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July 06, 2005

American Apparel: A Verdict

This morning, Kriston penned an excellent post on American Apparel, the country's foremost conundrum for clothes-wearing liberals. For those unaware, AA is a peculiarly problematic clothing company based out of LA. Their labor standards are enough to bring tears to the eye: an average wage of $13, health care, subsidized English lessons for immigrant employees (on company time!), year-round employment (a rarity in the garment industry), etc, etc. It's the stuff liberals dream about.

The anti-sweatshop hook, however, didn't do enough to promote the company, so its mustachioed, quasi-messianic founder, Dov Charney, turned to sex. He uses company employees, natural girls all, and photographs them using a lo-fi, basement porn aesthetic that leaves even the homeliest subject pulsing with sexuality and appeal. The effect -- trust me on this -- is very disconcerting. Some of the pictures, in ways I can't quite pin down, also have an aura of violence, fear, or even rape to them. Red-rimmed eyes, shitty furniture, dark colors and puffy faces make some shots look like opening scenes in a rape fantasy. These photos, both the bright, natural ones and their gloomy, disturbing cousins, populate the stores, blown up to full portrait size and coexisting with covers from 70's porn magazines.

And, just as Sweatshop-Free has competed with homegrown porn to define the company's public strategy, so too has Charney let both define the company's internal culture. Profiles end with him masturbating for reporters and having them watch as employees go down on him, but they begin with long tours through the brightly-lit factories. It's all very weird, and very tough to balance. Add in allegations of union-busting and sexual harassment (the latter almost certainly true), and progressives have a problem. For once, the workers aren't exploited, but feminism is spit upon.

Kriston's post came on the heels of a debate my girlfriend had been having with my best friend for about a week now. American Apparel just opened their first store in Westwood and the question was whether we should all shop there. My girlfriend said no, my friend, yes. I, wisely, forged new personal ground by withholding judgment. Kriston, though, offered a fairly compelling point: the sexual harassment will be dealt with in court and the sexuality will remain with or without American Apparel. Without AA, however, one hugely successful model for running a worker-friendly garment company (and guiding it to enormous growth) will be lost.

So today, Kate and I visited ground zero. The consensus? Not as bad as we feared. The legendarily attractive employees were, as promised, dark-skinned and pretty, but none seemed out of the ordinary. Your average Olive Garden hostess is chosen on much the same criteria. The porn was indeed stapled throughout the store, but the parade of 70's era Oui covers was campy rather than erotic. The photos, when blown up, had fewer of the more disturbing shots and veered towards the well-lit, everyday erotic aesthetic the company claims to cultivate. Moreover, the dressing rooms and wall portraits offered a cast of, er, less attractive models, who were nevertheless photographed in such a way as to be alluring. Unlike most fashionable clothing stores, there were actual guys populating the pictures too.

Much of the controversy, in fact, seems to be hype. The aesthetic is unique, but not as raunchy as the website claims or the owner's actions promise. Diesel, Bebe, Wet Seal, and a variety of others are more than able to compete on sexual exploitation grounds, and they do so without the labor standards. Moreover, Sweat X and many of the other companies who rose up promising progressive factory policies have gone bankrupt. American Apparel is growing. Rapidly. Sex sells, and in this case it's selling a new labor philosophy as surely as clothing. Every article on Charney's indiscretions spends paragraphs running through the company's high pay, health benefits, and free language classes, which he credits for increased productivity and quality. The softcore porn decoration the stores is indeed porn, but it's porn that makes you think: "Hey, I could be in that picture, and my girlfriend in that one", which strikes me as an improvement over the usual unreachable ideals.

So the verdict? I'll be shopping there. So will my girlfriend and friend. In clothing, you take what you can get, and if American Apparel has forced sexual exploitation in our faces as few other companies have dared, they've served it up with a heaping helping of worker progressivism too. Ms. Magazine uses them to supply their shirts, NARAL and Planned Parenthood print on their products, and if the company isn't perfect, it's better than the alternatives. Hopefully, what we don't like about them will serve to publicize and spread what we do.

Update: Amanda has more on Charney's impressively wide-ranging sleaziness here. Why impressive? Because a part of you has to marvel when a guy decides to wear a 70's porn sideburn mustache and actually act the part. That demands a dedication to sleaziness far larger than the average corporate harasser is willing to offer.

July 6, 2005 in Labor, Life | Permalink


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The internal politics of this whole thing strike me as really icky, even aside from the anti-union stance. I suggest no sweat as an alternative. I bought a pair of their sneakers the other day and am quite pleased.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jul 6, 2005 9:02:36 PM

I wrote about this last week, and I'm afraid you are very wrong when you say that employees aren't being exploited--maybe not the garment workers, but what about the office staff that is expected to provide fellatio along with typing and coffee? I am conflicted, too, since on the whole the office staff has an easier time walking out than garment workers (and like you I want to wear their very cute clothes), but sexual harassment of the quid pro quo variety as the company standard is nothing to look the other way about.

Plus, an enviroment where having sex with the boss is the norm creates a situation where one can get promoted and get raises according to one's talents on one's knees. I'm not going into it, but I know people who've parlayed sexual talents into job opportunities--that's bribery and kickbacks and completely unfair.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 6, 2005 9:06:15 PM

I don't mind the ads, now that I've thought it over, by the way. Yeah, they're sleazy, but it's nice to see women in ads that look more like me and less like they're 12. At least I can tell what the clothes are going to look like.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 6, 2005 9:07:46 PM

I think I line up with Kriston's comments on the sexual harassment. It seems clear that there is some going on, but that can, and should, be taken care of through the legal system. Harassment, happily, is illegal, and one or two negative rulings (and considering the total effrontery of Charney, I've no doubt that a halfway sentient lawyer can nail him) should take care of intraoffice relations. In any case, I don't mean to say there's no sexual exploitation -- that there's clearly tons of, and it's the whole reason for my discomfort.

On the other hand, paying your workers poverty wages is neither, in most cases, illegal nor uncommon, and AA has the opportunity to offer a viable and visible countermodel on that front. As sexual harassment has other recourses but immigrant workers in LA don't, I'm leaning towards "pro".

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 6, 2005 9:13:13 PM

Other than the story about the reporter interviewing while the guy was wanking, and the story of the sexual harassment suit (which doesn't seem to provide details), not much is given in the links to document the office fellatio - which can't even be said to be 'alleged' without some sources.

Withholding judgement seems like the best course, and not shopping there seems to punish the workers unfairly under these circumstances.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 6, 2005 9:35:02 PM

Withholding judgement seems like the best course, and not shopping there seems to punish the workers unfairly under these circumstances.

Except that clothing items, to my untrained eye, that are virtually the same as those American App. sells, can be purchased on line from pro-union shops. Pro-union trumps high wages in my book -- I believe in democracy above everything else -- and if you couple that with avoiding something nasty, well, all the better.

If you have to spend your money on new things, why not shop union?

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jul 6, 2005 10:08:18 PM

I personally don't like the new version of AA that it has been revealing itself to be. It was perfect before: fair wages, healthcare, and a liberal heart. However, the company's turn against women is disconcerting to me. Why change from being a liberal company with a strong feminist base and instead morph into something that objectifies women? Personally, I hope that this is just a very poor publicity stunt...

Posted by: lennea | Jul 6, 2005 10:10:20 PM

If in fact Charney only got a BJ once to impress a reporter, you'd have a point, Jim. But unfortunately, there is an outpouring of reports that one's willingness to fuck the boss has a great deal to do with one's job security.

You know what, though? It doesn't matter if Charney makes quid pro quo explicit or not. If your boss comes onto you, you don't have much choice but to fuck him if that's your paycheck. It's easy enough for people who never have to worry that's going to happen to them to say that it's no big deal that Charney flaunts the fact that he uses his female employees as his own personal harem, but since I'm a woman, I can't laugh that shit off. What if this attitude starts spreading? I've worked in enviroments where simply not dressing in a revealing enough manner made you feel like your job was in jeopardy--what if I felt like it was fuck the boss or lose my job? Being one paycheck away from disaster can make a person rather hardcore about these things. I have no idea what I'd do if put in that position--just the pain of having to cheat on my boyfriend or lose our house alone would kill me, not to say the deep pain it gives a person to be used like that.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 6, 2005 10:53:19 PM

Thanks for the link, Ezra. By no means am I calling for a boycott, but Charney shouldn't get away with using liberal worries that someone will accuse of being anti-sex to get away with this.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 6, 2005 11:00:59 PM

Well, improvement has been made.
Panda-Puss was not the first in line this time...However, she *was* second.

I know people who've parlayed sexual talents into job opportunities--that's bribery and kickbacks and completely unfair.

In this post, Panda-P doesn't whine about the exploitation of women, but instead laments how unfair it is to those nice girls who don't know how to suck as well....Nice.

Yeah, they're sleazy, but it's nice to see women in ads that look more like me

Really? Do they look like this? http://tinyurl.com/dgbk4

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 6, 2005 11:13:46 PM

This is the first I've heard of this company so I don't know what to make of the charges that employees have to give the boss blow jobs etc. If true that runs afoul of all kinds of laws, although such laws also require an employee to first find the requirement objectionable and complain.

The only objective evidence before me are the three pages of ads behind the link provided -- and I don't see what the big deal is about them. They don't objectify women any more than any other fashion ads out there and I agree with a previous poster that it is nice to see regular looking people in sexy ads. (And not all the ads feature women!)

Posted by: Ed Thibodeau | Jul 6, 2005 11:15:21 PM

Before Ezra or anyone else rags me about the link, I would like to remind them that no one seemed to mind the link to Dov Charney's picture....or is it simply selective outrage?

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 6, 2005 11:19:40 PM

Zimmerman, shut the hell up.

Seriously, if you don't like Amanda, just go away. It would be one thing if you didn't like her and stopped going to Pandagon about it, or if you didn't like her and just ignored her, but for some reason you have to be childish about it.

"Panda-Puss." That's real cute. Did you think it up all by yourself, little man?

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 7, 2005 12:45:37 AM

It's so cute how the new school democrats, spoiled by their parents wealth, can spend their time worrying over the pseudo-morality of the corporations from which they buy clothes.

Thank God their are money hungry libertarians out there who manage to make clothes which are affordable to the lower classes, for whom you shed so many tears.

Posted by: meghan | Jul 7, 2005 4:08:00 AM

Yes. Truly, Asian sweatshops are a gift from up high.

Posted by: August J. Pollak | Jul 7, 2005 6:39:17 AM

Truly, Asian sweatshops are a gift from up high.

Heh. Yeah, no sexual harassment there, I'm sure.

I'm very confused. I see a lot of allegations and innuendoes, but frankly, they sound so outlandish that I have a hard time taking them at face value. If this is really "the country's foremost conundrum for clothes-wearing liberals", I guess liberals (i.e., my side of the aisle) must be doing a helluva better than I ever had reason to believe.

Posted by: sglover | Jul 7, 2005 9:47:31 AM

It's so cute how the new school democrats, spoiled by their parents wealth, can spend their time worrying over the pseudo-morality of the corporations from which they buy clothes.

Meghan: tell that to my dad. 23 years in the military, not as an officer, 20 years after that in a union position tending machines at a pulp mill.

Fuck all. There are moral implications to where your money is spent. Clothes are one of them. I'm pro-union. If I buy new clothes, then I make an effort to buy union-made clothes. The jeans I'm wearing right now are union jeans. Comfortable, too.

Simply raising wages and providing English lessons while denying unions does not make American App. the kind of company I would support. I believe in a democracy. Democratic workplaces are a part of that. If Meghan thinks I'm being too precious in my shopping decisions, well, frankly, she makes no sense to me.

As for lil' Bobby Z. down home in Texas: fuck off. Too bad you hate women as much as you hate gays.

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jul 7, 2005 12:34:33 PM


There is, of course, a balance that must be met. Corporations are necessary. They allow investors to pool capital in order to take advantage of economies of scale. They also need to be socially responsible.
I think you disagree upon what that responsibilty means. Making goods and services available to the poorer people is certainly a good thing.
I, too, disagree with most here that it always means involving unions or allowing the workers to run the show.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 7, 2005 1:12:49 PM

What bugs me about Amanda is how much effort it takes her to reach an obvious conclusion--and how high her dudgeon is when someone calls her on it. And when she decides to chase an elusive issue down the rabbit hole, she emerges with a stinker like her stance against smoking bans (sez they deny her the chance to look kewl) clutched between her teeth.

Nice girl, obviously smart (just ask her; she'll tell you), but not an especially gifted or compelling agitator. In short, she's why I stopped reading P'gon.

Posted by: jim | Jul 7, 2005 1:23:46 PM

Typical wingnuttery, RZ. Selective selecting of the evidence. Dozens of available pictures of me online and yet the only one you deem acceptable is unflattering. And there were WMDs in Iraq, weren't there?

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 7, 2005 8:30:14 PM

Ahhh.....the sound of the wacko looney left railing as a new Supreme Court Justice....no probably two...wait....possibly *THREE* new Supreme Court Justices are selected for your whining wacko liberal pleasure.
It sounds like......VICTORY!!!

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 7, 2005 9:09:44 PM

*spurt* Hope your parents have decent cleaning solvents for your computer monitor.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jul 7, 2005 9:53:21 PM

Vulgar and crass, just like P'gon. Why be different over here?

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 8, 2005 7:55:31 AM

You've been vulgar and crass both here and at pandagon.net, "Bob the virgin".

Pot, calling kettle, pot, calling kettle........

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