When the Sideshow Becomes the Main Attraction
By Dez Williams
My once-fanatic opinion of American Apparel has turned disastrously bi-polar. There is very little gray area, as my feelings are evenly split between love and hate.
Love: As a creative, I enjoyed the way the company initially targeted youth culture, facilitating numerous textile artists with a low-priced, quality medium with which to express their craft. No other T-shirt brand came close to American Apparel’s quality or cut, and none proclaimed to purvey “sweatshop-free” products.
Hate: On the other hand, in light of his 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.
Then there is my simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from the company’s current advertising campaign. The images may titillate, but one cannot help but sense a sinister presence in each snapshot.
“How could any self-respecting woman work there?” a female friend asked me upon seeing one of the many salacious American Apparel ads.
Wringing the Ringmaster
In 2005 three employees brought sexual-harassment charges against Dov Charney. Under Charney’s employ, they charged, they were subjected to an environment that was “wholly intolerable” and “intimidating.” Heather Pithie, who filed in conjunction with former trade-show coordinator Rebecca Brinegar, alleged that when she worked as an American Apparel recruiter, Charney told her to hire “young attractive women to engage in sex” with him, according to Women’s Wear Daily. Not to mention that the women felt they were the subjects of “egregious” remarks delivered by Charney himself.
A third woman, former store manager Mary Nelson, alleged that she’d worked in a “hostile work environment” and that she was fired after she threatened to consult a lawyer regarding the alleged rape of one employee by another at a trade show. She further alleged that she was invited, during her employment at American Apparel, to masturbate with her boss.
By October 2005, the LA Times was reporting that Navigators Insurance Co. had filed a suit seeking to cancel American Apparel’s employment-liability insurance policy on the grounds that Charney had lied in his application about the company’s having a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual harassment.
A month later, Nelson elected to permanently dismiss her case, with no settlement, and the judge agreed. Joyce Crucillo, lead counsel for American Apparel, claimed that the “swift dismissal vindicates American Apparel.”
Brinegar and Pithie’s case is still in litigation; a settlement is reportedly imminent. In a February 2006 interview, Pithie, now a pre-school teacher, told me that she and the other women cannot speak openly about American Apparel while their case is in litigation.
barbara findley, a feminist lawyer from Charney’s native Quebec, expresses concern about the significance of the cases’ outcomes. “The message that the failure of the sexual-harassment case carries to employers is that it is ‘home free’ for sexual behavior in the workplace. It is a very disturbing judgment.”
findley continues: “Ninety-five percent of all civil cases settle, for a wide variety of reasons,” including the very high legal fees required to take a case all the way through a hearing; a complainant’s immediate need for money, especially if she is unemployed; and the feeling that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” because a judicial outcome can never be predicted with absolute accuracy.
Come Join the Circus
I am of the impression that Dov Charney believes his highfalutin ideas of the “Hyper-Capitalist-Socialist-Fusion-Model” and “Contrarian Vertically Integrated Paradigm,” as he calls them, will bring a radical and much-needed change to the rag trade – and they just might. The management model boasts luxurious amenities for factory employees, and there is a central stateside industrial facility for manufacturing, marketing, and administration, allowing the company to boast that it is the largest domestic garment manufacturer in the United States.
Furthermore, the job offers at American Apparel are, at face value, alluring. Take this ad seeking a retail employee, found at Americanapparel.net in May 2006:
“Innovation for the clothing industry. Challenging both the right and the left,” the bullets point out. “Not dominated by logos or politically correct tribalism. Challenging the boomer dominance of the economy.” Drawn in, I read more. “We are trying to make garments without having to resort to the use of exploitative labor.”
It all sounded great and liberating. Then, on the last line, came this: “In order for us to keep track of applicants,” it suggested, “a picture is helpful, but not necessary.” The same was not requested in ads for production jobs.
Of course, neither Charney’s corporate model nor the American Apparel job descriptions make mention of unfettered in-house sex relationships or a hostile work environment. And regardless of how Charney tries to conflate his pro-labor and pro-sex-in-the-workplace shticks as similarly liberating, in reality he’s pushing a strange workplace combination: revolution and sexism.
Strongwomen or Bally Broads?
Dov Charney claims his hyper-sexualized workplace reflects the liberated spirit of youth culture: “I don’t think the young people can embrace the culture of the boomers,” he said in an interview with The McGill Daily. “They’re not going to put up with all the rules that the establishment has foisted upon them ... The boomers are so into family values right now ... Their sexual freedom isn’t as important.”
But is Charney’s workplace really about promoting sexual freedom for anyone other than himself? He seems not to recognize that there is a difference between a sex-positive workplace and a sexist one, between sexual liberation and libidinous abuse of power.
Adult entertainer Susan Wayward suspects that she faces a lower chance of sexual exploitation in her work than she might as an American Apparel employee. “I’ve never considered myself at risk of sexual harassment by a club owner or manager, largely because I’m aware that it’s unacceptable behavior even in the sex industry.”
“I don’t know about ‘sex’ in the workplace. Too much sex, and no work gets done,” jokes Allena Gabosch, executive director of the Seattle Sex Positive Community Center, when asked about her opinion on the American Apparel work environment. But on a more serious note, she thinks that, if set up correctly, a sex-positive workplace might be “totally empowering” – as long as it is based on the principle of “informed consent.” When asked to suggest guidelines for a workplace that promotes sexual freedom for everyone, Gabosch says, “I feel that the ‘right’ way to do this is to have clear-cut boundaries and expectations of behavior. Things like ‘no means no’ and ‘ask before touching’ are important rules and should be religiously enforced.”
Cover-Up at the Carnival
In June 2005, Women’s Wear Daily reported on Mary Nelson’s allegation that she was fired from American Apparel after she told a coworker that she planned to consult an attorney about an alleged rape of one American Apparel employee by another at a Las Vegas trade show in January of that year.
The WWD article was not my first encounter with this story. On a chilly autumn evening, two American Apparel employees both made mention of the rape in conversation with me. They did not provide details or pretend to know any. The two simply wanted it disclosed that even if the claim was not true, people are sufficiently disgruntled by their fouled work environment to fabricate dangerous rumors.
Adam Neiman of garment manufacturer No Sweat Apparel hypothesizes that Charney’s narrow-sightedness plays a large role in how he views the opposite sex in general and women workers specifically. The reason American Apparel’s model fails its female employees, according to Neiman, is that Charney retains all the power for himself while the women he employs have a faux sense of liberation that exists strictly within the rules, or lack thereof, that the mastermind has created.
Despite its pro-labor marketing, American Apparel has no union, no legal body to advocate for the workers. But “the worker-voiced union model is critical,” offers Neiman. “It’s not enough to have a groovy guy at the top touting, ‘We don’t need union contracts, ’cause we’re all groovy guys. Can’t you tell? We’ve got ponytails!’”
Neiman’s is one of a few companies doing what American Apparel promised, sans over-hyped sexuality. There are also companies that take a more satirical approach. Sweatshop Labor Productions, a small operation that produces limited-edition screen-printed T-shirts, promoted their collective with sidewalk stencils that read “I [heart] Sweatshop Labor.”
In a farcical world of its own design exists the collaborative group at Sweatshop Labor Productions. These young entrepreneurial artists aren’t merely tuned in to youth culture; they are youth culture.
SLP’s Lucas feels strongly about the message American Apparel, and America more generally, is circulating about youth culture. It’s the old sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll adage – and it’s blatantly sexist, casting exploitation as masculine and strong and justice-oriented ethics as feminine and weak. “Being against sweatshop labor is a strong position to take, especially for a young company [such as Sweatshop Labor Productions] that must rely on controversy and gossip to get anywhere,” says Lucas, who believes American Apparel is really a good company behaving badly. “One of the ways that American Apparel tries to cover up for its ‘good ethics,’” Lucas says, “is with the hot girls in sexy positions. They think that by exploiting women they won’t look like a bunch of bleeding-heart pussies.”
Burning the Lot
Rules like the informed-consent policies suggested by Gabosch for creating a sex-positive workplace are the ones Charney and his ilk have put up a concerted and very public effort to resist. To Charney, conforming to any kind of etiquette would mean surrendering to the very system he has sworn to battle. Surrendering would also dilute the sensationalism that is an integral component in the American Apparel marketing model. Dov Charney will no doubt stay true to his mission of “liberating” his employees while pleasing himself sexually.
“Without women in my company, we’d be fucked,” Charney told New York Magazine in 2004, and I am certain everyone I talked to for this story would agree with him in more ways than one.
Dez Williams is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and new dad. He has recently completed editing his irreverent guide to male pregnancy, Men Are from Mars, Babies Are from Uterus.
The writer attempted subsequent in-person interviews with current American Apparel employees, but was advised by a New York store manager that the media-relations department had set a gag order in place.
Cynthia Semon of the media-relations desk at American Apparel was contacted for this article and initially replied, but was unresponsive to questions posed.
In this article, we incorrectly reported that Mary Nelson, a store manager at American Apparel, had withdrawn her sexual harassment suit against CEO Dov Charney. It has come to our attention that the suit by Mary Nelson, a sales manager, is still pending, and that an unnamed store manager withdrew her suit against the company. We regret the error.