BOT­TOM LINE WIPES OUT WEIRD­NESS

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FRONT PAGE -

likely it was be­set by panic that the mar­ket for semi-ironic gold lamé work­out wear is bot­tom­ing out. A com­pany that once cham­pi­oned Char­ney as a rene­gade, a rebel, a rule­breaker — of­ten coded words for gen­eral cor­po­rate jerk­i­ness — was fi­nally forced into the ad­mis­sion that Char­ney’s pornotopian lead­er­ship wasn’t work­ing.

Start­ing out with a cus­tom T-shirt oper­a­tion, Char­ney opened his first re­tail store in 2003 and fol­lowed up with one of the fastest roll­outs in Amer­i­can fash­ion his­tory. AA made its rep sell­ing Amer­i­can ba­sics — not those safe, sub­ur­ban Gap-style ba­sics but edgy, in­die alt-ba­sics, a fine fash­ion distinc­tion of­ten vis­i­ble only in the price tag. With quite a line in leo­tards, leg­gings, body­suits and sweat­bands, Amer­i­can Ap­parel of­ten seemed to be repack­ag­ing the look of a Jane Fonda aer­o­bics tape from 1981.

Al­most from the get-go, AA pre­sented a bit of a quandary for brand-con­scious young con­sumers. The com­pany’s sweat­shop-free, made-in-Los-Angeles man­date — which took on in­creased ur­gency af­ter the Bangladesh fac­tory dis­as­ter in 2013 — was ap­peal­ing. Plus, the com­pany was known for back­ing pro­gres­sive cam­paigns for gay rights and im­mi­gra­tion re­form.

But there were trou­bling par­al­lel nar­ra­tives: The leaked list of the in­tru­sive, in­sanely de­tailed “head-to-toe” reg­u­la­tions about dress, makeup and hair for re­tail em­ploy­ees. The re­peated al­le­ga­tions of Char­ney’s sex­ist, racist, abu­sive workplace tirades.

And then there were the ad cam­paigns. AA of­ten used or­di­nary non-air­brushed mod­els — and that’s good, right? But some­how “or­di­nary” seemed to skew more and more to­ward stricken, un­der­age-look­ing girls crouched in base­ment rec rooms wear­ing noth­ing but retro tube socks. The AA es­thetic in­creas­ingly re­sem­bled skeevy 1970s porn, but it was sup­pos­edly in-on-the-joke creepy, self-aware creepy. You know, meta-creepy.

Or maybe it was just old-school creepy-creepy. Tales of Char­ney walk­ing around the of­fice and fac­tory floor in his un­der­wear — pre­sum­ably fash­ion-for­ward un­der­wear, but still — and recurring re­ports of sex­ual ex­ploita­tion added some darker shades to AA’s rain­bow ba­sics. Char­ney’s self­pro­claimed “sex­u­ally charged workplace” started to look more and more like a hot­bed of what’s been dubbed “hip­ster misog­yny.”

It seems un­likely the AA board mem­bers cared much about misog­yny, hip­ster or other­wise. But in the face of plum­met­ing share prices and lack­lus­tre sales, they were glad to use it to lever­age Char­ney out. Their ter­mi­na­tion let­ter, now posted on Buz­zFeed, sug­gests the law­suits and pay­offs aris­ing from Char­ney’s re­peated sex­ual-mis­con­duct charges had be­come a costly li­a­bil­ity. The doc­u­ment adds that Char­ney re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in “manda­tory sex­u­al­ha­rass­ment train­ing.” (Note to Amer­i­can Ap­parel board: Maybe when talk­ing to a guy who says, “I fre­quently drop my pants to show people my new prod­uct,” you should call it “ANTI-sex­ual ha­rass­ment train­ing.” Just to be clear.)

There are al­ways risks when CEOs be­come over-iden­ti­fied with their brands, es­pe­cially, it seems, in the fash­ion in­dus­try. Char­ney’s fir­ing, along with re­cent ousters of Chip Wil­son at Lu­l­ule­mon and Mike Jef­fries at Abercrombie & Fitch, came with re­ported be­hav­iours that sug­gested a cross be­tween charis­matic cult leader, crazed mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor and the mean kids in your ju­nior high class.

And fash­ion is, by na­ture, fickle and fast­mov­ing. When you trade on su­per-sexed-up con­tro­versy, you shouldn’t be sur­prised when edgy ou­trage starts to seem point­lessly provoca­tive and, fi­nally, com­pletely pre­dictable. Maybe AA has reached the lim­its of the cool irony that made it pos­si­ble to sell over­priced ’90s pas­tels. Maybe it has reached Peak Scrunchie.

What­ever hap­pens to the com­pany, it does feel as if there’s a gen­eral re­al­iza­tion that Char­ney isn’t wear­ing any clothes, fig­u­ra­tively and (of­ten) lit­er­ally. In a 2004 in­ter­view, Char­ney de­clared: “I am a bit of a dirty guy, but people like that right now.” In 2014, the “dirty guy” act just feels dated. And not in a hip vin­tage way. More in a clichéd, de­press­ingly con­ven­tional, sex­ual-ha­rass­ment kind of way.

Char­ney needs to zip it.

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