The industrial evolution at American Apparel continues to challenge manufacturing’s gluttonous model
You shouldn’t have eaten the pizza. Dov Charney hates pizza. And during a wave of Toronto rummage sale hysteria (previously Ottawa and Montreal), after telling you the quick hit event is his “high rotation, high velocity answer to Forever 21”—that god-awful scourge of sustainability—you see him stare deep into the eyes of one of his employees and ask where the food is? A young fashion blogger has shown up, overly vintage-clad with optical rims bigger than her cheeks, and should be politely offered a bite to eat, a sip of something, before walking off with the CEO and Founder of American Apparel to conduct a brief interview. In this case, Charney isn’t thinking for himself. He’ll shovel something down hours from now (a steak, in fact, that sees him lick the plate clean), when his body is perhaps on the point of collapse. He’d prefer, nevertheless, something healthy, substantive, reasonably sourced for his team and his guest to nibble on. It’s not said but it’s inferred. It ends with, “And I don’t want pizza.”
But that’s not the world we live in. It’s a world Charney is seeking to create, a world where we work smarter. Where we don’t eat mass-produced, irresponsible food, so to speak. Where, sure, we exercise game hunting, but see that those around us aren’t treated like excrement. A world of basic neces- sity—the clothes of the add-food-and-shelter equation—not made in a sweat- shop or ruthlessly wasting natural resources in order to be scuttled around the world. A world that’s exciting. That’s the American Apparel journey: a visceral fashion-trailblazer, scaled to the point of all things remarkable. The brand im- age is unprecedented: kinky, spread-eagled teens and utilitarian farmers, each donning anything from denim to chiffon to boots; a re-examination of oppres- sive ceilings both in manufacturing and lifestyle; a challenge to rote notions of who deserves to be working where; a lawsuit or two (because this is L.A.); dalliances, because sometimes bad-for-you feels oh-so-good; and above all, the leader—a workhorse akin to the industrial legends of modern time.
Again, not the world we live in. Not soon after Charney’s declara- tion of the one thing he absolutely does not want fed to his staff, our populist reflexes are tested, for soon there are stacks of pizza pies being carried into the defunct train station—and sooner, punky, androgynous, excitable, smoking, exhausted, cute, overly sexed, “wired”-out-their-gills, and uniformly youthful (regardless of age) event staffers, wearing hot pink “Legalize LA” tees, are chowing down. You’re there with them. It tastes so bad. It tastes so amazing. You feel like you’re at a party in seventh grade, gassed out on Dr. Pepper with a permanent boner. You feel sick. You feel elated. You never want to leave. Charney returns from his interview as you shove the vestiges of a slice into your face. He looks at your crust, and you, with revile. From somewhere, a meek explanation surfaces, “It was too late. It had already been ordered.”
You see, the pizza—much like a cheap T-shirt manufactured some- where in Bangladesh, perhaps by a kid for a buck-a-day—it sort of fits, and its cheapness exhilarates, and it’s bad for you in a careless and even fun way, but it doesn’t make ethical or nutritional (read: sustainable) sense. In the janitor’s basement of the Hazelton Hotel, the Torontan digs Charney’s camped out at, where you’ve finally found a quiet and nicely lit place to conduct an interview, he’ll tell you, of pizza, “It’s gross. I like Italian high-end pizza, though, like when you’re in Miami or in Rome. I’m not interested in commercial pizza. I think it’s disgusting.” Finally, pizza ain’t gonna make them high-waisted fash- ion jeans look their best either now, is it?
So yes, pizza is like T-shirts. You’ve got choices, you’ve got thrills, you’ve got creativity. American Apparel is that high-end pizza, ma soltanto a Roma. Let’s run with that. Sometime during your flurry of immersion with the company, Charney will lead you on a surprise plunge into the stockroom of a retail store, the entrepreneur’s first location in Toronto, and you’ll witness him conduct two conversations (one with eight of the best hairdo possessors in Canada—the store’s staff—the other with the plant in L.A. on his unlimited- minutes-stretching cell phone) at once. An aggressive assessment is based on an inadequate supply of full-length dark tights. “This is the last warm weekend of the year!” he’ll holler, both to the coiffed personnel and into the phone. “It’s al- most Halloween!” It’s an intense, high-energy moment. The staff, for the most part, seems to embrace the ball-busting and enjoy the business lesson, which it is. And while Charney mugs for the camera documenting this—just a bit—it’s beautifully raw. There isn’t really a departure from form. You’ll watch him go on like this for days. “This is a street fight, okay? It’s no joke!” he’ll bark, his arms flailing.
Back in Charney’s car, en route to the rummage sale, referring to the unstocked stockings as a store performance touch point, he’ll tell you that’s his model. “You micro-manage it and you macro the idea, you under- stand?” he’ll ask. He’ll then refer to the “vertically-integrated stratification” (meaning all in-house, basically) of his young company, a rarity in the Amer- ican industrial trade, and seeding that micro to macro by promoting from within.
While recent financial fluctuation at American Apparel has seen an obligatory injection of senior level management, a number of Charney’s principles began in entry-level positions. An example is Jeremias Pablo, a Guatemalan who walked across the desert into the U.S. 18 years ago. Pablo did three years of “very hard” seasonal day labor amongst Florida’s corpo- rate fruit plantations (day labor conditions for immigrant males in the U.S. are bleak; loneliness, alcoholism, and a heightened risk of HIV/AIDS afflicts much of the population; that’s not even addressing the physical threats posed by proximity to corporate farms’ pesticide-soaked wares).
Pablo eventually caught wind of a sewing position at Charney’s small L.A. venture in 2002, then strictly a wholesaler. He’s now a company- sponsored green card carrier, the company’s sewing department head, and a living, breathing example of that quite clouded American Dream. And yet, someone like Pablo, an outsider with visionary leadership, is instrumental to the globally-savvy, innovative West Coast companies that have dominated global markets in recent decades. Charney refers to expanding up from the special, talented ingredients of global pools, like a number of other West Coast innovators: Silicon Valley, Seattle, Microsoft, and Facebook, for ex- ample.
At the same time many of these destinations or companies were gathering steam, Charney, too, was zeroing in on a structurally unique vision for American Apparel. Pablo remarks on moving from Charney’s company beneath a bridge at Santa Fe and Olympic in Eastern Downtown to the mas- sive factory with perhaps a hundred employees, “The place was so big. At his first speech, he said, ‘We don’t need to learn each other’s names, because I’m going to have 5,000 employees.’ We all laughed at him, said he was crazy, you know? ‘Yeah, right.’” Charney, to date has double that figure of employ- ees, and, after trailing him around the company, you observe the names are, to the contrary, pretty learned.
Toronto is savoring in what little heat is left for six months to come. Charney points out a private airport that has somehow continued to exist in the heart of the city with outbounds to New York and the rest of the North- east. He tells you about it all with an enthusiasm that clearly just loves a deal, loves an insider’s point of view, and above all, cutting a superfluous corner or two. Charney states, as we approach The Direct Energy Centre, site of the rummage sale, “We are committed to pursuing a contrarian point of view. In my opinion, manufacturing within the United States close to the distribution center is an avant-garde point of view—but some people may not understand that. By hiring people that are in the company, that understand the benefits of that, is less explaining to do. That allows us to kind of create a cult. That allows us to pursue the contrarian point of view without distraction.”
A cult. Indeed. Back in Los Angeles, Iris Alonzo, an eight-year employee and one of the company’s two Creative Directors reflects on the cult’s ingredients from a couch in her office—deep in the belly of the mas- sive factory. She has just finished up a meeting with artist Vanessa Beecroft. Alonzo’s East Coast counterpart Marsha Brady is in town, sitting on another adjacent couch. Alonzo, a tall and slim creative with vertically-daring cheekbones who, alongside Brady, pops up in the company’s print advertising from time to time, talks mainly about the company’s sustainability initiatives: the recycling programs that have been in place for years, solar power for the factory, goals to streamline to strictly organic cotton and fabric sourcing, a job creation scheme through SCRAFT (Scraps + Craft—handicrafts from cutting floor scraps), as well as Open Factory, a potentially very lucrative job creation plan launching in November. Open Factory will see American Apparel’s facilities open up to outside contracts, wherein other global companies that are seeking to manufacture in the U.S. can do so with the same quality assurance and proximity to distribution as AA.
Marsha Brady, a New York native and Creative Director of the East Coast, echoes the importance of sustainability (notably how the company recycled over a million pounds of scrap fabric last year), and how growing up and working in NYC’s Garment District has influenced her creativity within the company, and her passion for the preservation of manufacturing. “I have watched manufacturing dry up in my neighborhood, corralled into a shrinking district,” she says. “I have a passion for keeping manufacturing alive before it slips into extinction. I see my work at American Apparel as a way of showing the industry that factories in this country are the lifeblood of our creativity, and that we lose an integral part of our history each time we surrender production to whichever country is making things the cheapest.”
Alonzo further talks about bicycle programs, about the company’s upcoming participation in Opportunity Green Business Conference (an assembly of progressive business leaders), about cell phone recycling services, and the contribution of garments for disaster relief, such as the thousands of pieces provided for Haiti hurricane relief. “What we’ve done up until now has been without outsourced PR or marketing,” she says. “And we’ve watched the brand grow, based a lot on the feedback of people around the world. We don’t always win everyone over—I don’t think any brand does, so we are just staying focused on meshing all this together post going public.”
American Apparel did indeed go public in early 2007, following a reverse merger wherein Endeavor Acquisition Corp. purchased the company for $360 million, absorbing its debts and leaving Charney the largest shareholder (he currently holds 44%). But let’s back up for a second: there are a few key items of biographical importance. Charney, 42, began his company in 1989, making T-shirts with wholesale and screen-printing intent after con- siderable success shipping T’s from Connecticut to his native Canada as a university student. By 1997, he relocated manufacturing to Los Angeles, and by 2000, he’d taken up roost in the massive 800,000 square foot downtown factory. In 2003, he entered the retail market with locations in his hometown of Montreal, New York City, and Los Angeles. Two years later, a few dozen more stores bigger, and with $200 million in annual revenue, the company was starting to take shape, capitalizing on both a stylistic aesthetic and an op- portune consumer sense for “sweatshop-free” garments. All of this, of course, was buoyed up by its brazen advertising campaigns—which mostly featured yummy youngsters in even yummier poses, au natural, un-retouched, and daringly unafraid of their pleasure spots.
This provocative marketing was amplified by Charney’s publicly brash wage-offerings, among the best in North American garment manufacturing. But in October of 2009, with the company swollen to 260 global lo- cations and 7,000 employees, all of whom had health insurance options and rights to company stock, the good ol’ ICE dropped the raid hammer and the company was forced to dismiss some 1,500 undocumented workers. Another 700 left voluntarily. Naturally, this caused massive tumult in their production process, and coupled with a global financial crisis, the company grappled with liquidity issues and rapidly slid into near bankruptcy before being aided by private investors.
Ah, the bruises of youth. Charney, despite the bruises, tells you, as he’s pacing the aisles of the massive event venue, a beautiful, defunct train station, “This year, we’re going to make 20 million dollars of EBITA—you know, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization—and next year we can make 40-50 million and get back on track. I think in the course of a number of years, we can be making 100 plus EBITA. And to me, that’s a re- spectable business. And to be cash flowing those kind of dollars.” Cash flow is key. Charney’s predictions are largely staked on the company’s potential to generate up to $60 million in liquidity in the coming two years. Liquidity issues, because of rapid growth, have historically hindered the company.
Beyond the trials of youth, though, why all the scampering to keep the ship afloat? The intent and the vision of the company seem to make sense: corporate restructuring for increased efficiency, a hands-on leader, selling sex (a staple for America, mind you), treating people fairly, paying millions of dollars into their benefits annually, aiming to minimize the waste of natural resources, creating more and more taxpayers. It comes back to the systemic oppression Charney is chronically ramming his head against. Because all of these things are small fry when those you’re employing are folks who weren’t born here. Nevertheless, outside the ledger, or the law, there are some who don’t want American Apparel to succeed. They might have ridden the brand ‘til the wheels fell off, and then fell out of love. They might be stock traders or unhip jocks. They could be gender rights activists. They could hate queers. Its zeitgeist might have scared them. They might be afraid of “losing our jobs” to Mexicans. They might yearn for their youth.
Again, these are all just superficial talking points. You’ll notice that. There’s a lot to talk about with the brand. Beyond people’s love/hate re- lationship with the brand as consumers or spectators of its advertising, much of American Apparel’s challenging position, as demonstrated by the immi- gration issues, is again, wholly systematic. So, it starts at the top: the banks. After greedily bulldozing themselves—and padding the pockets of that 1% controlling the 40% of the country’s wealth that we see being contested in occupation camps around the world’s cities—into completely unsustainable enterprise, things toppled. They were then “bailed out” by the government. A recent revealing of Citigroup’s practices in 2007 made “Goldman Sachs mortgage traders look like Boy Scouts,” as described by James Stewart, a business columnist for The Times, casting ever-convincing evidence for the calls to cease, or at least re-examine, the banks’ salvation.
So why, then, hasn’t government help to America’s supposed infra- structural necessities—the banks, the auto industry—stemmed into other his- torically successful industries? Moreover, what’s with the bailed-out banks’ reluctance to see the potential in vertically-integrated manufacturing, at one time a staple in American market enterprise? When asked about banks and boardrooms (a boardroom being our initial interview destination, which felt out-of-character for the unconventional businessman at hand), and in turn, banks’ reluctance to see a future in domestic manufacturing, Charney re- marks, “There’s nothing wrong with boardrooms. It’s boardroom mentality where you’re operating a committee, and there’s a committee of people that are making decisions that are out of touch with the consumers’ needs. That are out of touch with the factory. I think that has become a problem in the corporate strategy. It’s too mechanistic. It’s too impersonal.
“Boardroom decision-making is what I think caused a lot of com- panies to just pack up and go off shore without thinking it through. Or it’s what caused people to just run to China. It’s what caused banks to divest from making loans to American manufacturers because it’s been seen as something of the past, but I see it as something of the future. But if the banks don’t do it, the government could underwrite some of the industrial financings that are necessary to build the infrastructure to enlarge or rebuild America’s manufacturing prowess, because I think that’s important. We’re really not ooking for any government help—I don’t think it’s going to make or break the situation. What’s important now is that we perfect our product. I’m not going to pay to make something 4,000 miles away. Manufacturing should be close to where the distribution system is—generally, not always—but in the case of what we have right now, it’s almost forced, absolutely, to outsource. It’s gone overboard. And it’s not good. It’s not sustainable on the long term.”
Despite a number of eyes watching the brand—this happens when you’ve reached trend-seeding status—Charney suggests American Apparel’s turbulence has also been extremely conditional. “I think the last two, three, four years,” he says, “will be remembered as hard times for the world. We all remember the 1929 Depression. I’m not saying this is a depression but we will remember this area. Some people call it the Great Recession. So it knocked a few projects off the rails. Some magazines folded, some TV sta- tions never got launched. Things happen, right? But we basically made it out of the tunnel. We had issues—the United States government immigration. Things came up, triggered issues with our ability to generate profits, triggered some issues with some of our banks and lenders, triggered some issues with our ability to finance our company. Well, we got through it all. We’re through the tunnel, big deal, couple scars brushed off. Everything will heal.”
The secret weapon in getting the company through “the tunnel” has been Charney’s President of Manufacturing, Marty Bailey. Bailey, a Ken- tucky native and former college basketball forward who excelled at hoops, despite his below average height, “because of [his] big butt,”—oversees production planning, purchasing, sourcing, product development, and quality- assurance departments. Bailey was lured to the factory by Charney a year before the 2003 retail push. Essentially, Charney was seeking out the world’s T-shirt genius, and Bailey, with 15 years in the global field, principally at Fruit of the Loom, brought to and further developed at American Apparel innova- tive practices, chiefly what has become known as “team manufacturing”—an efficiency-increasing method whereby workers are grouped based on skill level. Bailey boosted output and sales nearly immediately.
He describes how global “exposure” enabled him to get behind Charney’s vision for domestic manufacturing. “I’m in Mexico, I’m in Haiti,” he says. “I’m in the Dominican, Honduras, Africa. But throughout all of that, I developed a strong belief that you could do it here—if you were very defined in what you were doing, in what your goals were. And I believed in Dov’s vision, because I had the same vision. I think we have, after ten years, done okay.”
Of losing a quarter of his workforce to the immigration crackdown, Bailey says, “I think initially the effect wasn’t so much the devastation of the business as it was the devastation to the people. These aren’t ‘undocument- ed’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants, or whatever. These are mothers and fathers, and they’re parents, or sons, or daughters: human beings. And, you know, they’re people who made a tremendous contribution to the growth of this country.”
Bailey’s right hand man is our old friend Jeremias Pablo. Pablo, who, like all American Apparel workers can bring his kids, should they be- come ill, with him to work, where it’s well-lit and ventilated, to attend the in- house clinic a floor down from his post, is a respected leader. His success has spawned success, both capitalistically and within his own family. Still, this man has been historically branded an “enemy” to certain factions of our public. But realistically, due to the crises faced by a world reaching varying types of critical mass, the “boogie man” has moved out of the lens. Not a single major poll of the entire year has shown robust interest in immigration—CNBC recently conducted a survey ask- ing people “the most important problem facing this country today.” Less than two percent responded with “illegal immigration.” People are moving on. It’s no longer voter-topical. Yet oddly, what does continually drum up passion amongst the surveyed is that singular word: jobs.
And yet, with- in the scope of American manufacturing, and an industry that could deeply benefit this country—from farms to transportation to retail commerce to education initiatives, to cultural influence—where are the workers? Bailey describes the paradox of a “they’re taking our jobs away” political outlook. “We talk about bringing outsourcing back to the U.S.,” he says, “but where’s the workforce? Until we realize that the workforce is going to be immigrant, who are going to see manufacturing as an opportunity, and embrace that, and not see it as an ewww type of job, we’re against a wall. How do you bring that workforce when your dad broke the system? We want to see people who have done what they needed to do to survive, and then done their jobs well, and they’ve contributed, they’ve paid taxes, their kids are in school, like with the new DREAM Act [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, a legislative initiative proposed in 2001 and revisited in 2011]. The jobs these people do is not, as was suggested to me by a PBS reporter once, ‘unskilled labor.’ These people are professionals. If I wanted to bring in someone with a special talent, whether it would be in graphics, or in research, or whatnot, it’s not hard to sponsor and bring those people into the United States. If I want to sponsor a professional sewing operator, I want to sponsor professional apparel workers, where’s that venue? How do I do that?” Thus, what the company appropriately calls Reform. And this company, this spurned, media-chastised company has done a damn fine job of it, evinced by statements like this from Pablo, many similar of which can be collected while strolling through the factory: “Many companies have for- gotten about human beings. I’ve seen efforts by Dov Charney to give to all of his employees a piece of cake. It’s not only for himself. ‘Sweatshop Free’ means a lot to me because of what I’ve seen.”
It’s important to note that while “Legalize L.A.” and “Immigration Reform Now” have long been synonymous with the brand, Charney has historically not gotten too touchy-feely about immigration issues. While he does wholly embrace systematic overhauls, his mission is steeped in market capitalism and “self-interest,” and as Bailey will testify, the model is arguably a strong one. “If my worker is successful, I’m successful,” he shares. “We’ve got operators earning anywhere from 80 to 130, 140 dollars a day. I mean, there’s no other place in town where you can go and have that kind of oppor- tunity, where you have the insurance and benefits, and opportunity for growth. A lot of things drive people. I’m driven to see people be successful, whatever new endeavor, whatever our challenge is. That’s the fun part; it’s the battle.”
There’s a running theme vocalized between Bailey, Charney, and Alonzo: street fights, battles, picking friends and enemies. It’s a fight because what American Apparel is doing is really hard. And while their practices are aiming to reshape the way in which the American marketplace functions, and in many ways have reshaped the way in which the American marketplace func- tions, perception is still paramount. Perception is how you assure investors. Perception is how you stay fashion-relevant. Perception has been a challenge for the brand since its inception.
Let’s go back to Toronto for a perception exercise. Following the sale, you’ll climb into the boxy Dodge van that brought Charney here from Ottawa. He drove it with a handful of allies (several of the rummage sale par- ticipants from American Apparel—a global team was assembled—had their work status challenged at the Canadian border for saying they were en route “to help out” instead of “observe the proto-business exercise,” a scenario that comically illustrates the cavalier spirit of the company, and the oft-absurd bu- reaucracies it’s bucked against from the word go). There’s a box of apples on the floor from an orchard stop outside Toronto. You eat one. Then you notice. This van, it smells weird, almost like sex, almost like the pheromones... of pepperoni? Because you’ve spotted a pizza box in the rear. Maybe a couple workers screwed in here while waiting for that pie to come out of the stove? Or maybe not. But pizza and screwing? Yeah. And that’s when you begin to wrap your head around the brand allure, the essence and intrigue that cloak the company, living and breathing like a pubescent, crystalline gem just released to oxygen. It’s not the pizza. It’s the mojo. And because this metaphor continues to rock, Charney worked, at one point, as a pizza delivery boy.
Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, has remarked to The New York Times on the company and its sexual-oozing. “What is American Apparel without sex? It’s a T-shirt and sweatshirt com- pany.” Of the history and continuation of sex within the brand, Brady remarks, “Well, sex is never really going to get old, but you can go overboard, and we have certainly done that in the past. As a group, we’re talking a lot about our direction. What people find sexy does change periodically—it’s a contextual issue that reflects an infinite number of things that don’t directly even have anything to do with sex. Sex will always be a part of our brand, but a lot of things are sexy. ‘Provocation’ can be about being suggestive, even aggressive, but it can also be simply about provoking thought. Sex is still exciting to us because it can take so many forms.”
Alonzo, from across the coffee table, interjects: “Sex is definitely part of life—it’s part of fashion. But context is everything—like the ad with the guy feeding the beets versus the sexy girl ad.2 It’s not a formula, but we are always experimenting with and evolving our look and feel.” She pauses, bouncing her expressive au natural brows, and jokes, “I’m really excited to try new things.”
Is there anything better than women talking about what is sexy? No. So let’s talk more about sex. Let’s talk about the sexual allegations leveled at Charney throughout the years. There have been several sexual harassment suits against him historically, most of which have been dropped on insufficient grounds. Nevertheless, they continue to pop up. It’s, of course, an issue for a person at the helm of something so large and watched. It’s an issue for inves- tors. It’s an issue. But it’s also the easiest issue to contort and twist. And you get it—you get where the ammunition comes from—even after only a few days in Charney’s company: he likes sex. He’s a salesman. Sex sells. And sex feels good. Everybody likes sex. He can’t help but be crude, or tease those around him (most of whom tease right back) when it comes to sex. Yet, consider- ing the sexual initiatives of the company—a campaign against California’s gay marriage bigot ballot, Proposition 8, under the slogan “Legalize Gay,” for instance—and Charney’s chronic encouragement that people, despite institu- tional fear, should not be “afraid of their bodies,” it’s important to understand that a lot more people at the company have championed sexy to sell fashion basics than Dov Charney, many of them ladies.
But first, let’s ask Charney about the history of accusations against him. “It’s getting strange, you know?” he says, of sexual fear-mongering. “Things are strange. Like, at our company, we’re all about gay rights—ev- eryone’s sexuality is human. But, there’s still the conservatives, the scared people, just looking for a little enemy, looking for new sexual things to clamp down on. But we don’t want to fall into that trap—only talking about sex— because the larger message gets lost. The problem with me is that my personal sexuality, or whatever, has been used against me, and it’s taken away from our ideas. It’s like a great gay guy had fantastic ideas, it’s 1964, and everybody’s like ‘Geez, geez, he screws guys in the asshole.’ Yeah, he screws guys in the ass... So what? I like to fool around with girls. Get over it.”
The photographer of this feature, the handsome Albert Kodagolian, places a knowing arm over Charney’s shoulders and remarks, “Oh Dov, all those broken hearts.”
Charney smiles and replies, beleaguered, “You know, that’s the weird part. I’m the one with the broken heart.”
So, what becomes of the broken hearted? Well, be they fond of lewd sound bites and controversy or not, they’ll continue to flout a cavalier vision, one that doesn’t cuddle up with the easiest lay in the room. Alonzo remarks on how Charney’s enthusiasm for sex, beauty, youth, and comfort in your body continually matriculates into the company’s progressive creative, which is perhaps most commendable in that it is always, even with the brand’s continuous diversification, challenging. “Our process can be so organic it’s hard to pinpoint,” she remarks. “For instance, Dov will say something like, ‘Girls are over-plucking their eyebrows. It’s gotten out of hand.’ So, we start using girls who pluck their eyebrows less, which turns into people at the store telling the employees to keep it natural—they’re little things that grow into a look, a distinct aesthetic. None of our models have plucked eyebrows now.”
That eyebrow thing? It’s flipping hot. And it has seeded. The Los Angeles Times remarked on makeup artist Tom Pecheux’s “fluffier, caterpil- lar” brows complimenting NYFW Spring 2012’s “soft side” this season. And Alonzo’s speaking to a fashion foresight from years ago. “I never think about being a woman in my position. I just am,” she says. “That anyone would try to exploit and jeopardize a company, just for money and attention—and that is what the claims have turned out to be—well, it’s just really sad. We work side by side with Dov every day, which is why the sexual harassment suits are so infuriating. It’s only when I read that people think we are ‘a bunch of men making all the decisions’ that it hits me—the misperception. In fact, 65% or more of our management is female, and we’re an empowered workforce. I don’t know if that’s rare. I don’t know the norm.”
Indeed, it’s very rare. The Economist recently referred to a World Bank report stating, “Although particular groups of ill-educated young men are doing badly, and although women’s lives have improved a lot in the past 20 years, sexual inequality at work is remarkably stubborn. Globally, women earn 10-30% less than men. They are also concentrated in ‘women’s’ jobs.”
Brady suggests that the female-heavy leadership at American Ap- parel is also perhaps symptomatic of rapid growth. “Fashion is one of those industries where people tend to change jobs with frequency as a career strategy, to build their resumes,” she says, “so they come and go, never really leaving much of a mark on the brand. I think that when a company expands as quickly as this one, the division of labor tends to run more fluid than fixed, and women are up to that challenge. But their gender isn’t the only talking point, because they’re not just women, they’re women who have been work- ing here for years, who are excellent at what they do, and who are also part of the identity of this company by having a steady voice here for so long.” Finally, you can’t have a manufacturing conversation with- out China, where pizza is still viewed as an upscale dining experience. And while the Chinese are tossing their own pies, much of that is the pie of a licensee—on behalf of Pizza Hut, for example, or a medley of other imports. (Charney is strongly against licensing—could you have guessed?) China and its industrial boom—which formally com- menced in 1978, when it opened itself to the free market—have been at the pulse of economical forecasting and new cultural influence for a while. America listens: it is the capital of outsourcing, after all. But things are shifting. An unregulated currency, rising inflation, and the evolving consumer tastes are, by some accounts—notably in re- cent Bloomberg editorial analysis—likely to exhaust the model that gained such ground in the 1980s. Charney, too, suggests that the out- sourcing model will soon break, owing in part to a continued hunger for imports, but also a desire to innovate. “With licensing, it’s like, ‘Well, we’ll organize it, we’ll do the packaging, then we’ll license everything out.’ I think it’s very ’90s-boom-time. It’s very Y2K, you know? I think the future will be really making products that fit the need and owning it yourself. The Chinese are not going to want to be subcontractors. They’re going want to make products. They’re going to want to design products.”
And remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch, be it pizza or tabbouleh-stuffed bio-wraps. In a global economy, it’s always a two-way street. “Things haven’t been easy in China,” Charney re- marks. “I don’t think it was easy anywhere. I know, for example, in the clothing industry, Chinese manufacturers had a hard time. There’ve been inconsistencies with commodity prices, the cotton prices shot way up—it hasn’t been easy.”
You’ve finished the interview in Charney’s hotel basement and have walked him and some staffers back to their rooms. He’s crawled into bed. It’s 5 a.m. You’re tired yourself, making to leave. Charney hollers, “Come back!” You step back into his room, only to see him on his bed, in his underwear, one foot cocked to the sky. He’s showcasing a young wart on the bottom of his foot that’s cropped up recent days. It’s caked in white from a topical killer he’s applied. “It’s disgusting!” he shouts, enjoying its nastiness, like a child playing with germy critters.
This foot, temporarily hosting a wart (he’s on the up with the topical acid), isn’t perfect. The man it belongs to isn’t either. And nei- ther is the company he owns. Nor the government that has given the company such fits. Neither is anything, you think. But perfection has never been the point. Its pursuit has. You bid adieu to the ghastly lump on his heel, to the grinning face of its charismatic owner, upbeat despite the sleeplessness.
You consider all the company has beneath its belt: job creation, activism, sustainability, viral entertainment, a compassion for artisanal crafts like shoemaking, all necessary ingredients for a country-in-peril’s survivability. Charney could be called America’s last great industrialist, but that would perhaps be pessimistic. His vision for a continually in- novative, responsible country should be contagious, should be listened to, should spread. It shouldn’t resound on its own.
Back on the empty streets of Yorkville, the heart of Toronto’s financial district, you stroll past the benches you’d sat on with Charney earlier in the evening, between the twinkly high rises, which reverberate with the CEO’s electrified remarks earlier that afternoon, as he tore open boxes and threw clothes on racks, alongside his hired team, “We opened our first store in October of 2003!” he bellowed. “My competitors have been going for three, four, five, six decades. So wait for a second. Wait and watch what we do, because we’ve got something to do!”
Written by Matthew Bedard