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Dov Charney
Fashion & Style: Cool to Be Kind
The politics of T-shirts is about more than slogans; many are made in sweatshop conditions. But the latest ethical brands will not only salve your conscience — they look great, too, says JOSH SIMS
The Independent
Josh Sims
June 17, 2003

Buying the most basic item in one's summer wardrobe — the plain T-shirt — used to be a simple affair; market stalls provided packs by the dozen and high street stores sold branded versions of much the same thing. But while party politics today may be less radical, social awareness is slowly on the up as the snit-globalisation protests and the success of Naomi Klein's No Logo demonstrated. If the T-shirt was once a no-brain buy, for many it now comes loaded with a sharp prick to the conscience; has it been produced probably by a giant Western corporation, through the exploitation of "economical labour" in developing countries? A thought that is usually quickly overwhelmed by the more important question: does this T-shirt look sexy?

Indeed, ethical considerations seldom impinge on the world of fashion, which has rarely rushed to involve itself in politics and by its nature is concerned with the superficial. Yet ethical clothing — for example, T-shirts made in "worker-positive" conditions of fair pay, good employment rights, acceptable health-and-safety protections and so on — has been available for decades now. The problem for the majority of people - whose desire to look stylish has always just about managed to trump the desire to save the world is that it has not been very good: shapeless, itchy, too worthy, and too hippie. Until now.

Enter American Apparel, which arrives in UK shops this year. This Los Angeles-based company is the creation of Dov Charney, a 34-year old Montreal-born manic entrepreneur (he launched his own newspaper aged 11) who has decided to his skateboarder's love of T-shirts and his concern for workers' rights into the same package. Launched just five years ago, American Apparel is already the third largest T-shirt manufacturer in the US (after Hanes and Fruit of the Loom) and one of the most profitable, a $40m business that this year expects to double its sales. This proves, says Charney, that it is possible to give comparable manufacturers with more bottom line-driven policies a run for their pesos and do the right thing at the same time.

Certainly the record of many companies is poor. The ineffective Fair Labor Association was founded in the US in 1998 to set a "no sweatshop" voluntary code of conduct for manufacturers. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, the bulk of T-shirts those produced in Bangladesh, Honduras, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, Mexico, El Salvador and China are still likely to be made, often by women and children, for the equivalent of less than a dollar a day.

"The way the apparel industry is structured means that T-shirts and casualwear tend to be made in the most abusive conditions," explains Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, a New York-based independent organization that protects workers' rights. "What makes the T-shirt industry especially complicated is that the people working in these places tend to be the same age as our high-school students, the people who wear the shirts. The anti-sweatshop movement is relatively new. Up until the early Nineties, companies making these clothes had plausible deniability. They didn't actually run the factories. But people won't accept that anymore. We're starting to provide good affordable alternatives, and to win the right to know where clothing is made and under what condition."

In Saipan, for instance, one of the countries where Gap — the whipping boy of many anti-sweatshop protesters — is believed to manufacture (it does not reveal this information), the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited over 1,000 violations of minimum standards of working conditions, such as fire hazards and a lack of clean drinking water. Workers in such places are often forced to sign so-called "shadow-contracts" that waive basic rights, and to work, out of sheer necessity, for less than even local minimum wages. If you had been there and seen that, you might not have bought the T-shirt. But where Charney breaks new ground is that he has also made sure his "sweatshop-free" T-shirts, vests, sweats, polo shirts and tops are, like, cool. They are made in LA by workers who earn up to $20 an hour and are employed by the company. Contrary to the T-shirt industry norm of subcontracting to an anonymous offshore production company, everything but the dyeing is done within American Apparel — and workers show long-term loyalty to the company, with its free further-education classes and health-care benefits. But the T-shirts are also youthful, sharp, slim, fitted around the arm, in soft, tubular-knit, combed, ring-spun cotton, and are very Marlon Brando-like, in a way that makes you feel food about yourself in every way. These are connoisseurs' T-shirts: men can find a T-shirt that fits across the shoulders without ballooning around the torso, women can buy a tiny T in Charney's own "baby rib" style without having to go to the boys' department. They consider conscience where competitors have yet to, but also offer fashionability. Charney has realised what others before him have not: that, unless we like what we see, our readiness to spend the "guilt dollar" pales not long after we look in the mirror.

"I think the fact that our Ts are 'sweatshop-free' is really a minor component in why people buy them," says Charney. "People buy them because they're better than what's available: a better fit and flattering to the body without being androgynous. They may consider the ethical element, but it's still the overall value they really buy. And the fact is that you give better value by using the best manufacturing systems, by being vertically integrated and efficient, not by relying on social inequality, which is unacceptable, but also inefficient. Our T-shirts are proof that capitalism can bring high wages to the masses."

The T-shirt, of course, has long been a political tool. There is a pleasing irony in the notion that the T-shirt is the summertime essential that began life as part of a military uniform but which has so often been co-opted as a banner of political dissent. The plain T-shirt, a wardrobe staple for half a century, became an official part of the US Marine Corp uniform soon after North Carolina's John Wesley Hanes began making them in 1901. But 40 years later, some spark in marketing realised that all that blank space made every wearer a potential walking billboard. The Wizard of oz provided the first promotional T-shirt, and 25 years on, Vietnam "Hell no, we won't go," read many a scribbled chest — galvanized this new thing called youth culture and gave the T-shirt its role as a canvas for activism, advertising, "subvertising" and politics of all persuasions.

Yet it was perhaps the designer Katherine Bamnett who, in 1983, bodly made the T-shirt a 100 per cent cotton political weapon: the idea of her "Choose Life" statement T-shirts may have been borrowed by the likes of Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Frankie Say Relax" a political statement in its own way), but when Hamnett met Prime Minister Thatcher with her bust proclaiming that "58% Don't Want Perishing" her point was clear. The more minimalist Nineties were a quiet decade for the shouty T-shirt, but more recently Dolce & Gabbana sent models down the catwalk in T-shirts bearing the message "pace" (peace in Italian), a comment on the conflict in Iraq, while the BBC dissuaded George Michael from wearing a "No War, Blair Out" T-shirt on Top of the Pops.

But so far, so surface: the T-shirt as medium for a message. For the likes of Charney, the medium has become the message. He describes his approach as "next generation capitalism", and the fact that each T-shirt is labeled "sweatshop-free" is as much marketing savvy as it is a proud boast. He may be in business to make money, but he does believe that there is a generation of baby boomers' children who are now actively seeking products driven more broadly by content than by mere gloss. He plans next to take his manufacturing ethos to China, a country with extensive labour-abuse problems. By opening American Apparel-owned factories there run under the same lines as the one in LA, he hopes his company might prove a catalyst for the adoption of a new kind of business model.

He is also set to play the ecological card; American Apparel already recycles over half a million pounds of fabric scraps and a programme is in place that, over the next four years, will see the company convert over 80 per cent of its cotton consumption to sustainable cotton (it will be at the 20 per cent stage by next year).

Encouragingly, Charney is not alone in the business of making ethical but good-looking casualwear. SweatX, another new manufacturer of tops, shorts, fleeces and T-shirts (available via the internet), makes its clothes from an employee owned garment factory, also in LA. The company, which launched last year and expects to be profitable next year, is the result of considerations made by the Hot Fudge Social Venture Fund, a non-profit group of socially-aware US business people headed by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream fame. The group concluded that without a new approach, as Charney has similarly taken, it would be impossible to overcome the economic imperative that forces companies to chase the cheapest labour, wherever it may be. One of its studies also found that 75 per cent of consumers would be happy to pay more for clothing that would guarantee its makers were decently paid — something culprit manufacturers tend to deny. "It's all early days. This is the slow march of social evolution," says Chris Mackin, SweatX's CEO. "But T-shirts have become the focal point of the fair trade movement. And for those in the message side of the garment game, the T-shirt is the billboard of that movement. That's part of what we're saying; you don't have to sacrifice quality and style for righteousness." By using hi-tech machinery that allows innovative colours, embroidery and appliqué the kind detail the fashion shopper doesn't want to do without — SweatX is now meeting the demand for ethical fashion clothing. Historically, there have been few choices for the shopper with a conscience, who also lacks accurate information about company practices. SweatX which operates under its "Clothing with a Conscience" trademark — believes that it is the fashion shopper; that's you, who will prove to be the means of driving industry progress. Suddenly, the choice of just a simple T-shirt can be a vote for change.