what was it really like to work at american apparel under dov charney?
personal stories from inside the label that helped define an era
Photos via American Apparel
As NYLON and others have been reporting, original hipster fast-fashion brand American Apparel is in such dire financial straits that it may not last the year. And, even if it does, it will never be the cultural touchstone and simultaneous hot mess that made it the inexpensive symbol of city-dwelling debauchery it once was.
Already, board members controlling the 26-year-old company have fired libertine founder and media punching bag Dov Charney and have begun to shift away from its famously edgy, chaotic culture and identity. The era of condoned shoplifitng and dubious, reportedly predatory sexual practices is over and its iconic, controversial advertising is already gone. Whatever happens next, the American Apparel you grew up with, the American Apparel thousands of young people hated and loved to work for, is on its way out.
To mark its possible passing, we’re compiling personal stories straight from former employees of the brand that—with its gold-lamé leggings, skeezy reputation, and risqué photography—helped define the aesthetic of the early part of the 21st Century. We've protected the identities of these workers so they can share the good and bad parts of working for American Apparel without fear of lawsuits or damaged reputations. (Legal action is another part of American Apparel's legacy.)
Here is a brand that encouraged individuality through a sexy take on uniformed basics and also pushed for a made-in-America ethos that helped lead the way for more conscious labels, while also fostering an unhealthy work environment where sweaty nymphettes were de facto brand identity. Over-the-top sexuality was a key part of AA's DNA, which seemed to permeate everything from its imagery to its work culture, to the undoubtedly unacceptable actions of Mr. Charney. We've asked those who were there to tell us what happened, and why it continues to matter.
Enjoy—oh, and if you’ve got an American Apparel story to share, reach out to us in the comments section below, on social media, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be in touch.
Photo via American Apparel
What did you do? Managing, backstock, merchandising, and then travelled for the company before quitting three times (until it stuck.) For me, it was more like a relationship that is going nowhere and doesn’t make you happy, but also hasn’t hurt too bad, and all your friends are in the same relationship, too, so it was easy to not leave.
What was the best part about working there? We had so much freedom. Everyone just hired their friends and within a few months, most of the Chicago stores were a really well-integrated social group. There was still a lot of excitement about the company and a lot of us loved it. We could do all levels of store things in whatever way we liked, and most of us were managing or merchandising for the first time and we were proud of what we were doing. If you had a good idea for a piece, you could submit it to someone in L.A. and it might actually get made (rarely, but for real.) This was long enough ago that there weren’t even jeans yet. Everything started getting very polyester after that. And these weird people would come from L.A. to help with something or other, and buy us food and drinks and drugs with their per diems, and we’d become great friends with them or have sex with them, or both, and we all agreed it was the best times.
What was the worst part about working there? By the time I left, there was a major rift between people who worked well with Dov and people who worked with the CEO at the time. Basically, depending on what team you were on, you would get benefits or problems. This was with stuff like inventory requests, so it was very immature and depressing. I was on Dov’s team and would regularly not get something really basic, like black leggings, or light bulbs, or fixtures, without a battle. During some dramatic time, I had to leave work for a week because of an emergency. An HR person told me she would support me and then avoided my calls for a week before getting someone else to fire me. I was immediately rehired by Dov, so my HR rep hated me.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? I never met Dov in person, but I talked to him pretty regularly. One on one he was wonderful to me. When I was traveling, he would ask if I needed to go home and see my grandparents and make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. If I told him something needed to happen in a store I was visiting, he would tell me to go forward every single time. I suppose the people who hired me told him to implicitly trust me, but I felt respected and happy interacting with him on the phone. But I got the impression that he really did care about all of us. He sometimes would tell bizarre stories on company conference calls (I can’t think of an example, will let you know if I do). There was a certain amount of pride in all the commotion he was creating.
Everyone heard rumors about him all day long. I still hear new rumors about him if I happen to meet someone else who was deeply involved in AA too. I remember one guy from L.A. telling me that the secret to staying on Dov’s good side was to not try to get with his girls. Which wasn’t all the girls, just the ones he liked. I think the whole thing had been a set up to pick me up. That got boring really quickly because everyone was really young and kind of attracted to the sleaziness and ease of everything. Many of us looked at L.A. and decided we were all living that life. It wasn’t uncommon or offensive to be asked how many people in the company you’d had sex with.
Do you think he deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? I have no idea what Dov deserves. I think he is a really sad man who required a lot more love and attention than he got. In conversation, he was like a nouveau Woody Allen, and I enjoyed him. But then he would come into a store and tell a manager she would have to switch to backstock or leave the company because he wouldn’t have her face on his floors. He was a shitty parent to a lot of young people who didn’t give a fuck about anything. Maybe that’s Dov’s personal legacy.
Do you think the company does? We used to talk about how things were made here by people being paid fair wages, but I haven’t heard that in a long time.
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? I learned so much from that company. It was the first time anyone had given me real responsibility or permission to do things the way I saw fit. I learned how to deal with insane people—both in person, on the phone, personally, business-wise, etc. That was also one of the first times I learned how gray and complicated people are. And I think it made me a less-judgmental person in general, because even from the inside we couldn’t make a decision about whether Dov was a terrible person or a sweet guy.
Photo via American Apparel
New York, 2007-08
What did you do? I was a brand representative. I worked on the floor mostly folding stuff and making sure the hangers were perfectly, evenly spaced. I also worked the dressing rooms and the cashier, eventually. I also did light cleaning constantly with a duster and Swiffer Sweeper.
What was the best part about working there? The free clothes and the discount, though we should have been given more free clothes as we were required to wear all AA all the time. They also offered health insurance, which I had while I was there.
What was the worst part about working there? I found it to be insanely boring. The pay wasn't great and there was no commission then. I wasn't crazy about the people I worked with. There were a few interesting people there, but the management had definitely drank the AA Kool-aid, and that was obnoxious.
Why did you leave? The money wasn't good enough and I was too bored.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? I met him twice, I believe. I don't think I had any super-personal interactions, but the management was always in fear that he was just going to show up at the store at any moment to inspect it. One time this happened, and he came into the store with a Swiffer Sweeper and Swiffered the whole store and left. I don't think he talked to anyone. He was a total germaphobe and hated dust. He was obsessed with cleanliness and he was clearly an insane person. But, I think you have to be insane to start a business like that and be that successful.
Do you think he deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? Honestly, I didn't follow it that closely and I really haven't paid attention to whats been happening since I left. I don't think he or the company deserved all the shit for the ads they put out. Sex sells and it's been this way since the beginning of advertisement. He just found a new way to package it and it worked. I do think his employees were treated well from my experience and working with the stockers, as well. And the health insurance was huge for me. I think he is a womanizer and fucked a lot of girls—and a lot of them I'm sure were young. I'm not saying he didn't take advantage of some of them because I'm sure he did. But it also takes two to tango, and I think a lot of girls wanted his attention and went out of their way to get it.
Do you think the company does? I don't know whats going on with the company now. One thing that I liked about AA is that it was made in the USA ethically. That seemed to be the case when I worked there in 2007-08. I hope that's still the case now.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? Their aesthetic, the way the clothes and stores looked, but mostly the sexuality in the advertising.
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? I don't like retail. I don't like working for large companies and large brands. I don't know if I learned any particular lesson but I did discover the Swiffer Sweeper, which is honestly amazing and now I'm obsessed with them.
Photo via American Apparel
Los Angeles, 2007-09
What did you do? I worked in the retail department at corporate.
What was the best part about working there? So much freedom. Not a lot of people breathing down your neck. If you had an idea, people would be behind you to test it out. Design was able to think of something, make a sample, and get it into stores within a week or so. Complete creative freedom.
What was the worst part about working there? Sometimes having it be so completely unstructured made it difficult to truly get anything done. We didn’t really go by financial plans, there weren’t buyers, we weren’t constantly having our heads up a spreadsheet's ass, so maybe we didn’t know what was going on 100 percent of the time. Completely un-business related, there were definitely favorites within the hierarchy and people getting paid to do absolutely nothing. Felt like all the hard work you put in for little pay (compared to other corporate retail), was for nothing.
Why did you leave? I really started hating working there after a year. Dov got to me, the other employees got to me, the lifestyle really got to me. Everyone would hang out together and it was very incestuous. Lots of sleeping together, bosses with subordinates, a love triangle between two bosses and a subordinate.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? I worked with Dov a lot, and had a love/hate relationship with him. I was not his type at all, so I was lucky to not have that in the way of our business relationship as others did. He thought I was smart, and definitely tested me a lot. In turn, I learned a lot about business from him. He definitely had severe mood swings though, and would call you at all hours of the night to complain about something. He could get pretty brutal with name-calling and would use stuff from your personal life against you.
Also, he would fly me out to New York on a redeye flight Friday night after working all week, make me work all weekend in New York, then fly home on a redeye Sunday night and get to work in L.A. Monday. I had to stay at his apartment a few times and he was such a weirdo! He had a maid/cook. He would never flush the toilet—I had to flush his shit multiple times. He had girls over and would make me close my eyes as they left so I didn’t see who they were, had Hitachi wands everywhere, and a massage table in the middle of the room. (I did get a massage once at 3 a.m. by a tiny masseuse and it was amazing.)
He loved chain restaurants and any time we traveled, he would want to go to one. Once he paid off a hostess at Benihana to seat our party right away. I think he handed her a $100 bill. I went to his mansion a few times, but he wasn’t here. It was super sparse. I’ll never forget one room had three columns with a VHS boxset of all of The Godfather movies. That was all that was in there. He loved to clean his stores, and would actually get down on his hands and knees to dust under racks.
And there were always rumors about him. Some were true, some weren’t. Actually, most were true. I should write a book.
Do you think Charney deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? That’s a tough one. Dov is pretty much a genius when it comes to creating a brand, he just may not be the best businessman there is out there. Unfortunately, he has a chip on his shoulder and a sort of God complex, á la Hugh Hefner, and thought he could get away with anything. He did have a lot of girls on the books that didn’t work, paid off girls to not talk, etc. He was super flagrant with money, which was likely a huge cause of his downfall.
Do you think the company does? The executives and the board just swept everything under the rug. Partly because it was hard to control him. They didn’t put a lot of normal business practices into place that would have helped control spending from top down. I actually can’t think of many concrete business practices we followed at all, honestly.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? I think people will focus on a lot of the negative, unfortunately—the lawsuits, Dov being a sexist nympho, all the turmoil—when, in reality, this dude from Canada built a global brand that, at its height, was the hottest shit alive, and was made in the U.S.—something so damn foreign (no pun intended) to everyone at that time. Even though it's likely coming to an end, it’s something the retail industry should study for years to come. Look at a company like Everlane. Would they be around today if it wasn’t for AA?
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? Don’t work somewhere where they make you sign non-disclosure agreements almost daily. But really, it was do something interesting that will get people talking. That is what was good about Dov. He created a brand that made you emit an emotion, whether pleasure or disgust. It wasn’t run of the mill. It will be hard to forget.
Photo via American Apparel
Montreal & Calgary, 2003-05
What was the best part about working there? Without a doubt the best part was the team. Both in Montreal and Calgary, working at AA you had a ready-made group of friends. It was (back in the day) a tight community of awesome people with like interests in fashion, art, music, etc. I'm still I touch with a lot of people from my American Apparel days, most of whom are now phenomenal people doing amazing things around the world.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? I met Dov a few times, but can't say I ever interacted with him in any significant or noteworthy way. I have close friends who worked closely with him, their experienced we're a mixed bag. I heard stories about being sent to a city (Boston, New York, L.A.) with no idea when you would return, as well as all of the the quintessential Dov craziness. He seemed like a caricature more than anything really. He was never mean or unkind, more completely oblivious of normal civilized conduct. It almost seemed like he tried way to hard to be a character. Tons of rumours. Rumours about his sexual deviance and taste for young girls. Rumours about him being a completely tyrannical and irrational boss. However I have also heard rumours of his generosity and kindness.
Do you think he deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? I think he grossly abused his power. He was always a quirky character, but he brought it to a whole, new level and worst of all, he was unapologetic about it. Do I think he deserved flack? Absolutely. There were a million better ways he could have handled his misconduct but chose not to. So in that sense, I think he got what he deserved.
Do you think the company does? I think the company was innovative and forward-thinking. I sincerely hoped that that new CEO would be able to turn the company—and it's image—around.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? Unfortunately I think the company's legacy will be a lesson to other retailers about the perils of abusing power, over-saturation, and not knowing when it's time to make a change (in a positive way).
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? To stick to what you know and what you're known for. That the bigger (and badder) they are, the harder they fall.
Photo via American Apparel
New York, 2008
What did you do? Sales associate on the floor at the “party store” of NYC on the Lower East Side. It stayed open til 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. I was one of the "lucky" ones that worked that late-night Saturday shift. Oy.
What was the best part about working there? Probably the discount and getting every, single color in the Deep V-neck T-shirt. Literally every color. Also, I adored everyone I worked with and still keep in touch with a few of them. It’s true what they say about loving who you work with—it truly makes a difference. We were in it together, for better or for worse.
What was the worst part about working there? I hated working that Saturday night shift. Even though the store closed at 2 a.m., we had to make sure every, single hanger was evenly spaced with the correct “size-O”—that’s what they called those plastic thingies that designate the size on the hanger. That was a huge store, so you can only imagine. Sometimes I wouldn’t get home til after 4 a.m., which they said was “okay” since I lived the closest in comparison to the other employees who had to subway home to Brooklyn or Queens.
Why did you leave? It was a summer job and I needed to go back to school. I don’t think they were going to let me work part time with my class schedule. Alas.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? I met him a few times. He would come in super late, usually after 1 a.m. on Saturday night. He would “inspect” the store to make sure it was perfect and if a hanger was missing a size-O. If something was in the wrong spot, he would freak out and talk to some invisible person in his headset. I had one encounter where we actually spoke. I cheerfully greeted him as he was going downstairs to the stockroom. Within four seconds, he spun around on the steps and asked, “Can I take your picture?” I still have no idea where that picture went or what it was for. I was totally taken aback, but apparently this was the “norm” for him and it was fine. There was always talk about how certain girls got their jobs or got to be American Apparel models. It was just an unspoken truth, and I tried to distance myself from any sort of thing like that potentially happening to me. Minus of course that strange photo interaction.
Do you think he deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? In a way, yes. All of those girls coming forward with lawsuits. I mean, sheesh. It’s hard to support a man who handled his business in such a way and got away with treating his employees like that for as long as he did. Completely unacceptable.
Do you think the company does? As a company, American Apparel itself stands for more than just Dov Charney. It established itself as an American-made clothing brand, honoring the simplicity of colors and really just the beauty of a t-shirt. I still love some of the clothes and definitely still keep American Apparel in my wardrobe.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? My immediate answer is gold lamé, which upon reflection, is super unfortunate. But thinking on it more, it’s a clothing brand that has made its name for itself by selling first and foremost cotton t-shirts. That has to say something, right?
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? Clothing retail is no fun. Neither is selling metallic lamé leggings to drunk dudes at 1 a.m. on the Lower East Side.
Photo via American Apparel
Los Angeles & New York, 2010-14
What did you do? I worked as a sales associate and key holder.
What was the best part about working there? The employee discount and clothing allowances. I also have to say, growing up in L.A., I had tons of friends who worked at various stores across L.A. It was fun to bond with these kids over our shared experiences.
What was the worst part about working there? American Apparel politics, being consumed by the world of American Apparel, and caring about activity that has little relevance to life outside of work.
Why did you leave? I left because American Apparel was not my career, and it was time to move on.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? Dov visited the stores I worked at a few times. When I was the key holder on duty, I had to walk around the store with him and write down all of his critiques. Dov obviously has a reputation that follows him around, which he definitely lives up to at times. He has a strong vision, but some of his behavior can distract from how to achieve this vision. Employees at American Apparel reference Dov all of the time, so of course rumors spread. But in a way, this characteristic is interesting because it shows just how accessible the former leader of the company was.
Do you think Charney deserves all the flack that has been sent his way? Personally, I do not. I believe he could have separated some of his crazy antics from his professional life, but as mentioned, Dov has a strong vision for American Apparel, and he has played a vital role in securing its legacy.
Do you think the company does? People have to remember that thousands of employees work at American Apparel. The company is the sum of all of its parts, so just because certain aspects of American Apparel receive negative attention doesn't mean the entire company should.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? One of the things I loved about working at American apparel was the fact that we could boast that the clothes were made in America. People really loved to hear that they were purchasing clothes from an American company that prided itself on being sweatshop free. When I was there, American Apparel clothing manufacturers and seamstresses were paid more than minimum wage and had wonderful working conditions. Not to mention, most of the seamstresses were immigrants. Dov has a very strong stance on immigration reform. As the grandson of immigrants from Mexico, I was proud to work for a company that employed hundreds of immigrants and provided them with fair wages and a positive work environment. Whereas other clothing manufacturers outsourced their work to foreign countries where people are paid practically nothing and forced to work in terrible conditions. Given that this concept is reflected in the name of the company, I believe American Apparel's legacy will reflect its made-in-America business model.
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? Don't get wrapped up in work politics that have little to no relevance in leading a meaningful life.
Photo via American Apparel
What was the best part about working there? The 50 percent-off discount was great, as was the seasonal clothing package. Fun, interesting colleagues, too.
What was the worst part about working there? The last-minute, disorganized scheduling. Hours were determined based on how successful the store sales were, so when the numbers were shit, so were your hours.
Did you interact with Dov Charney? He came to our store on a couple of occasions to look it (and the staff) over and make sure we were up to par. I also traveled to Montreal for three days once when Dov called all of the managers from the Canadian stores for some kind of bootcamp in a desperate move to help turn around terrible numbers company-wide. I stayed in the company apartment above the store on Avenue du Mont-Royal in the Plateau neighborhood of Montreal. It’s a five- or six-bedroom place that I had all to myself. He had us remerchandise two stores under his supervision, barking orders at us and showing us how he wanted things done—Blackberry glued to his hand at all times.
He took us all out for dinner one night after we finished for the day (maybe 20 people in total) to a Greek restaurant nearby. We thought it was going to be a company function where we’d talk business. Turns out, his grandmother had just died and his entire extended family was already gathered there. He sat with them and all the employees were sat at a table 30 feet away. We were the only people in the restaurant. It was super weird.
Do you think the company does? Yes and no. I think it’s important that we remember that American Apparel supports sweatshop-free garment manufacturing in North America and that their clothing is more ethically made than most readily available clothes on the market. The prices are higher, but that’s because they are bound by California labor law (which regulates fair wages and proper working conditions for factory employees), and that’s what clothing made in America costs.
However, I think the flack the company has received for its ads is deserved, given that the creative director (Dov) is know for sexually harassing his employees. I’m all for body- and sex-positive advertising, but AA’s ads are neither of those things, given how they so strictly adhere to traditional ideas of beauty and male-centric ideals of sexual pleasure. If there was ever a case study of the male gaze in advertising, American Apparel’s ads are it.
What do you think the company's legacy will be? An unfortunate lesson in free-market capitalism as an appetizer, the patriarchy is alive and well as a main course, and that men ruin everything for dessert.
What was the most important lesson you took away from your time there? Leggings aren’t pants.