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What the Hell Is Compania Rebelde?While You Were Sleeping
Thomas J. Stanton
It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday, and one of Dov Charney's dogs is pissed off. Charney is the precocious senior partner of the sweatshop-free American Apparel Clothing Company (you're probably wearing one of their sleeveless hoodies and a pair of their retro running shorts right now). Charney and I are sitting on his front porch in Los Angeles, while his tetchy Chihuahua is growling at his two other dogs for some morning privacy. "It's a little crazy with three dogs," he tells me. But the constant caterwaul, whether it be in business or the privacy of his home, is undeniably Charney's style, and he appears more than comfortable in the craziness.
Charney's company, American Apparel, is self-purportedly the "most passionate and innovative wholesale blank T-shirt manufacturer in the world," and their goal is to "seek profits through innovation and not exploitation."
Despite the early hour, Charney was ready to talk...A LOT: from sex appeal to modern global economics to the often conversationally neglected, crumbling Eisenhower ideology. To be honest, Charney talked so much that I really only got a few questions in edgewise. In lieu of the revolutionary atmosphere, I decided to invent a revolutionary, literary technique; letting Charney talk, and then inserting my questions/comments after the fact (not in a salacious way, of course). If you ask me, between Charney's revolutionary clothing company and my revolutionary, editorial time machine, there was a lot of revolutionin' going on that morning. You may see a hodge-podge of entertaining, yet loosely connected dialogue, but I see music...sweet, sweet music.
DC - American Apparel is an Industrial revolution.
TS - So you're staging something like the revolutions of Great Britain in the 19th Century? They had major revolutions in agriculture, communications, technology and the manufacturing of textiles, the latter probably being most applicable to a company like American Apparel. All these things really changed the face of England at the time, and subsequently the world, you know. A really good friend of mine calls the English "limeys" all the time, and a lot of people think she's really funny, but I've always just found that type of nationalistic humor a little flat-footed and out of date.
DC - Basically we are taking on the establishment at various levels. We're taking on the Left and we're taking on the Right. A lot of politics are defined by [baby] boomer ideologies that have been advanced mostly by the boomers and the Eisenhower generation. So I'm coming to you and saying that many parts of boomer ideology are becoming totally antiquated now. In some ways they're sort of like the old feminist guard. For example, there are certain photographs that a young person might see as art, or essential or sexual, and those same pictures, to an old guard feminist, might seem offensive. An MBA guy that works within the establishment might see the only answer in the apparel industry as off shore production, because that's the boomer ideology. That's what's happening right now, low wage jobs go off shore. I'm generalizing all this, I know, but I really think that American Apparel is challenging the Right and the Left on a lot of terms. Boomers basically think that businesses should fight, and that greed is good. Greed is good, you know, Gordon Gecko stuff.
TS - Yeah, Wall Street, a very effecting movie. You know that Michael Douglas' character was aptly named Gecko because of what some people might call a reptilian aptitude to attack commercial targets and swallow them whole. So I take it you're against that stuff then.
DC - But then the Left says workers have to unite to fight corporate greed. And then you have the feminists in there that say everything is offensive. We're in very suffocating times right now.
TS - So where does American Apparel stand in all this?
DC - American Apparel wants to maintain its independence, no political ties. My workers understand it, and they're with me. We have a slogan at the company, "American Apparel es la compania rebelde."
TS - My Spanish is a little rusty, but I think you just asked me what color my eyes are, and I really don't see how my eye color is relevant here.
DC - It means we're a rebel company. We're a lone star in the business. What we're doing is a reflection, in many of ways, of the way things are going to be in the future. The challenge to develop business models that rely on human ingenuity...
TS - Rather than crummy, disproportionate labor pay?
DC - Yeah. The challenge to develop an effective business model using human ingenuity is far greater. I mean, try to do something like the all-inclusive resorts they have in Mexico, in the United States. It's possible, but you better get a fucking good business design, because you need to pay the workers a fair wage. Basically I'm coming to you and saying that there soon will come a time that any worker will have the freedom to go anywhere. Freedom of movement is very important for workers, and all world citizens don't have that right now. So when we achieve freedom of mobility for everybody, you can't have somebody making twenty-five cents an hour, and another person making twenty-five dollars an hour.
TS - You know, income disparity has increased pretty sharply in countries like Pakistan and South Africa. Don't you realize the number of people earning less than two dollars a day, in the world today, is around three billion? Hey, that had sort of a rhyme in there. You know that you're supposed to make a wish when something like that happens? Do you want to make it or should I?
DC - And so there will be some disparities here and there, because of different costs in different areas, but things will generally equal out. The whole border system will deteriorate, if not in twenty years, in a hundred. It's about balancing the needs of the workers with the needs of the consumer, and I find that really exciting.
TS - I'd hate for you to experience some of the things that I find exciting. Your frontal lobe would melt.
DC - Outsourceing everything has been a huge thing in business since the Regan Era. It's what they tell you when you're getting your MBA, "Outsource Everything!"
TS - By "outsource," I take it you mean having your respective business actually purchase a product or service from an outside supplier, rather than producing it in house. Kind of like cruising Amsterdam's Red Light when your wife's, like... you know. I gotcha', man. I'm with you.
DC - See, at American Apparel we make things from the ground up. We literally buy raw yarn and start from there. In the future, we might start spinning our own yarn even, or get our own farm and go even more grassroots. Many companies just buy T-shirts and sell them.
TS - Tell me about the sex appeal aspect of American Apparel. Does it make you feel sexy to work there? You haven't taken your hand off that Chihuahua for an hour. And that "stroke" thing, you've got it down. Firm, but steady and smooth right to the tail. Look at the little bugger! I think he's gonna go cross-eyed.
DC - Well, young people are on the cusp of a sexual/political/industrial/social/ philosophical revolution. This is not the first time it's happened. It happened in the late 50's or early 60's as well. The beatniks had a really good idea of what the next thing would be to go down. Then it was brought to the masses of the boomers, or the hippies, who basically just followed the intellectual impetus of the beatniks, which were sort of like a pariah group of the Elsenhower generation. They completely transformed music through radio play, and dress codes, things of that nature. The same type of thing is going down right now with Generation X. There are some people within Generation X that will play the role of the beatniks, and then Generation Y will be the hippies. But Generation Y isn't quite old enough yet, because the hippies didn't really score until most of them were a little older. During the time of the beatniks, it was a pretty restricted movement, though, in the sense that you had hippies in France and hippies in the United States, but the communication across those lines was limited to things like magazines and television. Now we have the internet, and movements can be much more international. You have ten times the population. You've got cool young women in Bangkok that have cell phones, you've got girls in Singapore and in Africa that both you and I want to date, not just because of their sex appeal, but because they're really intuned. The movement is borderless because tools like the internet are borderless. There's going to be a huge shift and, guess what, young people are more sexual, and that's not my fucking fault! It's just a fact of biology. And so the products being put out by young people are going to reflect that heightened sexuality. Take cars for example. Cars were sexier in the 1970's. Cars are a lagging industry, by the way, because it's such an industrial market and there's a supply chain and things are designed six years in advance. So that means there's friggin' cars coming out right now, that aesthetically looked like Embassy Sweets, 1996. But back in the 70's there were these sexy cars: the Pinto, the Gremlin, Cadillacs were looking good, and everyone was screaming "Dodge Fever!" and you had this hot girl in a cowboy hat riding in a Dodge on the ads. Those kinds of things are over, but guess what, they're coming back, because car companies are now hiring people like me to produce cars.
TS - Oh, how about a 1970's Buick LaSabre! Chrysler made a pretty sweet car too. Or how about something like a Chevy Mailbu! Two door. Hardtop. Sweet!
DC - The 'cool factor' is critical in the art of creating clothing. We don't have the budget of the Gap or whatever, but we still try to make sure that our ads are a reflection of our lifestyle. That's what they are, lifestyle ads. And a lot of the feminists say that they're objectifying or whatever. But when you're at a party, and everyone is having a really good time, and a couple of the lovely ladies get into their underwear, it fucking makes for a really good party, you know. And this has been going on for a long time! Political correctness is nose-diving, it's really not popular. There's a negative reaction to the politically correct packaging, circa 1993. Nobody likes p.c. anymore. I've had friends that couldn't have sex with their girlfriends in certain ways, five or so years ago, but now those same girls, whether they're with the same guy or not, are into bondage and all kinds of crazy shit. And this all goes back to the boomers. The boomers screwed harder than anyone!
TS - By definition, my parents fall right into the baby boomer generation, so despite the fact that I'd like to give you an "amen" on that one, the visuals are just graphic enough that I have my reservations.
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