Sex and T-shirts: The strange demise of American Apparel

October 16, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Levi’s are now made in China. Ditto the Radio Flyer Red Wagon. Most Barbie dolls are stamped out in Indonesia and China. Those all-American Rawlings baseballs used by MLB? Sewn in Costa Rica. Chuck Taylors? Made in China, Thailand and India, bro. And of course, all those little American flags you see being waved at American political rallies and Fourth of July parades? You guessed it: made in China.

Surely you already know? “Made in America” means almost nothing anymore. Even Ford, Chevy, GM et al, despite all their patriotic marketing mush, build their vehicles from a global hodgepodge of components and technologies; there’s not a single American car made today that’s not packed with parts – even entire engines – made elsewhere and shipped over, to be assembled in the USA and also (increasingly) Mexico.

So it might come as bittersweet news to learn that American Apparel, the only significant American-made clothing brand in the past decade to not merely insist on keeping manufacturing local (Los Angeles), but to offer famously decent pay and benefits to its workers, just filed for bankruptcy, following half a decade of dramatic losses hitched to lots (and lots) of bizarre corporate melodrama.

It’s not all that surprising, really. AA’s collapse at least partly stems from its gnarled history and ongoing legal battles with its ever-controversial, half-brilliant/half-skeezeball founder, Dov Charney, a guy who kind of pioneered the retro-hipster vibe back in the early 00’s and then proceeded to stab in the heart by freely and loudly engaging in all kinds of famously salacious, unapologetic, unprofessional antics, largely with his own employees. Charney was ousted as CEO in 2011, and has been trying to get back in ever since.

It’s a surreal thing, really. I remember interviewing Charney via telephone more than 10 years ago (!) and then writing about it – quite positively, I gotta admit – back when the brand was just hitting stride and Charney had just famously hired a young, beautiful porn actress by the name of Lauren Phoenix to model… tube socks.

My inner renegade thought the ad campaign was kind of great – going against the corporate grain, upending the fashion industry’s hollow, manufactured sexuality and its heavily Photoshopped supermodels – not to mention infuriating the Christian right, during the height of the Bush era. AA was the anti-Banana Republic, the retro-cool middle finger to Calvin Klein’s glossy, hairless Euro-trash vibe.

And this is one of the milder ones, really

And this is one of the milder ones, really

But it wasn’t just the salacious vibe; Charney made headlines for another impressive decision – he insisted on paying his L.A. garment workers nearly double the going factory wage, with decent benefits and (comparatively) superlative working conditions. And profits still soared. For a garment industry that was increasingly outsourcing everything Bangladesh and China, it was more than impressive.

It all made Charney himself seem like kind of an iconoclastic badass – a self-proclaimed “hustler” who openly professed to having lots of sex with employees (consensual, he always claimed), a guy who used raunchy language in the workplace, who became both famous and notorious for personally photographing all kinds of young, non-professional girls to model his company’s clothing.

That was then. Whatever amount of open-minded, radical honesty seemed to exist back then has certainly vanished, as the years wore on and the sexual misconduct allegations and fiscal controversies piled up. For my part, my clunky enthusiasm disappeared years ago, to be replaced by a sour sensation of being slightly conned. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

But really, what does it matter? It all feels so strangely simple now, even quaint. For one thing, there are almost no brands like American Apparel left in the garment world; all the controversial behaviors and skeezeball execs have moved over to tech, by way of useless cultural effluvia like Tinder and SnapChat. The world has changed, and quickly.

Meanwhile, the mainstream clothing biz has been taken over by global mega-retailers like H&M and Forever 21, multibillion-dollar operations that work on such vast and complex scales, it’s impossible to keep track of the various abuses and environmental exploitations that surely erupt along their enormous global supply chains. Which is not to excuse Charney’s alleged misconduct – simply to say, there is nowhere solid to land, pretty much anywhere.

This is the feeling, no? Nostalgia is for cronies. Everything has accelerated and complexified, and no one has the time to care. Despite the bankruptcy, American Apparel’s new CEO, Paula Schneider, is promising to keep the company’s manufacturing domestic, even as some sort of vague investor group tries to turn the brand around. Let us wish them luck. Why not?

Meanwhile, Charney, who certainly appears to be a far cry from the retro-‘70s-style renegade he was back in the early ‘00s, reportedly just saw his remaining $8 million (give or take) stake in AA completely wiped out – though he already claimed to be broke a year ago, sleeping on friends’ couches. Sympathies are, reportedly, mixed. American Apparel stock, which peaked at around 16 bucks back in 2008, was last seen trading at 11 cents a share.

For now anyway, “Made in America” sure ain’t worth much.

Read more here:: Sex and T-shirts: The strange demise of American Apparel

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford