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False Tribalism - The Hallmark of Contemporary Luxury
Dov Charney's view on the apparel industry, false tribalism and his way of redefining the American dreamM Publication
Volume 2, Luxury. 2003
M Publication: A simple piece of clothing, a T-shirt, and it is blank. What is so revolutionary about your T-shirts? Is it the quality of the T-shirts, the different styles or the manufacturing process, your lean management, your politics or the strong social system you have built for a "sweatshop-free" community?
Dov Charney: The strategy is to make T-shirts young people love to wear. By treating workers well and keeping the manufacturing vertically integrated with the design, administrative, logistical, and Financial elements, we are able to optimise the quality. In order to create efficiency within the workplace, it becomes critical that there is low turnover and high worker morale — that is where the sweatshop-free idea comes in. So it is socialism, but only to support the capitalism of the company. To ensure the financial security of the company, our philosophy is to ensure that everyone touched by our business process has a positive experience, be they garment workers or customers.
MP: How strong are Americans in the design business?
DC: Speaking only for the commodity apparel business, I think the Americans had a heritage of manufacturing commodity apparel, which became the icons of the hippy and boomer generation. Items like the 1970s versions of Levi's cords, Hanes underwear, or Champion sweatshirts are known worldwide and are still displayed at vintage stores all over the Western world.
MP: Did European companies dictate the pricing rules?
DC: As Americans tried to adopt the collections approach from Europe, this heritage got lost. European jeans makers were getting $120 for their jeans, and the Americans were only getting $25, so they tried to emulate the collections approach and I think they fucked up the American system where styles would not change for long periods of time, like Levi's 501s, etc. Furthermore, as the boomers got older, these companies lost their connection to youth, and they got hyper-concerned with moving offshore, which deflated the price of the garments, but distracted the majors from reconnecting to the next generation. They lost their touch. Had they focused on optimising their products and not chasing cheap labour, their companies would have been in better shape.
MP: Where does American design come from?
DC: 0n the fashion side, right now I think some of the most interesting design work comes out of Los Angeles, but I may be biased.
MP: Why do you consider America as your final destination - productionwise?
DC: We are not American nationalists and we think our business model can be taken to any region of the world. But we will always pay the US dollar minimum wage set by the federal government. If we open a factory in China, we will sell our T-shirts in China, and we will pay at least the US dollar minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. It is a new US imperialism. We will not charge US dollar prices, but pay poverty wages, because we are too good for that. We are too smart to steal. We are next-generation capitalists and to pay shit wages would be to confirm that our self-righteousness is full of shit.
MP: Which brands do you consider intact in their value for the consumer, their corporate communication and their company politics?
DC: Sorry, but I can't think of one right now.
MP: Is branding a garment an act of "artificially" claiming it as a luxurious product?
DC: Branding is often a form of false tribalism. We want to sell our garments based on our product. We don't want people buying our product because of the brand image, but because they love our products.
MP: You cannot tolerate labels on your personal clothing. Why not?
DC: Because it represents false tribalism. For the same reason I don't believe in God.
MP: Being "maverick of the morning" on CNN is hard work, but you still find plenty of time to see employees. Health insurance, dental care, free on-site massages, English classes... You are striving to pioneer a political movement of human rights — pure altruism?
DC: American Apparel is not altruism. It is capitalism. We treat our workers well to advance our business, to create an environment of efficiency, where everyone wins.
MP: Madonna's latest album is about "The American Dream" and you speak of "The Redesign of the American Dream" - you condemn moneymaking as the only purpose of a company.
DC: I do not believe in America as a country any more. I believe in America as a value system, which symbolises for me freedom. This can be traced back to England and further back to Greece. Life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness, or as the French put it, "liberte, fraternite, egalite ...". This is what America is all about. But the border system is over. Religion is over. Tribalism is over. I believe that people should be able to move freely worldwide. To move or migrate where they want. That everyone has these inalienable rights. That everyone, as stated in the Magna Carta of 1215, can sell his labour in England. When the world is open and people can move freely, the divide between the rich and poor will decease and Adam Smith's invisible hand will play a role of natural equalisation. Open borders are possible ... look at Europe, for example. So my American dream is that everyone can feel protected by the US Bill of Rights worldwide, not just US citizens on US soil.
MP: The union's the biggest enemy of the labour market. Are they to be tolerated?
DC: I firmly believe in collective bargaining rights. I would never frustrate a union effort by my workers. But I also think that people cannot fault American Apparel if our workers have not sought a union. For us to have imposed a union would have been a false move. Unions have also become a form of branding and false tribalism. Unions can be critical in helping improve working conditions, but they are not always the answer, and the concept often relies on the idea that unions are going to fight honestly for the worker against bad employers. But not all unions are good and not all employers are bad. Many sweatshops are unionised. Furthermore, the union concept implies that workers and management do not have common goals, whereas at "American Apparel" we see the welfare of our workers as being critical to our company's success.
MP: What does the term luxury mean to you?
DC: Luxury for me personally would mean perfect functionality and efficiency. Luxury is the perfect use of resources whereby no one in the community - be they customers, suppliers, the environment or shareholders - is getting damaged by the process of production. That is how I see it. But for contemporary society right now, I think luxury is false and dishonest. It is backed up by false tribalism whereby there is no real substance. It is often based on manufactured hype. Like the diamond industry. The scarcity of diamonds is completely fabricated by the De Beers family. Yet underneath the surface, people are getting severely exploited to support the diamond industry. The coupling of false hype and exploitation seems to have become the hallmark of contemporary luxury.
MP: Is luxury a matter of the price tag?
DC: The luxury market is marked by high margins and high failure rates, which render the concept of contemporary luxury.
Dov Charney, born on 31 January 1969 in Montreal, is the founder and senior partner of American Apparel. Charney started his entrepreneurship aged 11 by launching a newspaper. Today, he is America's third largest T-shirt manufacturer after Hanes and Fruit of the Loom.
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