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Alternative Ethics
Looking at another side of softgoods manufacturing
Transworld SkateBoarding Business
Brooks Bennett
September 2003

"Fuck the brands that are fucking the people." This mantra leaps off the page of an American Apparel ad in XLR8R, a New York City newspaper, poignantly encapsulating the political ethos that is proudly held by American Apparel — a pseudo-generic L.A.-based softgoods manufacturer.

American Apparel's primary focus is handcrafting solid-colored soft good for both wholesale and retail sale. While some may view their products as simple, there is nothing generic about this bourgeoning company.

In an economy where businesses are frantically searching for ways to cut cost and raise profits, maverick American Apparel is bucking the trend of outsourcing work to cheap, offshore labor.

Many major skateboard-related companies such as Vans, Element, Volcom, and Freshjive use American Apparel softgoods in their product lines. Todd Dalhausser, head of apparel at Vans, Inc. described the relationship between Vans and American Apparel as a natural fit. Vans decided to use American Apparel because according to Dalhausser, "There was no need for us to reinvent the wheel. They (American Apparel) have perfected the fit of their products." Consumers are seeking out these worker-friendly products, synthesizing fashion with politics. Shoppers are more willing to swallow the twenty-dollar price tag for a T-shirt when they realize what they bought was made in the United States without exploiting the workers who produced it.

Matt Irving, the art director at Element Skateboards, expressed similar sentiments, saying the reason Element decided to use American Apparel was their "stylish cut" He emphatically added, "You won't realize how crappy the quality of other shirts are until you try American Apparel." Element has been using American Apparel's Classic Girl line for almost two years and plans to use their men's fitted T-shirts and fitted long-sleeve T-shirts in the near future.

American Apparel is headed by the vibrant Dov Charney, a passionate 34 year old with a tendency to talk fast: "There is nothing wrong with the corporate model per se. It's the values behind the corporations." He estimates that the direct-labor cost on a T-shirt made in the United States at an employee wage of twelve to fifteen dollars an hour, on average is 55 cents per garment. "People go all the way to China for 55 cents." The quest for profits overseas seems ludicrous to Charney: It make sense to set up factories close to where the goods need to be."

Charney's hands-on management technique and pro-worker philosophy have garnered him and American Apparel recent notoriety, but he is not satisfied: "There are still a lot of companies that don't even understand American Apparel may become a more important brand to youth than Levi's was in the 70s." Positive press from media outlets such as The L.A. Times, Time magazine, and The New Yorker have served to inform the public of the company, enabling them to sell T-shirts at a whole sale price slightly higher than their sweatshop rivals. Charney theorizes that "the average T-shirt buyer couldn't give a shit about how much a T-shirt costs as long as she loves the T-shirt." Charney realizes that the economy is regulated by the laws of supply and demand, so American Apparel must plaster the planet with its politics, as well as its high quality products to keep afloat financially.

Charney first dabbled in business by purchasing T-shirts in bulk from Kmart and having a friend screen-print graphics on them, selling them on the street outside concerts in Montreal. He carried his bourgeoning business into college selling T-shirts wholesale out of his dorm room. During his junior year Charney decided to leave Tufts University in his rear view mirror and sell T-shirts full time in South Carolina. In 1997 Charney established American Apparel in Los Angeles, California. Over the course of it's short lifespan, American Apparel has managed to vertically integrate all softgood production into a single 165,000-squar-foot warehouse of what Charney calls "T-shirt madness" in the heart of downtown L.A., setting an example for the rest of the industry to seek profits through innovation - not exploitation.

American Apparel's main potential drawback, despite what Charney believes, lies in the wholesale cost of their softgoods. Stjephan Boban, owner of a fledgling distributor company Southern Star Skateboards, uses American Apparel's Classic Girl line of clothing. He has interest in using their T-shirts but states that at the current time they are just "too pricey." No mater how solid a company's politics are and how choice their craftsmanship is, if the price is too high, it becomes hard for smaller companies to profit on what are already thin margins.

Over the past six years American Apparel has grown to over one thousand employees, most of whom work at sewing stations. While these workers are not offered paid sick leave, paid vacation, or retirement benefits, they do earn much more than the standard California minimum wage of $6.75 an hour [actual wage as of Jan. 2004: $12.50/hour]. American Apparel also now offers medical insurance to employees and their families for eight dollars a week and dental insurance for one dollar a week. In a world governed by the bottom line it's refreshing to see companies stand firmly against increasing profit margins at the expense of their employees.

Putting employees' needs first is a dying facet of contemporary corporate skateboard culture, but some companies are standing firm. All employees at American Apparel are treated how they should be-with dignity and a living wage. Employee benefits include free massages, English classes, a subsidized lunch program, free telephones in the warehouse, and immigration services. Consider these accommodations alongside employee pay ranging from ten to fifteen dollars an hour, and American Apparel can bill itself as one hundred percent sweatshop-free with a clean conscience.

A worker friendly stance compounded with excellent products is what enticed Vans to begin using American Apparel's juniors' clothing and now after only one year, 95 percent of Vans' current juniors' line consists of American Apparel made fibers, and Vans also plans to use some of their mens garments in the future. Dalhausser stated, "Dov is a big human rights activist, and Vans is a global organization that consists of that."

American Apparel is not alone in ditching sweatshop labor. In fact, Maggie's Organics, organicclothes.com, located in Ypsilanti, Michigan has not only been sweatshop-free since 1992, but all of the cotton that they use is one-hundred-percent organically grown. Maggie's Organics has also teamed with T.S. Designs and Burlington Chemical Company in order to use their REHANCE technology. REHANCE is a printing and dying process that uses water based chemistry instead of plastisol materials and leaves no PVC behind in the process. Companies are starting to realize that consumers want to wear clothing that not only looks good but was not made at the expense of laborers.

On the environmental front, American Apparel has teamed up with Environmental Textiles to recycle all of it's leftover cotton scraps. The earth conscious move prevents the dumping of over 30,000 pounds of cotton per week into Los Angeles landfills. American Apparel is also beginning to delve into the world of organic, pesticide free cotton. American Apparel is slated to launch a sustainable addition of certified organic clothing in four styles by the end of the month. Charney is committed to "buy more environmentally friendly cotton," stating that will become twenty percent of their purchasing in 2004.

Philosopher Machiavelli is quoted on American Apparel's web site, americanapparel.net, summing up the core of American Apparel's political position: " The innovator has as his enemies those who did well under the old conditions." Charney believes "In the end, I think that our factory is more efficient than a factory in China. We make more money, we provide better wages for our workers, and better values to our customers. People fucking love our T-shirts. I know people who wear our T-shirts every day."