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Dov Charney
Made in America
T-shirt company American Apparel has a unique approach to doing business, which includes English classes for its workers.
Rafu Shimpo
October 25, 2001

When you've got a relatively new garment factory and your merchandise has the tag "Made in U.S.A." on it, you're already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to the bottom line, or so it would seem.

Thirty-two year-old Dov Charney, who heads the $25-million-dollar garment company, American Apparel, says that his company is doing well because of the unique approach the company takes to business.

Based in Los Angeles, American Apparel meets perhaps the strictest labor guidelines in the world, yet is a healthy, growing company. Production is all under one roof.

"We knit, cut, sew, package, ship, do all the distribution, photograph, design, market, develop software . we try to make it an efficient operation by being in one location . by being in the United States, by being in an urban environment. . This creates the energy that we want to have that is more efficient, that is more exciting, so we don't have to chisel down the labor, so we don't have to f--- the working man," said Charney.

The company designs, manufacturers and markets their own "high-end" blank promotional T-shirts. The 100 percent cotton garments are designed to compliment the body.

Charney explained that while most of the T-shirt industry is run by and marketed to the Baby Boomer generation, American Apparel is run by Generation X and predominately services Generation X and Y. "We're challenging the distribution system, we're challenging the styles that are considered commodity apparel T-shirts," said Charney. "We're challenging what that's all about."

"The last innovation in the commodity apparel industry was the heavy weight T-shirt . they were inspired by the relaxed fit generation," Charney added. "Generation X and Generation Y, which are younger people, that aren't overweight, want to wear clothes that are a little more fitting, that are a little more flattering to the masculine or the feminine body."

Labor Relations
Efficiency is the key to the success that American Apparel has had, according to Charney, who said efficiency doesn't just come from the consolidation of production, but also in the treatment the company offers its 350 workers. "The more we pay our people, the more efficient we are," said Charney. The company provides its workers with extra perks, such as English and Yoga classes, and a medical van that comes by every Monday for any of the employees who want to get a check up.

"As we make more money, we want to bring a better and better environment to everyone here," said Charney. "A lesson can be learned from how the Japanese became very efficient in their manufacturing process . really what made Japan so incredible was that they took ideas and optimized the process and optimized the relationships."

Charney feels that, given the option, people don't want to buy products where workers are working under substandard circumstances.

For American Apparel, most of the warehouse workers are migrant workers hailing from Mexico, Central America and Asia, as a result a lot of the workers do not have a sufficient handle on English. Part of "optimizing" the communication within the company, a California Literacy non-profit program, Community Development Technologies (CDTech), provides English classes twice a week.

"I think a lot of people don't realize that learning English takes a lot of time," said Megan Hunter a CDTech teacher and organizer. "A lot of the workers do not have formal education in their own countries, (so) it's really doubly challenging for them to learn English."

"A lot of companies don't have language programs," Hunter explained that there can be a lot of suspicion between workers and management and that's why it's critical to have language programs.

According to Hunter, language classes are a cost-saving measure and builds morale. "If people invest in their employees they're more likely to stay there a long time."

American Apparel, which rents 165,000 square feet of warehouse and office space in a building located off Alameda and 7th St. at 747 Warehouse St., Los Angeles, has distributors in North America, Europe and Japan.

Dov Charney president of American Apparel, poses at this factory just outside downtown Los Angeles.