I think it is about time that I address this issue, you know, American Apparel and all things surrounding it. Things have been pretty volatile for the company in the past few months and there’s no sign that things will calm down. It started with the firing of the former-CEO and founder Dov Charney over claims of sexual misconduct, and since then a storm has been brewing…
American Apparel is, essentially, an overpriced basics brand. But still people buy it. People are willing to pay the prices they charge, say $20 for a basic t-shirt over the $5.95 for the same at H&M, for various reasons. First of all, their clothes are of good quality. You know that when you buy a pair of leggings here you don’t have to worry about everyone seeing the outline of your underwear, or more. Their bodysuits are made of thick cotton material, and with this wrap-style, in particular, you don’t need to worry about the crossover not staying put and gaping like it can do with some cheaper bodysuits made of flimsier material (I have personal experience with this, believe me. I’ve even had to stitch a cheaper one together to prevent it from showing all!). American Apparel have a pretty good selection of products considering they almost solely produce basics. They’ve got every kind of t-shirt you could ever want, denim, bodysuits, lots of spandex, and pretty much any other “basic” you could think of.
I say they’re overpriced because they really are in comparison to their competitors. When you go to American Apparel you pay more than you would at H&M or Topshop for very similar items. For example, American Apparel’s Easy Jean and Topshop’s Joni jeans are virtually the same but they’re priced at $78 and $65 respectively. Then on top of that, H&M often have their own version of the jeans for around $25. Sometimes you do question what you’re paying for.
But American Apparel do have one thing that sets them apart from most of the competition: they manufacture in Los Angeles, and their prices reflect that. Workers get a fair wage, work reasonable hours, and get healthcare benefits (something that many workers don’t even get). The damn slogan of the company is “Made in the USA – Sweatshop Free”. What more can you say?
A lot of their garment workers are immigrants, often from Mexico or other Latin American countries, which has been the subject of some controversy in the past. The company fully employs vertical integration, meaning they are involved at all three stages of production and therefore have more control. This also bumps up prices. The company is meant to be a pretty great place to work, especially if you’re a garment worker who is used to working 16 hours a day for a wage that is just not enough to live off of.
To summarise so far, the company has good ethics and the whole idea behind it is sound. But that’s not the point. If everything was so great there would be literally no point in me writing this. Things have gone awry recently, triggered by allegations of sexual misconduct by the former CEO Dov Charney, who was suspended from his role last summer and officially terminated in December 2014.
Now let me say, these are all allegations. He has not legally been charged with anything. It would be unfair to assume that they are true as he has not been convicted, but it would also be unfair to dismiss his reported victims. It is a tricky situation. I have to say though, there’s no smoke without fire (or however the quote goes). There have been numerous claims and lawsuits against Charney since the mid-2000s and I refuse to believe that all these women would lie. Charney’s dismissal was possible as the company went public a few years ago meaning he just became the majority shareholder and no longer the actual owner. The board of directors chose to oust him.
After Charney’s dismissal, the company brought in a new CEO, Paula Schneider, who many have said is under-qualified for the role. In my opinion, her experience is enough but what she has done so far has not been good.
Under her leadership the brand has started to photoshop out pubic hair and nipples. Now that might not sound like such a big deal but for this brand it is. You see, American Apparel has always celebrated the natural body. They embraced pubic hair in a culture where female body hair below the eyelashes is heavily frowned upon. They took you back to a simpler, perhaps better, time. At one point their mannequins even sported a full bush, which created much ado on social media.
Then in regards to the nipple, it is really false advertising. I mean, it’s a sheer bra that they airbrushed so surely that’s not showcasing the product in its true form? Furthermore, the whole Free the Nipple movement speaks out against the double standard involving male and female nipples (I fucking hate the word nipple, why do I keep typing it?) and American Apparel has been one of the few brands that can be counted on to show the real female body. It’s just quite disappointing that they’ve done this.
The photoshopping has been done in an attempt to make the brand a little less sexualised, something that it has been known for. Its use of racy imagery is one of the things that garnered so much attention. Paula Schneider, the new CEO, said that the brand didn’t have to be so “overtly sexual”, hence all the changes. The brand has also came under much criticism for its apparent sexualisation of young girls, most recently shown in an advert where the model wears a short school girl type skirt and is bent over. However, you don’t see the model’s face so her age is not apparent.
Perhaps the last straw, and the latest news surrounding the company, is that they will no longer use “instagram thots” as models, revealed in a leaked email. Although it was pretty hilarious, it is a step in the wrong direction for the company. The email was a brief for an upcoming model casting, saying that real models would now be used instead of “thots” and “hoes” (apparently a joke between colleagues). I think it is fair to say that the new management is trying to rebrand. However, is taking away the famous real girls in their ads a good idea? That is one of the things they’re most popular for. They don’t use regular skinny models; they use normal girls who in the past have been handpicked by Dov Charney. It is one of the things that makes the brand relatable, with diverse models in both race and body type.
I know that Paula Schneider has been hired to revamp the company and to steer it away from the controversy created by Dov Charney but is her way of doing things the right way? American Apparel is a brand that has relied on provocative and often very sexualised images since its inception: that is what it is known for, and that’s why people love it. To take it completely away from this wouldn’t make sense, so I find myself wondering how far she will go. Airbrushing nipples and pubic hair is a big step to take, especially for the liberal brand which has celebrated both things in the past.
Since Charney’s dismissal, things have just gone downhill. Now I’m not saying that he should be reinstated, especially if the claims about him are found to be true, but I do think that something needs to be done. “30 manager and director level employees sent the board a letter protesting the decision [to dismiss Charney]” according to a letter obtained by Buzzfeed (which can be read in full here), so perhaps many employees would welcome his return. He is very popular amongst the garment workers too as he has been a long term fighter for immigration reform. The factory employees have been rather dissatisfied since the new management stepped in and they’ve faced reduced working hours and layoffs. The Hermandad Mexicana has created a group called the Coalition of American Apparel Factory Workers that wholeheartedly supports Dov and calls for his return. They have a WE <3 DOV logo similar to the infamous I <3 NY campaigns. Furthermore, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) has launched a formal investigation into the matter of Charney’s dismissal so it looks like he won’t be disappearing fully any time soon.
I don’t know what the right thing to do is. If I did, I would be the one running shit at American Apparel. But what I do know is that this is not the way things should be going. I don’t mean to defend the overt sexualisation of women but if it is consensual then what is the issue? American Apparel is a brand that has never strayed far from controversy, but now they’re getting it for the wrong reasons. I hate to say it, but free the goddamn nipple!
I enjoyed (is that the right word to use?) reading these two profiles of Dov Charney from 2004 and 2005 which revealed the environment that he used to work in and the type of person he was. Written for the now defunt Jane magazine, the writer has posted the articles on her own blog which is actually an archive of her work, the profiles are slightly disturbing in some aspects and once you read them you can understand where all of the sexual harassment claims come from.
“Meet Your New Boss” – June/July 2004 by Claudine Ko
“Extended Play” – October 2005 by Claudine Ko