The American Apparel brand is pretty synonymous with controversy. From its business ethics to its advertisements, AA generates a lot of both positive and negative feedback.
American Apparel’s slogan, “Made in USA,” appears on most of its print advertisements. This is AA’s appeal to consumers: it offers trendy basics — shirts, sweaters, slacks, skirts etc. — that are designed and constructed in North America. With the majority of the garment industry moved offshore, a clothing factory located in downtown Los Angeles, California, is an anomaly. In addition to producing its wares in L.A., the company pays employees a wage higher than the minimum and has reported that it offers onsite work perks like optional health care, subsidized transportation and free English-as-a-second-language classes. These business practices are progressive and would be an excellent model in a movement away from goods being produced by slave labour.
While American Apparel’s treatment of its factory workers seems fair, maybe almost generous, other employees, including models and retail clerks, have said their boss’s actions towards them have been unacceptable. Dov Charney, founder and CEO of American Apparel, has been pressed with several sexual harassment lawsuits by his employees. In 2011 alone, five women sued Charney for sexual harassment and sexual assault in two separate lawsuits. Last year, he was accused of choking an employee. He masturbates in front of others, even when being interviewed.
Despite repeatedly being sued by former employees, Charney has yet to be found guilty. However, American Apparel requires employees to sign confidentiality and arbitration agreements that state all grievances will be settled outside of a court of law. It’s an unusual requirement for a retailer to demand of staff. Because of this confidentiality agreement, most cases filed against Charney have gone to arbitration or been dropped. The only case still pending is the incident in which Charney was accused of choking an employee. By forcing new hires to sign an agreement that renders them legally powerless against their employer, Charney has taken an odd, pre-emptive stance against being found guilty of abuse.
On top of the alleged assaults by the CEO, American Apparel sells its products with controversial, overly sexualized ads. Dazed, underage-looking girls are depicted twisted into contortionist poses. The camera often angles upwards towards cleaved legs in mesh, lace or sometimes just thigh-high socks. Arguably, the overtness of female sexuality in the ads could be seen as empowering. Personally, I don’t feel empowered by a clothing ad that features a girl on hands and knees facing away from the camera, dressed in a lace bodysuit so sheer I can see her vagina.
AA has also been criticized for its discriminatory hiring practices. Gawker reports that the company bases hires and promotions on “full body” employee photos. A former store manager alleges she received instructions on hiring African American women. She was instructed to avoid “. . . the trashy kind . . .” and to “. . . try to find some of these classy black girls, with nice hair, you know?” This is overt racism and bigotry.
The company’s controversy has been reported on in papers and debated online, but what’s the conclusion we’ve reached?
Despite allegations of sexual abuse within the company and the objectification of young women in their advertising campaigns, American Apparel remains one of Victoria’s hottest places to shop for the young and hip. Working there is still seen as a status job, a lofty retail position reserved for the few who slip through the colander of aesthetic demands AA places on its clerks. The growing claims that the company is abusive and exploitive feels like a West Coast fog, tangible but unable to really be grasped.
Yes, a move away from factory worker extortion/slave labour is a step in the right direction for the garment industry. No, this does not make sexually assaulting employees or racial discrimination acceptable.
I have shopped at American Apparel, but their derogatory advertisements always left me feeling a little uneasy. After hearing about the sexual assault cases through word-of-mouth, I researched the claims. I stopped shopping at American Apparel upon grasping the extent of the company’s unethical policies and actions. As a consumer, I try to make conscious purchasing decisions within the best extent of my knowledge, but it’s difficult when the fast-fashion garment industry is so obtuse.
As a society, I know we can begin to produce our clothing in an ethical manner, without slavery or abuse. I appreciate this company offering fair wages and fair conditions; however, if I shop there, I’m lining the pockets of an alleged sexual predator.
Is the attention generated by wearing the clothing of a company that sells itself on sexual controversy worth the women tossed to the wayside in the process of generating that image? It concerns me that, as a culture, we seem to be numb to the mistreatment of strangers in the interest of displaying ourselves as attractive. Has social responsibility been strained from our generation? “I know it’s bad, but it looks good on me” seems to be the sentiment underlying our buying behaviour.