American Apparel’s porntastic ads were just the icing on Dov Charney’s sleaze cake

Dov Charney, the founder, president and CEO of American Apparel, found himself without a job this week. I think it’s safe to assume that the prevailing sense among American Apparel staff and management will be one of pure, unadulterated relief.

First published by The Independent, 20th June 2014

Dov Charney, the founder, president and CEO of American Apparel, found himself without a job this week. I think it’s safe to assume that the prevailing sense among American Apparel staff and management will be one of pure, unadulterated relief.

Charney created American Apparel, the best place to buy shiny leggings and see-through leotards with double-take price tags, in 1998. The company has been mired in controversy ever since.
The now-defunct magazine Jane ran a profile of Charney in 2005. Claudine Ko described how he masturbated in front of her during the interview, and called afterwards to explain that he needed to get ‘his release’ before he could properly speak to her.
By 2006, Charney had been sued by three separate employees for sexual harassment; one woman claimed that Charney had a quirky taste for holding meetings wearing only a ‘cock sock’. 2008 saw another sexual harassment lawsuit, this time from an ex-employee who accused Charney of forcing her to simulate masturbation, and ordering a male member of staff to pretend to masturbate in front of her. Charney was also accused of showering an employee with homophobic and anti-Semitic insults, grabbing his throat and rubbing his face in the dirt.Charney’s appetite for personally judging the photographs of prospective staff members is just the icing on the hideous harassment-mixed-with-discrimination cake here. (Don’t ask me what that cake looks like, it isn’t appetising.) He reportedly created rules for the personal grooming of employees, particularly women employees, and encouraged the firing of anyone who didn’t fit in with the “American Apparel aesthetic”. A former store manager told Gawker that they were told to only hire the “right kind” of black women.

In 2010, Charney received a $1.1m bonus, despite the plummeting stock price of American Apparel and the firing of 1,800 workers. One of the reasons that Charney was forced to step down was the lagging profits under his leadership, but since American Apparel’s board have terminated his contract following allegations of misconduct, it would hardly be surprising if his record of employee complaints was the deciding factor. Either way, shares in American Apparel jumped as much as 20 per cent in New York trading after the news of his departure was made public.

Perhaps with Charney gone, American Apparel will have no need for their “At Will Confidentiality Agreement” which stipulates that any worker who contacts the media or disparages Charney in public or online will be liable to pay a penalty of $1m. The agreement also demands that AA employees should not discuss the company at a volume that “reasonably could be overheard by a third party”. Without the looming presence of Charney, they may be able to raise their voices above a whisper.

Whatever you think of American Apparel’s porntastic advertisements and its overpriced jersey basics, the firing of Dov Charney hails a new era for the company and gives his alleged victims at least some justice. The good news is that Charney is history. The bad news is that it took so long to happen.

Why I’ve Given Up Shopping at American Apparel

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive.

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive. The prices are not exactly student-friendly and I’m not sure I would be willing to pay £46 for a plain polyester sweatshirt (suspiciously similar to the type I was forced to wear at school) even if I had a real income.2. The ‘fitness’ clothes are completely impractical. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried the gym in a mesh bodysuit with a thong bottom, but I wouldn’t advise it. Also, all bodysuits on the website are modelled without bras underneath, including those made from sheer fabric… not exactly gym (or in-public) friendly.

3. Despite slogan t-shirts calling for the legalisation of gay marriage and the ‘sweatshop free’ label, there is something less than savoury about American Apparel. Founder and CEO Dov Charney has been involved in a string of sexual harassment lawsuits and in 2004, Jane magazine’s Claudine Ko reported that during an interview with Charney he received oral sex from a female employee and masturbated repeatedly.

4. I want to look at tights, not some girl’s arse. Not only do a significant proportion of the female models featured on American Apparel’s UK site look decidedly underage, but the sexualised poses and volume of flesh on show are wholly unnecessary when one considers both the context of the images and the product they are promoting. The ‘Sheer Luxe Cut-Out Pantyhose’ for £19 leave the entirety of the wearer’s bum exposed, and to put issues of design and comfort aside (because they look REALLY uncomfortable), I found myself asking why the accompanying slideshow of images needed to show the model bending over suggestively, with entirely bare breasts. There is no age restriction on accessing the site and interestingly enough, none of the male models are bending over, sucking their fingers or showing their bare bum cheeks.

5. You’re only hired if you look right. Charney’s comments regarding only employing the ‘right type of black girl’ are a particularly noxious example. Of course, this is not unique to American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch are a high profile example of a clothing retailer with a gross hiring practice, paying out $40 million in 2004 for refusing to give non-white applicants positions in-store. However, this gives lie to the progressive politics and the declaration that the company are ‘setting a new standard that others will follow’, found on their website.

6. Dov Charney doesn’t want his employees talking. In 2010 Gawker ran an article on American Apparel’s ‘At Will Employment Confidentiality Agreement’ which introduces a penalty of $1,000,000 for any American Apparel worker who speaks to the media or disparages Charney in public or online. The agreement also stipulates that when out and about, employees should not discuss the company at a volume that ‘reasonably could be overheard by a third party’. So basically, you have to whisper. Such measures certainly suggest that the company has something to hide.

Despite the seething mass of corporate paranoia, rampant misogyny and disturbing sexualisation of young models displayed by American Apparel, I still believe that we can have clothing companies that pay their workers a fair wage without negating this achievement through other types of unethical behaviour. But until Charney makes substantial changes to the way his clothing empire operates, the lurex shine has definitely worn off American Apparel.