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Fair Wage, Fair Trade, Exec Says Apparel Company Partner Hopes His Anti-Wweatshop Attitude Rubs Off on Others.Las Vegas Review Journal
August 27, 2002
Panties, politics and profitability are seldom discussed in the same conversation, but Dov Charney's areas of interest hardly conform with the mainstream.
The 33-year-old senior partner and co-owner of Los Angeles-based American Apparel, Charney's company has carved a niche as an up-and-coming manufacturer of T-shirts, panties and other casual apparel. It's Charney's politics, however, that generate much of the stir surrounding American Apparel.
In an industry where the use of overseas laborers is common, Charney is both passionate and outspoken in his criticism of clothing manufacturers that use illegal workers or offshore factories to take advantage of low-cost labor.
Worldwide statistics on sweatshop labor are nearly impossible to project, but the U.S. Department of Labor recently estimated more than 67 percent of garment manufacturers in the Los Angeles area were not in compliance with federal minimum wage and overtime laws. That's something Charney hopes to change.
"Shipping things halfway across the world because it's easier to screw people overseas just doesn't make sense," Charney said Monday. "At some point, this industry has got to stop exploiting the lives of its workers."
Relying on creativity and new technologies to reduce its business costs, the privately held American Apparel pays its laborers an average salary of $10 per hour [actual average wage as of Jan. 2004, $12.50/hour] while still remaining profitable, said Charney, who is in Las Vegas to exhibit at this fall's MAGIC Marketplace, which runs through Thursday at the Sands Expo and Convention Center and Las Vegas Convention Center.
"We've still got a long way to go, but I couldn't look at these people (employees) unless I knew I was paying them a fair wage," Charney said. "I'd rather see them happy than have more money in my pocket."
Charney said he was first exposed to the clothing industry as an 18-year-old selling T-shirts on the streets of Montreal. His experiences in Canada also shaped his awareness of political and labor issues.
"I saw how French Canadians in Quebec began to work together to empower themselves for the betterment of their society," Charney said. "When I came to Los Angeles (in 1997), I wanted to be a part of something similar among the Latino population."
Today, American Apparel's 220,000-square-foot manufacturing center in downtown Los Angeles employs more than 1,000 workers, most of whom are Hispanic. Clara Reis, a Brazilian immigrant who now works as Charney's assistant, said the company's workers have responded to Charney's example.
"Dov isn't above doing things to help his workers, and because of that, they'll do anything for him," said Reis, who started her career with American Apparel as a trade show model. "We were behind on an order recently and more than 800 people came in (to work) on a Saturday because they knew Dov would be right there with them. ... They're dedicated to this company because Dov cares about each of them as people, not just one of 1,000 employees [as of April 2004, American Apparel has 1,500 employees]."
American Apparel recently spent $2.5 million in capital improvements to help its workers perform more efficiently. Working in teams rather than along an assembly line, Charney said his employees will produce close to 15 million T-shirts over the next 12 months.
"I keep hearing businesses complain, `I have to compete' when they send their manufacturing overseas," Charney said. "What about competing with your design quality or new technology instead of simply cutting labor costs? ... You can make the coolest T-shirts without a lot of labor."
In his quest to reshape the world, Charney said he's taken on mall operators who are content to maintain the clothing industry's status quo for fear of hurting the bottom line, as well as some of the nation's leading banking organizations, which Charney said are reluctant to lend money to clothing manufacturers because of their high failure rates.
"We've had to finance almost everything we've done out of our pockets or ingenuity because the banks have told us we won't make money without manufacturing overseas," Charney said.
Despite such struggles, Charney believes his company's political stance could eventually help American Apparel gain popularity among young consumers.
"Kids today are more liberal and I think they're going to become more political, sort of like what happened with the hippie movement in the 1960s," Charney said. "Generation Y is going to care about what's going on with these Third World workers, and because of that they'll respond to this message."
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