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Made in America
Ryan Roddy
Photography by Chris Macdonald
Spring 2004

The bulk of media attention surrounding American Apparel, now the largest garment manufacturer in the United States, centers around its enigmatic owner, Dov Charney. Descriptions of Charney run the gamut from "bi-polar" to "fatherly", depending on what you read. Or watch. A recent Fashion Television segment has a bewildered Jeanne Beker chasing the thirty-four-year-old garment guru around his factory as he screams hysterically. His workers barely notice. Charney's eccentricities are quietly accepted like Meg White's bare feet: a byproduct of celebrity.

"My company is more efficient than a Chinese prison" and "I'm an educated hustler" are the sort of brow-raising comments characteristic of Charney. But even more provocative, and perhaps contradictory to Charney's shocking declarations, is AA's business model. And recent meteoric success.

AA is resuscitating the made-in-America philosophy in the garment industry: all of the company's operations from design to production to distribution are done in-house. The company is profitable, and revenue has doubled in the last three years from $20 million in 2001 to an estimated $75 million in 2003 But in addition to the commercial success, AA has adopted an exceptional ethical standard for manufacturing: all garments are produced in a non-sweatshop environment in their downtown Los Angeles factory. Charney provides a clean work environment, good ventilation, healthcare, free massages, ESL classes, and exercise programs, among other perks. And then there's the salary. Sewers are paid on average $12 to $12.5O an hour.

"I don't think the work ethics are what's ground breaking about American Apparel," says Charney over the phone from his home in LA. "I think the design is groundbreaking. The communication art and product design, company design, distribution design. It all tweaks perfectly for the customer."

Indeed, the customer is front and centre on Charney's vertically integrated model which now encompasses direct sales to consumers. AA has retail stores in Los Angeles, two in New York City and has just opened its first Canadian store in Charney's home town of Montreal. The philosophy is elementary; market the simplicity of blank T-shirts.

"We're trying to make the science of communicating to the customer efficient. If they buy a product in January and like it, they can come back at the end of the year and get it again," explains Charney, adding, "It's a new way of speaking."

While it's typically been Charney's way of speaking that tends to rile people, his belief that "cheap labour is a false crutch" is proving to have merit. What he believes it comes down to is that people buy T-shirts for one reason: good design. Which is what he attributes to AA's success. And considering AA was producing overseas up until 1999, he just might be right.

Charney takes great pride in the authenticity of not only his garments, but the processes involved in making them — And marketing them, too. Perhaps that's why he used strippers to model the tees in his first ad campaign.

"Everyone wears T-shirts. The prostitutes do too. That's the point. American Apparel's real. We don't use agencies. Not that we won't shoot a model, because models are real too. We want to be open to everybody," explains Charney.

But can you ever have enough T-shirts? "I think the average person in the industrialized world has 25 T-shirts," speculates Charney. "But the thing is, it's not about how many T-shirts you have, but how many are your favourites. How many times have you fished a T-shirt out of the dirty fucking laundry, when there were clean ones available? Those are the kind of T-shirts I want to make."