If you’ve been anywhere on the Internet in the past few days, you’ve heard the news: Dov Charney, notoriously gross CEO and President of American Apparel, was fired on Wednesday through a unanimous vote by the AA board. Evidently, not only is everyone with a moral compass outraged at the multiple accusations of sexual harassment against him—not to mention his blatantly sexual and objectifying ads and masturbating and receiving oral sex from an employee during a Jane magazine interview—but the company that he founded in 1997 has also finally determined that he has to go.
In a statement released by American Apparel’s board, their “decision to replace Mr. Charney grew out of an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct,” but it remains to be seen whether the brand will undergo needed changes. The media is already exclaiming that this is the end of an era for American Apparel, but how much of the company will be impacted by Charney’s departure?
Charney was the public personality of the clothing he sold, and with him gone, the future direction of the brand is murky – to say the least. President of the California Fashion Association Ilse Metchek was quoted in the New York Times as saying “What is American Apparel without sex? It’s a T-shirt and sweatshirt company.” In essence, according to some, without Charney American Apparel may become almost indistinguishable from Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, or any of the cheap undershirts you buy without a side of hypersexualization at department stores and pharmacies across the country.
What sets apart American Apparel’s brand is sex, but this comes at the price of the dignity of employees – which makes their overpriced t-shirts no longer worth the cost for most educated consumers. The brand touts its ‘Made in America’ image (all clothing is made in a factory in Southern California), and executes campaigns for immigrant and LGBT rights to appeal to the hipster, socially conscious demographic. Objectively, these aims are honorable – but most have largely been undermined by the company’s sexualized methods of campaigning.
At a time where most clothing sold in the United States is outsourced to sweatshops where workers are criminally underpaid, the American Apparel website accentuates their claims that they “offer parking, subsidized public transport, subsidized lunches, free onsite massages, a bike lending program, a program of paid days off, ESL classes and much more,” as well as “job security and full-time employment.” However, according to Elizabeth Cline, author of the book Overdressed, the American Apparel factories are only “less worse” than their competitors. Additionally, a number of scandals have tainted the image of American Apparel’s image as an employer: in 2009 the company was forced to lay off 1,500 undocumented employees; Clamor Magazine reported in 2006 that the company denied unions to access the factory; and there have even been rumors that American Apparel will soon outsource its labor. On top of this, according to The New York Times, after the sexual harassment lawsuits against Charney, the company required all employees to sign a document stating:
”American Apparel is in the business of designing and manufacturing sexually charged T- shirts and intimate apparel, and uses sexually charged visual and oral communications in its marketing and sales activities. Employees working in the design, sales, marketing and other creative areas of the company will come into contact with sexually charged language and visual images. This is a part of the job for employees working in these areas.”
The question arises: should employees, especially women, have to sacrifice their workplace dignity in order to receive a livable wage and good factory conditions? And are “sexually charged language and visual images” something workers will have to endure in order to receive the “less worse” working conditions that American Apparel offers?
“American Apparel has, in the past, emphasized its altruistic credentials,” says Véronique Hyland of New York Magazine, “but the imagery surrounding the company swallowed the message.” Although Charney is now gone, it will be difficult to weed out the remaining vestiges of his leadership; with American Apparel’s finances in ruin partially thanks to Charney’s mismanagement and image, they may not be able to continue to pursue their so-called “altruistic credentials” and comparatively better working conditions. The LA Times has already predicted that there will be “layoffs, store closures, bankruptcy, a sale and even a shift away from the ‘made in America’ manufacturing strategy Charney championed,” and therefore the few positive aspects of the company will be gone.
At the very least, we can all now rest easy knowing that Dov Charney will no longer be paid over $800,000 a year to sexually harass and objectify his employees on a daily basis. But is that alone really a victory?