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Dov Charney
Sweatshop-free zone
Ex-Montrealer Dov Charney is the brains behind the 'fair labour' approach of American Apparel. The clothing line is made in California by workers earning almost twice the minimum wage
Montreal Gazette
Maxine Mendelssohn
August 3, 2004

Made in China. We've become accustomed to reading these words on our clothing labels, but how about Made in Downtown L.A. - Sweatshop Free?

That's the bold statement found on the labels of American Apparel clothing, which has been sweeping North America. It's made in the United States but the company was created by Dov Charney, a former Montrealer.

The multimillion-dollar clothing empire has blown onto the city's landscape in a big way, opening a chain of five stores in the last year. But Charney, 35, isn't only pitching fitted tees, he's going public with his commitment to what he calls "fair labour."

And the "we don't exploit over-seas labour" policy isn't only altruistic, it's proving to make good business sense because of widespread media attention and the fact that shoppers are attracted to clothing with a conscience. According to Cynthia Semon, communications director for American Apparel, sales have doubled every year for the past four years and the company is on target for revenues of $160 million this year.

Charney says his factory workers earn an average hourly wage of $12.50 U.S. That's more than the California state minimum, currently $6.75, and far better than the 21 cents workers in Indonesia take home, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.

And the 2,000 garment workers Charney employs in the U.S. enjoy benefits like access to subsidized private health care, computer classes, discounted bus passes and lunches, free English classes and free on-site massages.

Charney's goal is for both customers and employees to think positively about his company. "You don't get that feeling from a lot of businesses right now," he said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.

Raby Bachour, co-owner of popular downtown stores Influence U and Jeans Homogene, says American Apparel's very public and very hyped sweatshop-free strategy is a marketer's dream.

"It's brilliant," Bachour said. "It's creating new buzz. Look at all the attention he's getting."

"It's not a gimmick," Charney says of his anti-sweatshop strategy. "I try and see that everyone who comes in contact with me and my company has a positive experience. It's a spiritual thing; we don't do it because it's politically correct."

Charney's father, Morris, is the president of the Montreal-based Canadian division of American Apparel. (Morris Charney, an architect, designed all five local stores.) He credits his son's "good social liberal background" for his commitment to treating workers with respect. "He's genuinely concerned with their welfare, he's involved in their lives," Morris said.

Charney isn't only about sweatshop-free garb. His colourful cotton designs are a new take on the standard American tee. He turned the focus away from unisex, one-size-fits-all styles favoured by industry giants like Gildan and Hanes.

Instead, American Apparel promotes fitted cap-sleeved tees, sexy camisoles, and polo shirts in a rainbow of colours like apple green and teal and lavender. Prices range from $13 for a camisole to $45 for sweatshirt.

In the past, the company was devoted to wholesale and catalogue sales but this year they've set their sights on the retail world. There are five shops in Montreal, with prime locations like St. Denis St., St. Laurent Blvd. and Sherbrooke St. W. in Westmount. American Apparel operates 13 stores worldwide, with locations in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Berlin and London. Its expansion plans include another 12 stores in the U.S., Canada and Europe by the end of the year.

Maryam Southam is a 23-year-old student who works at one of the new American Apparel stores downtown. She's the perfect poster child for the company- a hipster with a chilled-out attitude, form-fitting tank top and frilly skirt.

"I'm learning how business operates in school. American Apparel does things differently, but look around," she said gesturing to the half-dozen shoppers in the store. "It really works."

Step into any of American Apparel's stores and what hits you are the floor-to-ceiling photo montages. Some are glossy posters showing people languidly posing in American Apparel duds, but others show a different side of the fashion industry: pictures of smiling seamstresses, brawny shippers and quality-control specialists mugging for the camera on the clean, airy production floor.

"This is our factory," said Rio Mirarchi, manager of the Les Cours Mont Royal store. "We don't have anything to hide."

Customer Jillian Galambos, 23, says she appreciates the company's openness but the sweatshop-free strategy isn't the only reason she shops at American Apparel.

"I just love the stretchy cotton skirts," she said, on her way to the fitting room in the Cours Mont Royal store. "It's an added bonus to know where and how the clothes are made, I don't care if it's a marketing tool, as long as it's for real."

Charney has come a long way from his start in the rag trade when he was illegally hawking T-shirts outside the old Montreal Forum after rock concerts, but he hasn't lost his street hustler's flair for unconventional business practices.

He has a reputation for wily, sometimes outlandish behaviour. By his own admission, he used to go backstage at local strip clubs and ask strippers to test out new fits.

Now, he goes to his pool of 2,000 workers to test-drive new styles and fabrics. He also likes to recruit people off the street to model his clothes for his catalogues and advertising campaigns instead of hiring fashion models.

"I like to cast people I see on the street because using a model filters out reality. Besides," Charney said, laughing, "I've dated models, they're no fun."