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Doin' It Right
In the world of T-shirts, American Apparel is creating a whole new workplace environment that's friendly, caring and productive at the same time.
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce's Chamber Voice
September 2003

Can passion, innovation and humanity make a difference in an industry that's often harsh and dogmatically defined by its rules and procedures?

Can you break the rules and win in the competitive world of apparel? Can you be a good guy and win?

Yes, indeed. Just ask Chamber member American Apparel, now a major player in the fashion world of T-shirts and a refreshing company that's becoming known for bringing business back home. And, proud of it.

In a time when manufacturers seek facilities and the cheapest labor around the globe, American Apparel has sunk deep roots in a Los Angeles-based facility that is more home than workplace to a thousand employees who are treated with dignity and respect.

American Apparel is rising fast in just about all the tings that matter: quality of product, service, sales and development of its workforce. When companies go to extremes to lower costs, American Apparel invests in its employees, providing competitive — if not higher wages than similar companies — plus generouse benefits that extend to a concern for employees' health and welfare.

We're not talking just standard benefits here. The company, for instance, provides onsite masseurs for sewers; onsite English classes and education that includes reading, math, conflict management, job skills and pre-management training; a bank of phones for employees' personal use; health and wellness sessions; and exercise programs that includes yoga and Pilates.

American Apparel is owned by founder and senior partner Dov Charney and senior partner Sam Lim. The personality and direction comes from Charney — the well from which unrestrained enthusiasm and creativity flows.

Charney is the high-energy and driving force behind the company. Marty Bailey is the senior vice president of operations. Together, they have crafted a company that is not just unusual in the garment trade but unusual in any business. Other companies may wonder why they go to such great lengths.

"It's not going the extra mile," Bailey says. "It's just the right thing to do. We treat people like people, not personnel. Dov Charney is a highly creative and charismatic leader with a vision."

Bailey is the most visible presence at the facility. A longtime executive at Fruit of the Loom, Co., he has brought management and production experience to American Apparel, as well as translating Charney's vision internally and externally.

Camaraderie exists here but not at the price of productivity. Bailey has created a sewing team concept that would make any efficiency expert happy. The team concept creates positive peer pressure to work together, where members of a team win together by working together.

The company is also extremely diverse. "Most of our employees are Latino but most every part of the world is represented," says Kristina Moreno, human resource/community liaison. "Each one is treated as an individual, each one has the opportunity to advance in the company."

Bailey and Moreno provide management training at all levels. "Cultural nuances are also considered," Moreno says. "We teach our sewing team leaders the concept of the one-minute manager — in Spanish."

The company also has one of the lowest incidents of workers' compensation injury cases in the region. "We have a safety committee, 90 percent of which is made up from our workers," says Moreno. "The idea is to empower team leaders and workers. We think that it's important for our employees to have a buy-in. We're teaching them leadership skills and responsibility for their departments. It's a peer group kind of situation, where workers become independent."

American Apparel, then, is making a splash in more ways that just product quality and design. It has defied conventional wisdom and by every measure is succeeding on its own terms, This year, the company will again double its revenues from $40 to $80 million. The growth is phenomenal and much of it will be reinvested in people. "This company is backed by some very good products and practices," Bailey says. "And as private owners, Dov and Sam believe in sharing the fruits of labor."