With its pop-sleaze aesthetic, American Apparel has helped shape (and ironically undercut) the standard tropes of fashion culture. As chairman and CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney embraced taboo subjects, traded in nostalgia, and pumped out designs using skin-tight spandex and plenty of sheer fabric. He played with perversity in the brand’s clothes and advertising. He took the hipster look mainstream and homogenized it.
Charney was canned this week from the company he founded in 1989. The decision grew out of an “ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct,” the brand said in a statement. Charney, who held the position for 25 years, sold sleaze–in ways both savvy and ugly. Savvy was how he let the suggestion of impropriety pervade the company’s designs, and then amped it up while throwing in plenty of nostalgia. There’s little in those stores that doesn’t speak to teenage hormones fully raging, figuring out what to wear to the pool party and what will enable a hook-up. It’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High come to life.
And the ugly: Charney faced repeated sexual harassment lawsuits from employees, he showed up to a meeting naked but for a sock-as-fig-leaf, he walked around the factories in his underwear, and he staged provocative photo shoots in the basement of his mansion. “I am a bit of a dirty guy, but people like that right now,” Charney said in a 2004 interview.
Maybe not any more. Charney’s downfall follows a long decline in the company’s stock. They were once a hot commodity with shares as high as $15 before the 2008-9 market crash. But only one in the last 17 quarters has been profitable. The company has lost nearly $270 million in the last four years. Is that why they canned Charney? (Won’t they miss the press?) Or will Charney’s ouster spell doom for the company? American Apparel insists it will survive. “The company has a strong creative team and design department, and they will continue to do their thing,” the company said in a statement to ABC News..
But it goes without saying that Charney had a unique vision. Under him, the brand made it cool to dress like you just stepped out of an ’80s workout video: Its most famous early designs include leotards, terrycloth sweatbands, legwarmers, and flammable-looking spandex leggings, all in neons and wild prints. This ’80s fashion revival gave way, in the 2000s, to a co-opting of ’90s style: the brand mass-produced the plaid flannels beloved by the Seattle grunge set and sold them for nearly $70. They gloried in recycling and appropriating old styles instead of starting new ones from scratch–a business model bound to work, since hemlines, we all know, always come back. Perhaps it’s that Charney let it all hang out, design-wise, while offering something for everyone. The clothing gives you a fix for your masculinity (sweats), your femininity (lacy underwear), and your simplicity (solid color t-shirts), all while trying to elicit your arousal in its advertising.
After all, even if you never set foot in an American Apparel store, you’re probably familiar with its soft-core ads plastered on billboards and buses. This sexual libertarianism came from the top down. Charney embraced the fact that sex sells in a more explicitly frank (and provocative) way than other major retailers. One ad, which featured Charney posing with employees, was captioned “in bed with the boss.”
At least in its early stages, American Apparel prided itself on featuring “real women,” not professional models, in ads. The subjects didn’t wear makeup and weren’t photoshopped–depressingly rare in fashion advertising. They were still plenty louche, though. Charney dismissed criticism of these images as prudery, telling The New York Times the ads were “a salute to contemporary adult and sexual freedom.” (Terry Richardson, known for his uncomfortably provocative shoots for American Apparel, has also come under scrutiny for his behavior on shoots.) As the company got bigger, its commitment to real women waned–it started to employ more professional models (and a few porn stars), quietly, so as to maintain a veneer of accessibility and “realness.”
Shocking the public and taking on politically unpopular (or shameless) presentation have been a common refrain at American Apparel. Last year, the brand put pubic hair on mannequins, an attention-getter but also a nod to the expectations for women to look socially “presentable”–as in shaved. Then there was the “Period Power” t-shirt, featuring a drawing by artist Petra Collins of a giant vagina being masturbated while the woman was clearly also menstruating (a “self-pleasing artwork,” the company called it).
From a design perspective, Charney won’t be forgotten and arguably has moved the conversation about women’s bodies, if not all bodies. Other retailers frankly haven’t. Also laudable, (though troubled), was Charney’s anti-sweatshop business model. When the company started in 1998, it championed U.S. manufacturing. The move was rare in an industry that relied heavily on cheap overseas labor. All of its clothes have been sewn in Southern California factories by workers, many of them immigrants, who make an average of $12 an hour. Banners on top of the factories state “Legalize LA,” “Immigration Reform Now!” and “American Apparel is an Industrial Revolution.” This “Made in America,” “sweatshop-free” business model helped make it cool to care (or to pretend to care) where and how your clothes are made.
Everything good comes to an end, right? In 2012, the business floundered, and Charney’s enthusiasm for local manufacturing flagged. He wouldn’t rule out importing from overseas, he said. We’ll see how it goes without him.