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American Apparel Setting a Higher Standard for IndustryPR WEEK Clothes for a Change
Sepember 23, 2003
American Apparel's Dov Charney may seem a bit like a loose cannon, but his brand of nothing-to-hide communications is transforming his industry, and could be a lesson for PR pros.
Dov Charney is a mixture of Cesar Chavez and Jerry Lewis — a visionary committed to labor rights, and a gregarious, loudmouthed entertainer full of heart and good humor. He is fiercely dedicated to manufacturing high-quality T-shirts, and at the same time proving that clothing manufacturers can turn a profit without exploiting laborers and engaging in other nefarious practices.
Though he's not technically a PR specialist, in the process he's become an organic, one-man PR phenomenon. Charney, senior partner and CEO of American Apparel in Los Angeles, spends all of his waking hours ensuring that everyone he comes in contact with understands and remembers his T-shirts, his company, and his politics. Those efforts are helping him sell more shirts and raise standards in a notoriously abusive industry. To Charney, apparel news is important, but limited; he's much more concerned with human-rights issues in manufacturing. "It's clothing — everybody wears it. And the industry is a bloody mess," Charney says. "It looks like slavery. The Boomers that control the T-shirt industry screwed up. It's an affront to human decency, and I'm the only one doing something about it."
Richard Louderback, partner with DFC2, a film company that Charney uses to make documentaries about American Apparel, says, "It doesn't matter where you go with the guy, he creates the biggest scene. Twenty minutes later, everybody knows him. He's passing out catalogs, cards, and T-shirts telling them about the industry. He laughs a lot, but he's very serious about his company."
"PR comes naturally," Charney admits. "It's partly a Yiddish thing — about being the showman. I'm a Jewish hustler, and I'm a motivational expert. When you have a real story and a big mouth, people listen. If it's a real story, the more you piss it out there, the more media people are going to call you."
To date, Charney's good deeds and big, bad mouth have caught the attention of Time magazine, The New Yorker, FT.com, PBS, and NBC. "If 60 Minutes doesn't want to do a story on me, it's their problem, not mine," he declares. "I'm changing the world; they're just reporting on it." The US Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the 22,000 US sewing factories violate minimum-wage and overtime laws, and 75% violate health and safety laws. Working conditions include blocked fire exits, poor ventilation, vermin-infested factories, and restrooms without running water or toilet paper.
"We do things so differently," says VP of operations Marty Bailey, who Charney poached from Fruit of the Loom last spring. "We are in a position to take a corporate lead, to be an example of what can happen in the manufacturing sector. It's not about just paying lip service to the issues, it's about showing that it can happen, it can work."
Setting a Higher Standard
American Apparel sewers make as much as $10 to $15 an hour, and the company offers benefits unheard of in the industry. For example, everyone has access to free massages at their workstations. English and Spanish classes are taught, immigration assistance is given, and a mobile health clinic staffed by registered nurses visits once a week to make referrals. Free yoga classes were dropped only because massages were more popular. Health insurance is provided for everyone's children. Paid vacations are becoming available, and day-care is under consideration.
"Other companies treat people like animals," says Alma Amaya, who has worked in factories for 10 years and started as an American Apparel sewer in 2000, but was promoted to assistant to the VP of operations in March. "Dov really cares about people and their problems."
Charney, who's only 33, has sold T-shirts under the name American Apparel since 1989. His passion for T-shirts started when he was a teenager in Montreal, and he then spent eight years learning the trade in South Carolina before moving to LA in the mid-'90s. Rather than compete with mass-market companies like Fruit of the Loom, American Apparel flourishes in its high-end niche by leveraging product quality, hip design, and the appeal of its anti-sweatshop politics.
The company had about $12 million in sales in 2001, and Charney projects that will more than double this year.
American Apparel is primarily a wholesaler, though it expanded into consumer sales earlier this year. Increasing consumer awareness of the company is now the primary objective.
Everything about American Apparel, including its internal and external PR practices, has been an organic extension of Charney's beliefs, visions, and personality. "For Dov, this is not just a business. It is his very existence," says marketing manager Jin Kang. "In the beginning, all he had was the gift of his mouth. Now we need to get a communications structure in place to manage the growth."
Indeed, the company is devising a formal PR strategy with help from Cynthia Semon, owner of Los Angeles-based CS Communications. "I have to dissect the company," Semon says. "There are so many messages that cut across so many demographics. It's important to reach younger people so they can see that there is a different business model out there that works. People are dying to see stories like this, but we can also network with the community through charities, universities, and mentor programs."
Telling the Story on Screen
One of Charney's most ingenious tactics is spreading information via the short documentary films he makes with DFC2 about his operations and the lives of his employees. Shown at trade shows, mailed out and streamed over the internet, the films are an extraordinary marketing tool, and they landed Charney outside PR help: Semon saw the films about a year ago and sought him out. Charney officially hired CS as his agency this past August.
"I was inspired by the films, and felt compelled to start pitching," says Semon, who has specialized in political and social issues management and entertainment PR for 12 years. "I wanted to be associated with his cause, regardless of if I was perceived as his publicist. PR has a responsibility to represent responsible companies. You should not project something that's not there or that's not good."
Semon helped bring in NBC coverage, a PBS special (Charney was featured in the documentary series Realidades), and an FT story about a new fabric-recycling initiative with Environmental Textiles.
Charney says American Apparel will continue to confront his industry's harsh reality head-on. "I'm about to e-mail all my customers about the ills of cotton," he says. "More pesticides are used in cotton than all other agricultural sectors put together, and the government spends more money on cotton subsidy than it does on the military budget. Cotton is the nicotine of clothing. If the cigarette industry had some balls, it would address its problems. I'm not going to hide. We're not going to play PR charade. I'm going to say, 'Yeah, we use it, but we need to do something about it.'
Credibility is going to breed attention."
For Charney and American Apparel, that certainly seems to be the case.
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