A couple of months ago, my mom and I were shopping in downtown Seattle when she suddenly stopped me across the street from an American Apparel store, put on her serious face and said, “Meg, promise me right now that you will never, EVER, buy anything from that store, American Apparel.” I thought she was crazy. When I asked why, she told me about how their CEO was a “dirtbag” who sexually harassed his employees and responded to their legal actions with a general tone of, “I own this company, I can run it anyway I want.”
The first time I walked into an American Apparel store a few years ago (it was the one on West Burnside in Portland), I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I wear almost exclusively solid-colored clothing, and that’s all they sell. It seems stupid, but it’s incredibly difficult to find plain clothing that doesn’t have some sort of logo or brand name on it. The store was a huge white room with every style of shirt, sweatshirt, and sweatpant that a person could want, and in a rainbow of colors. The wall was lined with photos of garment tags (from non-AA clothing) each declaring that the item was made in China, Pakistan, Mexico…anywhere but the United States. There was a huge sign on the window that read, “Crafted with pride in Los Angeles, California.” I was immediately on the AA bandwagon. Well-paid laborers! A factory in downtown LA! How could this be bad?
When my bowling team bought t-shirts and silkscreened them, we went to American Apparel. My friend Russ used to work at one of their stores, so he could get us their clothing at pretty good prices (because it turns out I can’t afford the fruits of well-paid American labor). When I saw friends selling screenprinted shirts at Saturday Market or the awesome guy who sells (406) shirts at Missoula Farmer’s Market, I was happy to see they used AA shirts and sweatshirts.
But that was all before I found out the company was started by a chauvinist asshole, albeit an asshole with a great business plan that supported American industry and laborers. I did a few searches on the internet and found out that Dov Charney has had three sexual harassment claims brought against him by four female employees. He routinely walks around his office and factory wearing only underwear (that he designed, of course) and does a whole slew of things that I would definitely consider inappropriate – things that would offend me and make me uncomfortable. If I worked there, I would get a new job before anyone even learned how to pronounce my last name.
American Apparel’s ads have always been a little strange. They’re usually grainy (artsy?) photos of just one person against a white backdrop, and the person is wearing an article or two of AA clothing. Sort of. They’re usually in some state of undress when (one assumes) a photographer jumps out of nowhere to catch them on film. I was never particularly offended by these ads (I grew up with Abercrombie ads, I may never be shocked by suggestive nudity advertising clothing), but AA just came out with a few new internet ads that involve partial nudity. Like, of the important parts. As far as I know, the naked photos are all of women at this point.
Do I think people shouldn’t be allowed to advertise with half- or completely-naked models? I’m not sure. I know the photos of nude women I saw advertising lotions or porn hotlines in France (different ads in completely different places) made me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong. To be honest, the first thought I had was, This might not bother me so much if there were photos of naked men as well. Which was followed by, I don’t actually want to see photos of naked men, I would just feel less gross about the whole thing if it wasn’t gender specific.
So I’ve come to this very confusing place. If Dov Charney has done even half of the things I’ve read on the internet, I find him simultaneously fascinating, awesome, and disgusting. I don’t really know how to feel about buying clothing made by factory workers that work under good conditions, are paid well, and receive benefits, when the person who signs their checks (and takes my money) calls his female employees sluts and talks about sex all the time. Do I really have to ask myself whether I’d like to support child and slave labor or sexual harassment when I buy a t-shirt? And if so, how the hell do I answer that?