There are few clothing brands that have stirred controversy quite like American Apparel. For a company that amassed a fortune from selling plain t-shirts and hooded jackets – they sure have managed to anger thousands of people worldwide. Founded in 1989 by Don Charney, an extroverted Canadian entrepreneur, who has previously spoken of his wish to live a lifestyle similar to that of Hugh Hefner.
On the edge of bankruptcy over the past few years and constantly using promotional shock tactics, it appears as if they are willing to do anything in order to get people buying from them again.
American Apparel is responsible for employing around 11,000 people globally; the main garment factory is located in Los Angeles and employs around 5,000. They operate more than 285 retail stores worldwide in 20 countries. Over the years the company has dodged several sexual harassment lawsuits pushed forward by staff, all of which have been thrown out of court – so why do the staff appear to have a personal vendetta against the brand?
Recent exposés online have detailed sexual scandals, mass protests against the objectification of women, restraining orders, accusations of harassment, drug peddling, immigration issues and rows surrounding racism. It’s hard to keep in mind that this brand sells some clothes along the way too.
10. They Strictly Hire Only Good Looking Staff
American Apparel has a very specific conception of beauty and they address their staff as “models” so they can search for the right fit for the brand. When they should be hiring based on work experience and skill, instead they only employ the most beautiful. Before any new member of staff begins their new career with the brand they are photographed – one of the face and a separate full body shot.
In 2010, an internal email was leaked to website Gawker which gave all the seedy details. The rules were: no make-up, no fringes (they weren’t “moving in that direction”), long natural hair, no excessive blow-drying, no short hair or dyed hair. The email said the look they wanted had to be “aspirational”. Basically if you are not tall and skinny with long, natural hair – you can forget the job.
9. Woody Allen Sued The Company For $10 Million
World famous director Woody Allen sued American Apparel in 2009 for $10 million. He complained that the use of his image in a billboard campaign was a breach of copyright. The Annie Hall filmmaker settled for $5 million in damages so neither party had to attend court over the matter. Allen had become outraged when his image was used on billboards – he had been photoshopped to appear in Hasidic Jewish dress alongside the American Apparel logo and “the holy rebbe” was written in Yiddish beside him.
The billboard represented an in-joke from the movie Annie Hall. When Allen’s character hosts a dinner party for a non-Jewish family the joke is that he feels so out of place he imagines himself as an Hasidic Jew. Company founder, Don Charney, then used the image in the advert to “stimulate dialogue” surrounding the current controversy that Allen was socially outcast after beginning a relationship with his step-daughter, Soon Yi. Allen was awarded half his claim and the billboards were removed.
8. The Company Has A Restraining Order Against The Founder
After serious accusations of sexually harassing members (which are still being dealt with in court) the company founder, Don Charney, was suspended in 2014. In retaliation, Charney tried to buy several stocks of the company so he could attempt to takeover. He also wasn’t going quietly as set several lawsuits against the company including over $1 million in lost wages by defamation of character.
American Apparel then counter-sued Charney and due to the ongoing back and forth legal mess they were granted a temporary restraining order in 2015. This forbids him from: “Seeking removal of the company’s board members and making negative statements in the press against the company or its employees”. The man once responsible for every aspect of American Apparel is no longer allowed anywhere near the place.
7. They Refused To Pay A Competition Winner
Blogger Nancy Upton from Dallas, Texas won thousands of fans around the globe when she entered American Apparel’s “Next Big Thing” competition. Upton was so outraged by the search for the next “bootylicious, plus XL model” that she made a spoof entry of herself scoffing food very messily with the tagline “I just can’t stop eating!”
All entries were displayed on the official website and users were invited to vote for their favourite. Although Upton won by a landslide, American Apparel refused to pay her the winning amount and to offer the promised modelling contract. To further rub salt in her wounds they sent the 24-year-old this harsh letter:
“It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that “bootylicious” was too much for you to handle…
‘While you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company”.
6. They Stand By Their Adverts Degrading Women
Never before had one unisex shirt caused such a public backlash. In 2013, a male American Apparel model posed in a chequered shirt with the buttons all done up and he was wearing trousers. The same shirt was photographed on a female model, unbuttoned, trouser-less and her arms positioned behind her head submissively.
Swedish blogger Emelie Eriksson wrote on her blog: “On the female model it’s not about the shirt anymore, the picture is sexist and degrading to women. You wonder what they want to sell”. American Apparel replied: “We don’t think there is anything in these photos out of synch with our standards and we think they portray the garments and the models in an attractive way and are not even the slightest discriminatory”.
Whatever their reasoning, American Apparel have been labeled flagrantly sexist after their images of young girls clearly displayed in degrading positions continued to appear in publicity materials.
5. Cocaine Use Amongst Staff Is Reportedly Rife
Many ex-employers have taken to the internet to discuss their own experiences of working at American Apparel. The most common complaint was that cocaine was accessible, and they had become addicted during hours – perhaps to keep in line with the gruelling rules of weight management.
The most shocking revelation was from contributor @moe-old on Jezebel.com. He detailed how the store he worked in had its own private dealer:
“The dealer had what I thought at the time was an ingenious setup: he lived down the street from the American Apparel store in the Lower East Side and would find hipster cokehead girls jobs at the chain’s various outlets and then, in turn, find clients among the other employees, which worked really well until everyone got so coked-out they had to blow it up their a**es and a girl stole $14,000 from the till and everyone sort of left town after that”.
4. They Employed Over 1,500 Illegal Workers
In 2009, American Apparel were forced to fire 1,800 members of staff (more than a quarter of their workforce) as a federal investigation discovered there were too many “irregularities” in the identity documents. The investigation took place after President Obama made an effort to reduce illegal immigration by forcing companies to dismiss staff if they were unauthorised to work.
Don Charney was outraged at the time that his staff were forced out of employment – he began public demonstrations urging that his workforce should be given the opportunity to work within his factories. A San Diego republican who worked as the representative for the work raids said of American Apparel’s public outcry, “They seem to think that somehow the law doesn’t matter, that crossing the line from legal to illegal is not a big deal”.
3. They Were Accused Of Openly Displaying Racism
In 2013, over 4,000 people signed a Change.org petition to have the Hallowe’en display removed from the Easy Houston branch of American Apparel. The window display had used “faked sacred Fon photography” which is a culturally sensitive issue as the display was designed to interpret the sacred religion as “spooky”. The Twitter backlash also urged “hipsters” not to show ignorance surrounding the issue when many tweeted they didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
A contributor for Ebony.com said of the display:
“This isn’t the first time that American Apparel has engaged in problematic practices concerning the treatment of other people’s cultures. Nor are they the only company to profit off of misappropriated cultural dress during Halloween It baffles me as to why a store would make the decision to mis-appropriate a sacred spiritual system that is old as time in Africa itself”.
2. They Terminated An Employee During Cancer Treatments
Five years ago, American Apparel was found guilty of violating federal law when it terminated a cancer patient during his medical leave for treatments. Garment worker, Jose De Los Santos, was granted leave to undergo chemotherapy treatment. When he returned to work he was told he no longer had a job. The company said they could no longer accommodate his place at work.
By terminating his contract without exploring alternative options for employment they were in direct violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The court ordered American Apparel to pay $60,000 which would see $40,000 awarded to De Los Santos and $20,000 spent on sponsored seminars about the rights of workers and responsibilities of employers.
1. They Were Accused Of Sexualising Child Models
American Apparel has had two adverts banned within six months of each other as advertising Watchdogs believed they “could be seen to sexualise a child”. One image used on the website was a young model promoting an underwear garment. The model clearly has her whole backside on show. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) came to the decision that the advert would be removed as the model could be mistaken as a girl under the legal age.
The creative directors argued that the model was 20-years-old and all underwear images were “non-suggestive”. But the ASA responded, “The model was shown looking back at the camera over her shoulder with her buttocks visible. We considered that readers were likely to interpret the model’s expression and pose as being sexual in nature”. The above image was also banned as again the ASA believed the young model could be misinterpreted as a minor in a suggestive pose.