Acquisition
Corporation, with plans of going public and expanding overseas. Having paid over
$30 for my t-shirt… am I wrong to expect more?
American Apparel claims their year-round employment and job security has “virtually
no turnover.” But why stop with the elimination of sweatshops? Why not
let the workers unionize and have a say in their company? Perhaps Charney’s
history has something to do with it. According to the Clamor feature, originally,
American Apparel was conceived not with talk of sweatshops, or fair business
practices in mind, but rather sex. “Dov had never shown any interest up
to this time in the sweatshop issue whatsoever,” says Adam Neiman, CEO
of No Sweat Apparel, American Apparel’s biggest anti-sweatshop and pro-union
competitor. “It was all about sex—sexy tees, sexy tees, sexy tees.” Neiman
suggests Charney only hopped on the sweatshop bandwagon when he realized that
another t-shirt outfitter, the late SweatX, was opening right next door. “He
saw a threat from SweatX, so all of the sudden he realized that here was press—lots
of it—so he played that angle,” says Neiman. Charney simply
knows the shtick, as he boasts that workers in other countries would be getting
only two dollars a day or even a week. Who would complain about AA’s work
Reading Charney’s vivid commentary in Clamor’s exposé regarding
his amateur, soft-core porn ads was disconcerting. And worse was learning of
worker allegations against Charney and the slew of sexual harassment charges.
Essentially, three former employees are suing Charney for sexual harassment.
According to these women, Charney refrained from sexual coercion, but created
a wholly intolerable, intimidating atmosphere with unnecessary “libidinous
testosterone.” To add to Charney’s atypical work ethic is his uninhibited “business
and pleasure” attitude. Charney claims the criticism stems from what he
refers to as a “new wave of feminism and sexual control,” and that
his “hyper-sexualized workplace reflects the liberated spirit of youth
culture.” But that just doesn’t sit right. While clearly there is
a market desiring Charney’s hip and relatively affordable clothing, does
this justify sexploitation?
What to do?
Keely Savoie of Clamor words it well, “the American Apparel demographic
of low-wageworker-defending (but high-wage-earning), guilt ridden lefties who
want nothing more than to assuage their own angst-ridden middle-class anxiety
about having succeeded in the capitalist world by consuming with conscience (and
the more conscience, the better: sweat-free, fair-trade, organic, vegan, and
sustainable)—ate it up.”
Sadly, Satya did too. We have been printing our t-shirts on American Apparel
and until recently have felt good about our decision. While American Apparel
is undoubtedly a huge leader in alternative garments, we abhor the sexual harassment
cases against Dov Charney, the sexploitation of women to sell garments and anti-union
stances. As Dez Williams of Clamor puts it, “In light of [Charney’s]
status as self-professed masturbatory exhibitionist and equal-opportunity employee
fondler, I would have serious reservations about shaking American Apparel senior
partner Dov Charney’s hand. His seemingly strong sociopolitical message
has taken a back seat to tales of union busting and sexual harassment.” How
do we justify supporting Dov Charney’s capitalization on our progressive
I say thanks American Apparel for painting a pretty picture, but how am I supposed
to wear my hypersexualized, un-unionized, armpit-less RSAS306 without a second
thought? Why settle for the bottom line?