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3rd DegreeL.A. CityBeat
October 29, 2003
On the eve of L.A. Fashion Week (Oct. 31-Nov. 4), one of Los Angeles's most hip, successful, and outspoken clothing manufacturers wants to remind the fashion world that the path to profit doesn't have to pass through a Third World sweatshop. The self-proclaimed "educated hustler" of L.A. fashion, 33-year-old Dov Charney is a senior partner of American Apparel, whose garments are proudly "sweatshop-free."
Just this week, P. Diddy's Sean Jean label became the latest to be accused of using underpaid labor working in squalid conditions to make luxury goods. But American Apparel's business model of offering U.S. workers an average "living wage" of $12 an hour [Actual wage as of Jan. 2004: $12.50/hour] while responding quickly to new styles and producing high-quality garments has made the company a $75 million sales force this year. Charney aims to be the next Levi Strauss.
He started out selling screen-printed Hanes T-shirts in Montreal when he was just a teenager. He landed in Los Angeles in the early '90s, hanging out with Fresh Jive founder Rick Klotz before co-founding American Apparel in 1998. With his no-bullshit wit, Charney soon became a West Coast fashion-industry star.
CityBeat: Are Los Angeles fashion designers conscious of worker exploitation in the global textile industry?
Dov Charney: Absolutely. So much manufacturing is done here that many designers are thinking about it all the time. I don't think American Apparel is alone in treating workers well. There are a lot of independent designers who care about the dignity of the people they're working with. Unfortunately, in the apparel industry, everything is subcontracted, and it leads to some exploitation. But because things are often subcontracted locally here, it's a step in the right direction.
CB: You've decried the fashion victimization of today's market as "tribal." What do you mean?
A lot of the weirdness in the apparel industry happens because of this false tribalism around brands. It's about Fubu, Rocawear. It's like bad religion. There's not attention to the design. It's a flash in the pan, and companies try to make the lowest common denominator. Products based on ingenuity and simplicity transcend time, like Levi's 501s in the '70s. There's a continuity and repeatability in fashion.
There are reasons to manufacture in the United States because it can be more efficient. A Chinese refrigerator company built a factory in South Carolina. It's called regional production. That's what designers are doing here locally. Because labor costs more, cost is in the design, and the design is in the shape, and that's why L.A is taking a lead in fashion, because of a commitment to fit and design.
CB: Is L.A. still the world's streetwear capital, both in terms of cutting-edge style and manufacturing?
DC: You go to Fred Segal, and everything is made in L.A. because L.A. is making the hippest shit. I think we're the best T-shirt manufacturer in the world. How are we doing it with higher labor wages? From design. The best denim is from L.A., too, because of the design.
There is something happening in L.A.: People are rejecting the tribalism. They're rejecting the commercial. Look at all these little stores popping up in Echo Park and along La Brea Avenue. It's all these little designers. It's a new L.A. industrialism. You could give five people a pair of scissors, a sewing machine, and three yards of denim and restrict them to so many minutes of labor, and the coolest stuff will come from L.A. Maybe it's in the youth culture. It's the youngest city in the United States. The entire industry has driven a lot of creative people into fashion.
L.A. is defining the casual feeling. Now there's a new generation of international hipsters. Cool kids in London are connected to cool kids in L.A., who are connected to cool kids in Tokyo. The cool girl wants to date the cool guy no matter where he's from. Once you're in, you're in. You make it here, it's like making it in Rome in Roman times. If you're a hot L.A. designer, that's it. New York doesn't have it. It's way more bourgeois. It's office-worker clothing. We're kicking ass right now. America is not on top design-wise, but L.A. is an island.
CB: Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has said he would act to repeal NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Do you agree?
DC: It doesn't matter — NAFTA — it doesn't matter the tariffs. You cannot broker cool. We've got cool in our pockets. If you're going to ship T-shirts and jeans from Bangladesh, it's not going to impede the ingenuity of L.A. If you have a product that taps the sexuality and what's cool in the hearts and minds of the trend-setting youths, you can't just buy that.
CB: If the WTO nations lift textile quotas in 2005, what will happen to textile manufacturing in Los Angeles?
DC: It's meaningless. We can compete with offshore competition now - my average wage is $12 — we're kicking their ass. The average offshore wage is one buck. If the fit's right and the style's right, it doesn't matter. There are three things you need to compete. First, you have to have the product. Then, access to product. Then, knowledge of product. Those three things have little to do with labor costs.
CB: You haven't ruled out overseas manufacturing, but you've said wherever you manufacture you'll pay fair wages. Are you planning on setting up a foreign shop anytime soon?
DC: I believe in international manufacturing, but it has to be regional. If I manufacture in China, I'm going to sell in China. There's ways to make money without the cheap labor. What a lot of labels are doing, they try to get into Wal-Mart or Target with price. I hired a 19-year-old girl living out of her car, and she's now my lead product developer. I knew she had it. We need a person who epitomizes cool. We have that here in L.A. That's our natural resource. It might be a gangbanger, the way he wears his pants. All they're doing offshore is duplicating last year's stuff. We're making the next thing here.
CB: How did you become so popular with the action sports industry?
DC: My core customer is actually the screen-printers. The skate-wear makers can be a little bit challenged, too. Skate is not as popular as it was. The action sports thing was a bit tribal. What's cool now is just real products for real people. It's about the international feel here in L.A. — the Mexican, Korean, Chinese, mountain-beach white-boy mix. It's a sophisticated cocktail of style we have here. People didn't know what Echo Park was three years ago. What's the next trip? It's Pico-Union or Boyle Heights.
CB: You say American Apparel could become as important to American fashion as Levi's in the '70s. Are you trying to establish consumer awareness of American Apparel, and will you roll out your own retail branding?
DC: It will happen. We are the next Levi's. But it's going to be from the top down. They went from the bottom up. Remember the Levi's jean jacket? If you didn't have one of those, you didn't have a cock.
CB: Do you also hope to compete with Fruit of the Loom and Hanes?
DC: I admire their history. But they're no longer classic American industrialists. They sold out. They're offshore. It's not to compete with them, because they're retiring. It's to be the next them. We have so many distinct distribution channels. There are dot-coms, retailers, screen-printers, boutiques. It's like, where does all the milk go? It goes to McDonald's, schools, grocery stores.
CB: Do you still do fittings over at the Play Pen strip club?
DC: That was a stretch, even then. Nah. I do the fittings at the office. I use the fitters, sewers, receptionists — it doesn't matter. I'm a Yiddish T-shirt maker, an educated hustler, that's all.
Made in Downtown LA—Vertically Integrated Manufacturing