Episode #6: American Apparel: The Rise, The Fall, The Scandal

Hello, and thank you for tuning into this week’s episode of True Style where my goal is not to tell you what to wear, but to help you figure out what you want to wear, with plenty of fashion history along the way. My name is Lakyn Carlton and I will be your host today and for the foreseeable future. Please note, there will be mentions of sexual harassment and abuse in this episode.

Today is a cautionary tale about flying too close to the sun. It’s about building an empire out of T-shirts, what it means to create an entire subculture, and advertisements for skirts with literal buttholes in them. What started as a company with a mission and so, so many leotards, is now but a nostalgic whisper in the wind for millennials. But how? How does one brand go from cult status to cultural icon to…Canadian? It all started with one ambitious man…who also happens to be Canadian.

What happens when a company focused on ethics is run by a person with no morals? This is American Apparel.

Dov Charney is the son of a wealthy architect father and artist mother, born and raised in Montreal. He attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a private school in Connecticut that is so elite, it requires an entire Wikipedia page for its notable alumni, and coincidentally had its own sexual abuse scandal come to light just a few years ago. Charney’s obsession with American-made, cotton T-shirts began early and, after years of smuggling Hanes and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from the U.S. to sell to his friends in Montreal, he began selling his own in 1989.

After receiving a small loan of $10,000 from his parents and dropping out of college in 1990, Dov spent the next seven years educating himself about clothing manufacturing and wholesale while establishing American Apparel in South Carolina. However, it wasn’t until moving the enterprise to Los Angeles that AA took off and, by 2001, the brand, with its focus on high-quality, logo- free basics, had reached $12 million in sales.

The first American Apparel store was opened in the Echo Park neighborhood in LA in 2003, not too far from its downtown LA factory, in what was, at the

time, a still up and coming neighborhood on its way to becoming gentrified by the, quote “young, metropolitan adults” that made up AA’s target market.

Within 2 years, that one store had grown to 65, and that number doubled again over the next year, making American Apparel the largest T-shirt manufacturer in America, and one of the very few clothing companies to export Made in the USA products worldwide.

In 2014, the company reported sales of over $600 million in nearly 300 retail locations.

Dov Charney had something to prove. His dedication to high quality basics was second only to his commitment to treating his employees like human beings. Most of the time.

Foreshadowing aside, with a $12-15 minimum wage all the way back in 2002, free childcare, health insurance, immigration assistance and even ESL classes and free massages on-site, the benefits bestowed upon American Apparel’s employees were unheard of, especially in an industry known for unrepentant exploitation of labor and increasingly poor working conditions, even right here in the U.S.

American Apparel was proof that you could produce clothing ethically, treat your employees fairly, and still turn a profit. All you needed was a loyal customer base and a strong brand.

And what a brand it was. American Apparel exploded in popularity right as I was entering high school. After we all went through our emo and scene phases, and were starting our transitions into hipsterdom, AA became what I assume Abercrombie and Hollister were for the preppier teenagers I’d only really heard about. I went to an arts high school.

But thanks to their ethical production and young, hip target audience, American Apparel was just way too pricy for young Lakyn. I managed to find a bright yellow hoodie with a white zipper that mimicked the nearly ubiquitous AA one at Old Navy, and my thrifting skills got me plenty of high waisted trousers that I could turn into shorts to pair with the T-shirts I got at Marshall’s to give me the look. Still, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s, around 2013, that I was able to get my hands on some of the real iconic American Apparel pieces.

I’ve always been a little more of a niche shopper, opting for the super flared mini skirts and chiffon pieces over the plain tees and the insanely popular super stretchy Easy Jeans, but, I was certainly no stranger to the classics, and I’m sure you aren’t either. I’m talking Disco Pants—which I owned in black, and in the shorts version, and in the skirt version in two colors. I’m talking about the bodysuits, especially the one with the mesh V down the middle.

For daytime, the elastic waist jersey pocket miniskirt was a mainstay on my body, especially with tights and scrunched up socks in the winter. And can we talk about how ahead of their time they were when they debuted the crop top in 2006? 8 years later, I bought four, including one with a little pocket on the chest.

Those thick thigh high socks carried me through three Chicago winters, all without pants, and I never managed to get my hands on a city name tote, but, luckily my roommate let me borrow hers whenever I needed to transport that book I carried with me and pretended to read on the train when I wanted to feel like the main character of the El.

But while we were all fawning over the newest colors of the scoop back velvet body con dresses and trying to figure out where the hell we were going to wear a fully see through lace catsuit, something sinister was going on at our beloved Am Appy.

Who would’ve thought a brand with ads featuring naked women selling socks, naked from the waist down women selling sweatshirts, and well- known porn stars selling crop tops might have an issue with boundaries in the workplace?

American Apparel’s ads were legendary for their overt sexuality, lack of Photoshop, and uncomfortably young looking models. Dov Charney would recruit models from the street, from company stores, or, in many cases, right from the DTLA factory where AA was headquartered. He was proud of what he called a quote “unconventional corporate culture,” and would even brag about sleeping with employees.

In 2004, Dov masturbated in front of a female reporter from Jane Magazine. Four years later, SNL parodied him in a skit showing him walking around the office in his underwear, a joke that is way more tame than the reality as Dov had previously been accused of going to meetings with a sock on his penis…

and nothing else.

American Apparel was sued for sexual harassment 8 times, by former employees, though all of them were ultimately dismissed. One case, in particular, gained publicity as Dov called it an attempt to, quote, “shake the company down,” and, well…it very well may have been.

In 2011, Irene Morales sued Dov Charney for $250 million alleging that he, quote, “induced her to visit his home,” “dragged her to his bedroom,” “gave her a sex toy,” and more that I will not state here. However, her texts to Charney saying that she, quote “bought a fat dildo,” and asking for $450 quickly came to light. Morales, who had claimed that Charney tried to force her to perform sexual favors to keep her job, was also found to have texted the CEO asking for a job, exposing the fact that she hadn’t even had a job at AA to keep.

The case was dropped, but the turmoil was just beginning. Or, rather, well underway. After an investigation by ICE, AA had been forced to fire over 1,800 employees because of, quote, “irregularities in their immigration paperwork.” This mass firing is most likely what lead to AA’s dip in sales in 2010, citing difficulties producing inventory. Amid accusations of mishandling funds and even more inappropriate sexual behavior, Dov was finally dismissed by American Apparel’s board of directors in 2014. An investigation was launched into both sets of allegations, but, while no evidence was ever found, Dov’s reputation as a perv was enough for the public.

And so began the decline of mainstream hipster culture.

Around the same time, Urban Outfitters, which is often associated with American Apparel, was under fire for its own tasteless merchandise such as culturally appropriative, quote-unquote “Navajo” themed clothes and accessories, a shirt emblazoned with the words “Eat Less,” and a Kent State sweatshirt meant to look bloody, referencing the 1970 shooting at the school during a student-led protest.

Needless to say, the shift was long time coming. As fast fashion skyrocketed in popularity, paying $20 or more for a T-shirt became patently uncool, and what was cool had evolved so much, neither brand could keep up.

American Apparel, and Urban Outfitters for that matter, came at a time when the hipster was hot. PBR, Vice Magazine, and Pitchfork were not just brands

or blogs, they were a lifestyle, and both the brightly colored basics of AA and the quirky dresses, T-shirts and home decor at Urban fit right in. With them, cool kids no longer had to comb the racks of thrift stores to get something unique to be photographed in by Cobrasnake: you could walk in and walk out with not just an outfit, but an image.

Unfortunately, American Apparel’s particular image was growing dated and boring, and people had long forgotten why they were paying $40 for leggings in the first place, and so, in 2015, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, revealing that they hadn’t turned a profit since 2009. In 2017, AA was bought for just $88 million dollars by Canadian brand Gildan. Yes, that Gildan, purveyor of cheap, stiff T-shirts typically used to print terrible slogans by internet entrepreneurs.

In 2017, AA was live again online, selling old school classics like the beloved Disco pants and thigh high socks, and offering shoppers the option to pick where their garments were made: either in Honduras, sweatshop free, or in the good ol’ USA, for an extra cost of up to 26%. The site is still shoppable, today, but, you can only complete your purchase via their Amazon storefront.

As for Dov, he hasn’t let his dream of ethically made basics die. Los Angeles Apparel was launched in 2016, and it’s pretty much identical to the original AA. From the Los Angeles headquarters, now located in South Central, livable wages, and vertical integration…Right down to its knack for scandal. In 2020, right after scoring a lucrative 2-year military contract with the U.S. government, Los Angeles Apparel received over $2.5 million in PPP loans. This, on its own, wouldn’t be worth side-eyeing…unfortunately, it apparently wasn’t enough to institute any COVID-19 safety procedures, resulting in hundreds of Los Angeles Apparel workers contracting COVID….four died.

The Los Angeles Department of Public Health ordered the South LA factory to shut down operations completely after investigating the precautions, or rather, lack of precautions Dov’s new baby had been taking to prevent outbreaks. They cited a lack of social distancing, useless cardboard barriers between employees rather than more effective plexiglas ones, and ignoring orders to cease the hiring of new employees. Dov responded with an audacious statement about how the Latino community in LA had been left vulnerable due to a subpar healthcare system, with no mention of how he was quite literally exacerbating that by failing to protect his predominantly Hispanic workforce.

So where do we go for ethically made, high quality basics, now? Paloma in Oregon wants to know.

Now, I believe your version of basics can be anything. Maybe it’s not T-shirts and leggings but blouses and mini skirts. Maybe it’s not neutrals, but rather neon or jewel tones. Maybe your statement pieces are your basics. When I personally use the word basic, I mean those pieces in your closet that you can wear lots and lots of ways, whether that’s a plain sweater or printed pants.

That said, I know what you mean when you say basics, but, that doesn’t account for style. Even a T-shirt can be designed and made in hundreds of different ways that all communicate something different, so, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite brands for basics based on your style vibes.

For the more artsy types, check out Known Supply. They have the staples, like joggers and graphic printed T-shirts, but where they shine is their basic dresses available in many prints, their gathered peasant-like blouses and their adorable jumpsuits. Prices are under $70, and sizing goes up to 4X.

For those the more grown up woman, who wants to look put together both in the office and on her days off, try Encircled. Their silky blouses are my favorite, but, they have plenty of cute wrap style dresses and tops, as well. They’re a little pricy with most pieces starting at $100, and their sizing could be better, only going to an XXL, but, for a similar vibe, try Eloquii—E-L-O-Q- U-I-I, which caters to sizes 14-28 and has some amazing basics as well as more design-y pieces.

For my edgy girls, check out Noctex, a Canadian brand that does some super cool basics, and other pieces, including shoes. Most of their basics are available in their Plus Size sizing, called Curve, and go up to a 3X.

Last but not least, there is Universal Standard. For the more basic basics. With sizes double zero to forty they are the gold standard for inclusivity, not to mention sustainable and ethical practices. With prices starting at $50, they’re not necessarily the cheapest, but you absolutely get what you pay for in terms of fit and quality, not to mention you get to support a brand with a real mission…that’s not run by a creep.

Honorable mention goes to Warp and Weft, which was named one of the best sustainable denim brands and offers 75 body sizes and types in their jeans,

which average around $100 a pair.

Well, that does it for this week’s episode of True Style. Full transcript is available at truestyle.show. Be sure to follow us on Twitter! Next episode is all about…sizing. Until then! Bye!

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