|IS DOV-Y TOO LOVEY? A LOOK AT AMERICAN APPAREL'S CEO.|
|You know the zip-up jacket I'm talking about. Everyone has one: white contrast piping, roomy pockets, versatile, lightweight, available in seven colors, including brown, cranberry, navy and kelly. It's the kind of jacket you might accidentally leave at a picnic, wrap|
around your waist on the beach or zip up all the way while smoking a
sidewalk-relegated cigarette on an unforgiving winter night. It seems
like everyone in the Lower East Side and East Village purchased one this
past winter and you couldn't walk down a
The popularity of the California Fleece Track Jacket (priced at $50 on the website, but considerably cheaper in the store on Houston Street) is a testament to the massive popularity-increase of
|American Apparel itself. The
quasi-socialist retailer became a household name this past year by branding
itself as "sweatshop-free," "brand-free," and "made
in downtown L.A.," three brilliant marketing modifiers that attracted
the Visa Cards of provident and socially-minded 21-35 year-old consumers,
America Apparel's prime target.
The clothing itself is cut like H&M, but with a street creed panache, colored like vintage Gap, but better and with a conscience, and well-crafted like Banana Republic without the WASP-driven corncob up its
crotch. Furthermore, the nonconformist brand eschews global garment trends like outsourcing labor to third world countries, they use real people instead of agency models for their advertising, they subsidize employee lunches and pay above minimum wage at their downtown L.A. factory, which is currently the largest "sewn-products facility" in the United States. The L.A. plant dubs itself a "design lab where creative ideas, efficient manufacturing techniques, and
concepts for designing and selling T-shirts are developed and put to the test." according to the Press Center at American Apparel's website.
What the Press Center neglects to mention is that Dov Charney, the publicist-less, 36 year-old Jewish Montrealer and hyper-sexual founder and C.E.O. linchpin, is being sued for sexual harassment by three former employees. But is Charney, whose business practices are becoming a model for successful and socially sustainable retailing, a perv or a pro?
Many of Charney's fashion industry colleagues are flying to his defense, suggesting that practicing conscientious business methods should absolve him from being sexually erratic in the workplace, especially considering that this is fashion, and that's "how it is. But it seems an egregious short-sighted patch to an otherwise volatile situation. The bottom line is not just about justice and sexuality in the workplace, but also rooted in business as well. When a C.E.O. starts acting out, it's the company's or consumers' (or shareholders') responsibility to reel him in, or in some cases replace him in order to
maintain a solid level of business. We've most recently witnessed this in the example of Martha Stewart in the stock scandal last year.
The lascivious Love Dov looks like a cross between Terry Richardson and Taxi's Judd Hirsch, circa 1977. He embodies a 1970's leisure-suit sexuality -- the kind of man you'd expect to drive a Trans-Am, drink Fresca and host a Benny Hill marathon. Or better yet, the kind of kid who sacked the babysitter in seventh grade and bragged about it until 11th. You half love him and half hate him, but are drawn to his confidence nevertheless. His worn olive skin and receding hairline offer the kind of financial promise and stability that youth are inexplicably drawn to. His rock-
tight ass (revealed in an ad), odd equatorial mustache and sexually upfront nature may be a smart-ass way to buck the trends, but is all this press (New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Butt Magazine, Jane, et al) just one big publicity stunt to boost sales and/or his ego?
It's not unusual that the plaintiffs in a sexual harassment suit are women. It is unusual however, that the ones suing Charney are not alleging that he coerced them for sex, but rather that he created a "wholly intolerable" and "intimidating" atmosphere rife with unnecessary libidinous testosterone. What's more unusual is Charney's unrestrained "business and pleasure" pride, which further deepens the suspicions about his integrity.
Charney founded American Apparel (then American Heavy) in 1997 and nurtured it into a retail empire which thrives on a fashionably familiar porn-esque sensibility that now boasts more than 4,500 employees, 50 stores in five different countries and annual sales exceeding $250 million. That's a lot of track jackets.
Lawsuit? No biggie, right? Not exactly. It doesn't help Charney's case that his stores are papered with Penthouse and Oui magazine snapshots and that he happily admits to having sex with his employees. Nor does it help that he brags about his penchant for masturbating in front of women. So much so, that he masturbated in front of reporter Claudine Ko while she interviewed him for Jane magazine. Ko reports in Jane:
"'Can I?' he says adjusting himself in his chair. And thus begins another compulsive episode of what Dov likes to call "self-pleasure," during which we casually carry on our interview, discussing things like business models, hiring practices and the stupidity of focus groups. 'Masturbation in front of women is underrated,' Dov explains to me later over the phone. 'It's much easier on the woman. She gets to watch, it's a sensual experience that doesn't involve a man violating a woman, yet once the man has his release, it's over and you can talk to the guy.' Soon enough he loosens his Pierre Cardin belt. 'Are you going to do it again?' I ask."
In Ko's article, she asserts that she witnessed Charney jerk off more than eight times in one month. However, according to jewlicious.com, Ko added later "Whenever I see a picture of Dov, I can't help but smile and think fondly of him. That reporting experience was fun, engaging, stimulating and interesting. Dov Charney is a mad man and I like that." If you didn't read the Jane article, perhaps you saw Charney's exposed penis giving Butt (a radical counter-culture fag-mag) readers the full Monty in a recent issue. If you missed that, perhaps you caught the bare-bottomed ad of him in Vice wearing nothing but a T-shirt that said "Legalize L.A." Or maybe you read Mireya Navarro's thoughtful New York Times account in a lengthy July 10, 2005 article: "[One of the Plaintiffs] said [Charney] once called her into his office with a co-worker and gave them both vibrators, saying, 'It's great during sex.'" Indeed, stunts like this, whether obnoxious or liberated, reveal Charney's wild side à la Paris Hilton, and give needed exposure to the company. But they may ultimately alienate the store's consumer base by ahem overexposing the company.
Jewlicious.com, which is rapidly becoming the primary message-board for Dov's friends, foes, and current and ex-employees, reads like the Friendster profile of the unpredictable mogul. Its testimonials to Charney range from comments like "I don't fuck skanky C.E.O.'s to pay the rent, I work my ass off for it." (Post 63 by currentemployee 7/8/2005) and "Charney may pay higher than sweatshop wages, but he's a hypocritical union buster." (Post 24 by Jewdith 7/09/2005) to "My mother was a sweat shop worker in the '70s and '80s and I know from her own stories how hard this life was I respect everything [Charney] has done. (Post 4 by themiddle 7/10/05)."
Most recently Dov has come under the gun for his anti-union stance from the same people who championed his other business ethics, further estranging him from a cohesive and unified support base, the very thing he'll need should additional and perhaps more severe allegations come his way. So just where exactly does this union-busting and bad publicity leave the "creative ideas" of the Californicator's "design lab?"
It's probably most telling that American Apparel has an "M/OS" size for their line of women's clothing. "M/OS," stands for "Medium One Size" and it fits all women, sizes 0 through 8. "His sizing nomenclature suggests a mentality that says, 'All women are the same." says Christopher Burns, former fashion designer turned interior designer. "That is what both inflates and unravels Charney at the same time." But that same duality is what makes him a real live complex person, not just another corporate clone.
Now that summer is here, the zip-up jackets are less ubiquitous, but from all outward appearances, business is brisk at the Houston Street location. The out-of-towners are even making American Apparel a must-stop on their city tour, giving the Sex in the City and "sweat-shop" clichés a whole new poignancy. But the snug, combed cotton cozies should return in the fall, bigger, better and more popular than ever. After all, they've become a sign of the times.
Adam Graham is the dining editor for Next magazine and a New York-based food and travel writer.