As Far As I Can Tell

American Apparel: Trading sweatshops for sexism

I first heard of American Apparel when I started buying wholesale t-shirts to screen print on. I was excited by their politics and more than willing to pay a little extra for shirts that weren’t made in sweat shops. They presented themselves as a company that cared about their workers with ad messages such as “Fuck the brands that are fucking the people.” But now I question if the decision to be sweatshop free is more about marketing than a truly progressive mindset. Mainly concerning to me is the founder Dov Charney’s views on women.

Using sex to sell fashion is hardly new and by now the accepted norm within the industry. At first I expected a bit more class from what I thought was a progressive company, but that wasn’t the case. Their ads used to feature a sexually charged photo of a woman with a headline saying “100% Sweetshop Free”, or “Made in downtown L.A.”. Lately though they’ve been dropping the sweatshop line and turning up the heat on the photography. Now it’s all about crotch shots, asses, and bath tubs. Now Toronto quotes Charney as saying that they’re “de-emphasizing the sweatshop-free angle because it’s ‘pass�.’”.

Reading more about Dov continued to annoy me. He’s sex obsessed and fancies himself some sort of sexual freedom warrior. He masturbated numerous times in front of a female interviewer during a Jane Magazine piece last year and in various interviews has admitted to sleeping with his co-workers and models. He’s callous towards the notion that this puts him on shaky ground, dismissing sexual harassment as a fabricated issue.

Charney’s sexual antics with his younger employees are obviously inappropriate because they contribute to an environment of sexual harassment. But Charney laughs at such a notion, attributing ideas like sexual harassment to a “victim culture” among women. “Out of a thousand sexual harassment claims, how many do you think are exploitative?” he asks. In any case, “women initiate most domestic violence,” he said. (link)

Not only are his facts about domestic violence just plain wrong, he seems to have little respect for women in general.

Political correctness, in his opinion, has created an unbalanced culture that’s unnaturally constraining. “Feminism is extremely restrictive. You can’t call a woman a bitch, you can’t call her this, you can’t call her that. But that’s what life’s really like. Yet, she can do whatever she wants. It’s out of balance and that’s why young people haven’t embraced feminism, because it’s out of balance.” (link)

Not that he’s concerned about criticism.

“Are people saying I should behave better? What are you guys worried about? Maybe you need to pull a whack or something,” he says, laughing. “It’s not PC to critique gay sexuality right now. But the heterosexual guy who likes to slap girls on the ass, he’s like a monster. God forbid I was a hermaphrodite � then everyone would shut the fuck up. (link)

When I wrote about Vice Magazine a while ago my mind kept trying to find a connection between Gavin McInnes and Dov Charney besides their Canadians births. I think the key similarity is their dismissal of political correctness as meaningless and out of touch. They try to define themselves as new politicos in touch with a youthful zeitgeist, rather then just men behaving badly.

I don’t even have time to get into if American Apparel is a union buster, how their women’s shirts come in strangely small sizes, or how disappointed I am that numerous shirts I have are falling apart. Check out the links at the end if you’re interested in learning more.

My point here isn’t to call for a boycott of American Apparel, and I’m not dismissing all of their politics as bunk. But many people, myself included, buy their clothes as much for the politics as the style. Is it worth the extra cost when I know the company founder has such sexist anti-woman views? Have I been swindled by a sweatshop free marketing ploy? Should I really have to make an ethical choice between worker exploitation and sexism just to buy a t-shirt?




After your Vice post, I saw this one coming… I’m actually surprised that this one didn’t come first. I first became aware of their questionable ad campaigns with an ad in XLR8R. It had full on, exposed breasts. It was on the the back cover or the inside of the back cover… I can’t remember. I was pretty surprised. I think I saw that ad once and only once, but it made an impression. It kinda softened the blow for any/all of the emaciated soft porn ads that followed. “Oh, that one isn’t so bad. It only loooks like he could be masturbating to that topless girl in the skimpy panties.” I think you hit the nail on the head with in describing their thinking as (horribly misguided) “new politics.” Of course when times change and attitudes change there are people that are going to try to swing it back to the “way it was.” Women can now do “whatever” they want and men can’t do shit… Dude, that sucks!! To some men, who’ve had it “their way” for years and years, it’s impossible to imagine reigning themselves in and treat women like humans, (Most of these man are incapable of treating ANY human being with respect.) I don’t know if Dov or Gavin are those kind of men. I don’t know how they were raised — Maybe mommy and daddy didn’t love them enough when they were little? I don’t want them to protect our rights to smack any ass we want or jerk off in front of anyone we want. I want them to make t-shirts and put out records. Hell, have a creepy sexual fetish… that’s cool, but don’t have it be the basis of your celebrity. I don’t want it in the storefront, cause I’m unlikely to come inside. It’s ridiculous. I won’t even touch sizing. I have a wife that can point out discrepencies in sizing across the board. Unions. I don’t know what their bennies are like or what their wages are, but if AA is truly anti-sweatshop, they should allow them to discuss unionization freely and not force “anti-union” propaganda on their workers. All that being said. I like American Apparel t-shirts. I like their stores. They’re filled with sexual and color diversity… and they’re always nice, but if anyone can point me in a better direction, I’m all for it. I blame Simon for my addiction to them. Damn you, Simon. And on the Vice front, I have to recommend the new Bloc Party album. I know, I know… so much hype, Eric… you’re biting? Yes. Yes, I am.

Posted by: e_prime on March 24, 2005 9:21 AM

I say forget Ivrea and take over Stone Phillps’s job, he has gone soft (his name is somewhat of a misnomer).

Posted by: Isaiah on March 24, 2005 9:42 AM

i too have been horrified by the ads i’ve seen from them lately. seems like business as usual. there’s a t-shirt blog out there ( ) that is now recommending a company named american ringer. check the article there. i’m sad because my two favorite shirts are wilco american apparel shirts, and i’ve been wanting to get more, but with all of this, and on a more basic level, wih you claiming that yours are falling apart…i don’t know. i’ll probably link to this from my LJ when i get home.

Posted by: jim on March 25, 2005 10:28 AM

While I’m not a big fan of being PC for PC’s sake (it also borders sometimes on insanity). But this guy just sounds more fucked up than any kind of “political visionary” or whatever. Being anti-PC doesn’t mean being an asshole. And being pro-PC doesn’t mean being a lame-ass. It’s all about being sensible. Also, I’d encourage reconsidering the hardline anti-sweatshop angle. Some factories are indeed sweat shops and bad. But often sweatshop is anything that’s not made in the USA (and that kind of nationalist economics troubles me, of course). Often, foreign-made clothing is done well (i.e. not a true “sweat shop”) and pays much higher wages than other businesses. It’s also an arm of development (since countries tend to develop light industries, mainly textiles, first on their way to heavier industries). Being hardline anti-sweatshop w/o carefully differentiating real sweatshops form not “made in the USA” stickers can be bad for poverty reduction around the world. For example, many textile industries in Bolivia are in trouble because they have a hard time competing against “non-sweatshop” textiles produced in Europe or the US (their primary markets), even though many of these Bolivain textile industries were worker owned cooperatives!

Posted by: miguel on March 25, 2005 3:53 PM

Thank you for putting so many things into words that have needed to be said, Simon. Many of us have been on the fence about American Apparel. The availability of video clips of the women’s underwear photo shoots on the web page have pushed me over the edge. Sadly it’s as if the company’s marketing approach is acting as a crappy rider on a good bill in Congress. And sadly “that’s what life’s really like.” It’s unfortunate. Not that I wouldn’t hesitate to gag him with one of the pair of underwear I’d bought from him. And not in the way he’d like. Looking for alternatives.

Posted by: andrea on March 25, 2005 9:01 PM

I have been thinking about this for almost a year. I read the Jane article last summer and it bothered me to the point where I believe I even tried to convince you not to use the shirts for the BBQ last year. I was so disturbed by this man I didn’t want to have anything to do with his company. Later in the summer I visited an American Apparel store for the first time in L.A. The store was impressive and I even purchased something, but while standing in line I overheard the two female employees talking. One employee had gone abroad, and when she returned, her photos were on a bilboard. She didn’t have any knowledge of it until a friend asked her about it when she got back. I piped up and mentioned the Jane article and the two women informed me that it was entirely true. We then got into a discussion about how the employees are often offended by the in-store ads they are forced to look at all day. Chicago now has 2 American Apparel Stores. I have a male friend who works at one, and he loves it. And I have to admit after all this, I applied for a job there. But I talked to Dan about it yesterday and he mentioned your blog, and after thinking about all this again I am second guessing it.

Posted by: Lauren on March 28, 2005 12:11 PM

I agree with much of what is being said above especially about the creepiness of Mr. Charney, but I have to express a dissenting viewpoint here: OUR BUBBLE HAS BEEN BURST. Just when we liberal minded young adults thought there was a nugget of hope for genuinely good big business, an environmentally happy company, a sweatshop free utopia, were we could spend our money on well-made stylish ultra-hip T’s and undies—the good guys had to get all sleazy-sexy. WTF. Why they gotta show those girls all naked? Because, DUH, sex sells. I don’t think American Apparel would be rapidly growing their business by using happy families on picnics, when your slanging something as basic as T-shirts how do you hook the hippest kids in town? Sorry, but thats real business/marketing, and not to mention capitalism. Ok. so, yes “DUH, sex sells” but in my opinion I would rather see it used in a realistically sexual portrayal of young people (young men are being used in ads as well) than highly glossed up Paris Hilton sucking on a lollipop selling Guess. Or little kids being exploited in order to sell Calvin Klein underwear. Unionization does not always mean progressive friendly working environment. Ask my brother who is now making significantly less money after my small-business-owning-cousin was forced to go Union. Now all of his employees are pissed about their dues and the little they get back from the Union. As far as the CEO of this fairly large and growing company, in my opinion, yes, he is a creep. And I would never defend his mysogyny, But you can also pull quotes like this: “Life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness…It’s just about human factors. That’s what American Apparel is.” —from Now Toronto (article previously linked to) Pick your battle, or just don’t wear clothes. I will choose the “sweatshop free+non-glossy porn” over the “made in taiwan+glossy-porn disguised as glamour.” I realize that no one has called for an outright boycott of AA but seriously… I will continue to purchase their clothing on a regular basis, I suppose I am not as righteous as some, possibly a bit of a conservative liberal on this issue but…damn those t-shirts are nice. PS. Simon, Isaiah is right, forget Italy—The next Stone Phillips

Posted by: ovidovi on March 28, 2005 6:07 PM

actually, they dont need sex to sell their clothing to me. i just like that my wilco shirts are nice and soft. the ads are creepy.

Posted by: jim on March 29, 2005 11:33 AM

Hi! This is a fantastic fantastic well-researched post about American Apparel—a situation I’ve been fretting over for a long time without answers. Thanks so much for posting this, I linked to you today on my site! -A’yen

Posted by: A'yen on June 15, 2005 4:02 PM

right on, ovidovi. whats up with the puritanical vibe in here anyway? are breasts so offensive? is that you ashcroft?

Posted by: michael on June 15, 2005 5:38 PM

It’s not puritan thinking, it’s a matter of context. Since these “sexy” photos are taken by someone who makes anti-woman statements they take on a different meaning and need to be viewed through that lens.

Posted by: Simon on June 15, 2005 5:47 PM

i dont know.. . ive only read these “anti-woman” statements pulled out of context so i dont feel comfortable slapping that label on him so easily. before we start hinting at a boycott maybe we should give him the chance to defend his statements.

Posted by: michael on June 15, 2005 6:06 PM

Wow, talk about asshole… Just because he employs leftist style methods of working conditions doesn’t mean he has the right to demean women and be so… hypocritical. If I were you, I’d boycott on the grounds of sexist views. Yeah, exploitation is bad, but sexism affects almost 1/2 the world.

Posted by: Tim on July 1, 2005 5:05 AM

i found this post by googling “american apparel boycott.” i recently wrote aa a bit of feedback letting them i know i had decided not to buy their clothes, first on the basis of their offensive advertising and then because of accusations by three female former employees of sexual misconduct, harrassment, and rape. i know these are only allegations and nothing is proven. but i take it seriously, and all indications are that american apparel has not. the response i got from their customer relations department was catty, self-righteous, and didn’t address the points i made about the company. i had an email conversation with the man, explaining why i disagree with their ad campaign and how ironic i find it that their progressive politics fail to carry over into their use/abuse of women. the customer relations guy resorted to making jabs at my character, calling me conservative, anti-gay, and an “extremist religious zealot.” i couldn’t believe it. it’s telling to me that their corporate image strategy seems to be ‘fuck anyone who disagrees.’ so i guess their fate is sealed in my mind. it’s really too bad.

Posted by: beth on July 9, 2005 1:19 PM

I have already decided to boycott and I am now in search of a new t-shirt company. Anyone know of any companies that offer wholesale tees with some decent styles? Maybe we all should be focusing on finding a replacement for American Apparel. At this point the general public will also be boycotting American Apparel so sales will go down quickly.

Posted by: Jenny on August 21, 2006 12:42 PM

It seems as if Alternative Apparel is trying to fill that replacement role. For women’s styles you might try LA Made. I’m not sure what their wholesale situation is but they have some good styles.

Posted by: Simon on August 21, 2006 3:57 PM

hyperbola digressing simplify ponds.graspable undermine voiced

Posted by: on February 9, 2007 1:53 PM

I really appreciate finding this information about Dov Charney. Everytime i see one of those American Apparel ads—the ones that look like outtakes from a snuff film with minors—I feel so angry. I wanted to find out if others felt the same way and a quick google search led me to your blog. I agree to boycotting the product and join the effort. ps: i like your booklist. Have you read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet? - peter

Posted by: Peter Valentine on February 9, 2007 4:01 PM

As far as who can tell?

Chicago, IL

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