Chicago Manual of Style—10/22/2010

Clothing amid controversy: Examining American Apparel

By Jessen O'Brien

Once upon a time, there was a little T-shirt company that could. They could design clothing that was both comfortable and chic. They could pay their employees a fair wage while still making a profit. They could even make political statements, selling shirts that proclaimed “Legalize LA,” “Legalize Gay,” and “Repeal Prop 8.” But its reputation managed to simultaneously rise and fall as its owner became known for sexual deviance and the company for flagrant sexism. And then, the really hard times came.

As you may already know, that company is American Apparel. On October 8, it announced the hiring of Tom Casey, formerly of Blockbuster, as acting president. Casey’s job is simple: prevent the company from going bankrupt. The reasoning behind this job, however, is much more complicated.

Most blogs label American Apparel as evil incarnate (Objectification! Sexual harassment! Chauvinism!), and it can be hard to look beyond the outrage to the truth. Some blame American Apparel’s recent financial problems on its owner, Dov Charney. After all, the man is known for wandering around the office in his underwear (American Apparel Y-fronts, of course), and the company has taken a few hits (financially and otherwise) for the sexual harassment suits he’s had to deal with over the past few years. None of this makes for positive PR, but it does make for a good story.

Nevertheless, I can’t believe that years of inappropriate behavior would suddenly start hurting the company just this summer. Most people I’ve talked to either don’t know of Charney or have only a vague idea of his indiscretions. I don’t believe that this reputation prevents anyone from buying or affects American Apparel’s ability to design a good-looking shirt.

Equally compelling is the company’s hiring policy, or at least the way it’s been portrayed online. Ask anyone frequenting Gawker, and you’ll hear tale after tale of the company requiring headshots of potential employees to ensure that their appearance aligns with American Apparel’s aesthetic and its refusal to hire overweight, older, or simply plainer applicants. More troubling, at least from a business standpoint, is that this results in hiring and promoting high school dropouts over candidates with real management experience.

However, like any clothing company, American Apparel is selling a specific look. It’s more likely to hire someone who matches that style than someone who doesn’t. Although it’s taken more heat for that, there’s little evidence to suggest that its hiring practices are more discriminatory than others. American Apparel is selling an image, and it has a right to control what that image is. And I’d like to point out that most people I talk to don’t mention this when telling me why they don’t shop at American Apparel.

So what do people say? By people I mean college students, and most say that the clothing is simply too expensive, especially in this economy. Why pay $20 for a basic T-shirt? That’s five Starbucks lattes, or three weeks worth of coffee at Cobb. The answer to that question lies mostly in American Apparel’s sweatshop-free policy.

The company pays its average factory worker $12 an hour—a little less than twice minimum wage—offers full-time employment, and guarantees job security in addition to providing an on-site medical clinic, ESL classes, and subsidized public transport.

The rest of my answer lies in American Apparel’s product. Most of the clothing might be basic, but it’s certainly not simple. It is actually well-designed and long-lasting, unlike most other basic T-shirts, or at least the ones in my closet. They don’t pill or lose shape after you’ve washed them, and they don’t look like you’ve thrown on a bag.

Classic, streamlined looks are in, and American Apparel understands the unexpected intricacies necessary when designing minimalistic looks. Just because a dress looks simple doesn’t mean that it is—a great cut and fabric for a long-lasting item is often worth another $15. Also, I’m a little in love with their multi-wear dresses—over a dozen looks in one item!

Still, none of this changes the fact that $20 is $20 is $20, or that most of American Apparel’s ads seem to feature very little clothing. But, I do think the company deserves to be saved.

American Apparel seems to have a worse reputation for objectification and just plain smarminess than any other chain I can think of, but I doubt that its questionable hiring practices are unique. I will say, though, that the story’s only going to get more interesting in the coming months. My advice? Keep an eye out for sales, whatever your opinion.