BOTTOM LINE WIPES OUT WEIRDNESS
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.