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American Apparel Celebrates Ethnic Diversity
Minorities in Business
September 2002

For Dov it all comes down to social responsibility as well as the simple yet unassailable premise that a well cared for employee is a productive employee.

Dov Charney is changing the rules of the fashion industry. According to American Apparel's main man, one doesn't have to severely cut corners in order to make a decent profit. "I don't argue that we find ourselves in a difficult economic climate," Dov admits. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that the only way you can survive is by shortchanging your customers or your employees just to make that bottom line." Indeed, since he established the company with Korean-born senior partner Sam Lim five years ago, the mandate has been the creation of imprintable T-shirts of the finest quality to rival that of any designer line. To achieve this very goal, Dov has pointedly ignored much of what other manufacturers have been doing since time immemorial and forged ahead on his own path. While countless of other firms have been aggressively shuttering domestic factories in favor of offshore operations where labor is decidedly cheaper, American Apparel has stubbornly stuck to its name by producing 100% of its merchandise in the United States.

He's been called a "T-shirt maverick" and a "fashion pioneer" but what is not readily apparent in these handily convenient labels is Dov Charney's passion for what he does. For this Montreal native, T-shirts have always been more than a business. Stretching as far back as his early entrepreneurial efforts in South Carolina where he tirelessly tinkered with a T-shirt's style and fit, Dov has always sought to provide the ideal platform for creativity and comfort. And his commitment to the focused more on private label business until it became all too apparent that it would make more sense to bolster American Apparel's own brands of imprintable T's for the screen printing industry. When Dov first conceived the idea of the baby T, most of the general public were accustomed to the one-size-fits-all shirts being hawked at rock concerts. His idea was to "feminize" the T-shirt and allow it to follow the shapely contours of the body. And from that idea, Dov created a fashion forward fitted T in one hundred percent combed cotton, 30 single yarn baby ribs and superfine jerseys. Thus was Classic Girl born, the American Apparel line that accounts for seventy percent of production and features a range of forty different colors and design variations including raglan sleeves, V-necks, cardigans and spaghetti strapped tanks.

Dov's meticulous attention to design and detail also carries over in another yet equally important way in how the company is run. And this has become another source of envy by his competitors. Firmly eschewing the "sweatshop" mentality which is unfortunately quite common in the garment trade, Dov has created the most employee friendly working environment in all of his home base of California if not the United States. He says, "Undoubtedly it would be easier, not to mention cheaper to just sub-contract production to some impoverished country where children are made to work or people are grossly underpaid. And it's become somewhat of a trend more significantly in recent years. But the trade off is removing employment from hard working, tax-paying Americans of all ethnicities and perhaps even to the detriment of your product's quality. And I am not willing to do either of that at whatever cost." He continues by pointing out that businesses in general and the garment trade in particular performs with a knee jerk reaction to declining profits by slashing blindly at costs. "It's a sad fact that there are those who, when the business is doing well, completely forget all about the people who have made that possible. I work together with my employees every single day. I am constantly aware of their concerns and hopes and dreams and I am mindful that I depend on their output and they depend on my leadership. It's a completely supportive and productive relationship that's a microcosm of this very country in which we live. The United States is a country of immigrants and to forget that at your convenience is not only dangerous but it's unconscionable."

Notably, with over 800 employees, American Apparel represents a broadly diverse cross-section of ethnic groups all in the mix. Roughly broken down, African Americans comprise some 10%, Caucasians another 10%, Asians and Middle Easterns at 20% while Latin workers cover the remaining 60%. Dov's dedicatedly ethical management style has ensured that all his sewers and other workers labor with healthy compensation well above the current living wage, proper lighting and ventilation, modern equipment, safety systems, their own lockers, microwaves, the free health services of a medical van, on-site massage therapists, as well as English and yoga classes. Furthermore, Dov has been known to routinely join his Latin and Asian American employees in marching at community demonstrations and protests dealing with immigration, labor rights and civil liberties issues. Without a doubt these are above and beyond what most Fortune 500 companies or their overpriced CEO's are willing to do for their employees.

For Dov it all comes down to social responsibility as well as the simple yet unassailable premise that a well cared for employee is a productive employee. And the palpable difference is demonstrated in how the main hub of American Apparel's 165,000 square-foot downtown Los Angeles T-shirt central located in the old Southern Pacific Railroad Building buzzes with efficiency. Hectic activity abounds with 35 knitting machines, 25 Vetigraph markers and cutting tables, 200 sewing machines, and anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 units shipped out daily. While those figures don't quite compete with the Goliaths of the rag trade, American Apparel has been conspicuously referred to as the David that's pushed way beyond everyone's expectations. "I don't deny that we are all working during challenging times. But downsizing or retrenching is not the solution. Thinking creatively, sticking to the courage of your conviction and working aggressively to keep moving past those boundaries are more constructive and ultimately more rewarding," Dov states. "I am so lucky to have these loyal, devoted, and hard working people as part of American Apparel. And we're striving to create a new kind of viable business mode for the garment industry that remains free of sweatshop exploitation without sacrificing quality. American Apparel stands as a working environment where each employee is motivated to work because everybody here benefits from the fruits of his or her labor."

As in every success story there are countless others who are taking their cues from what Dov has created at American Apparel. Already there are firms who are adopting his principles of an ethically-managed company or blatantly copying everything from method to design in hopes of replicating that singular American Apparel success story. But while the others continue to rip off designs or fabrics, they can never produce another Dov Charney, whose boundless energy and enthusiasm is nothing short of hyper kinetic and matched only by his vividly fertile imagination and his passionate commitment to his work and his workers. In American Apparel, Dov has built the very realization of his personal, creative sensibilities and brought to the forefront a uniquely modern evolution of the T-shirt from a company accurately representing an America comprised of diverse cultural groups united in a single purpose.