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Baby Soft Self-Interest
The fast growing American Apparel chain, now also in the Netherlands, positions itself as a new industrial revolution. "We are going to change the industry."
De Volkskrant
Helene Schilders
February 18, 2006

"What do I care about you being 83. You could even be 93! I want to hire you." Dov Charney is on the phone, turning on his chair and moving his arms erratically. So much energy that it seems he is about to explode. "We are going to change the industry! It's fucking crazy, man!"

The pace in which clothing-chain American Apparel expands is insane indeed. The large corporation that Charney and his business-partner established nine years ago, has opened a hundred stores since 2003. Last year's turn-over reached 250 million dollars. This year at least 50 new stores will be opened. The store in Amsterdam has just opened.

In a pink warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, the rattling of hundreds of sewing machine sounds. Latin-American immigrants, all legal according to the company, with dust-caps on their faces, are sewing together pieces of cloth. The hourly wages on the whiteboard: 8 dollar up to - depending on production - an average of 12, 50. Highly unusual in an industry where sewers earn a minimum wage of 5 to 7 dollar an hour, and sometimes not even that. According to a research undertaken by the government, two-thirds of the sewing plants in textile city LA do not follow the federal laws on income.

Although sweatshops usually are dirty places where breaks don't exist, large posters in the American Apparel lunchroom notify the workers on their right to enjoy English lessons, obtain cheap healthcare and an occasional massage.

It's not that founder Dov Charney (37) wants to save the world. "Once I handed out 20 dollar bills when I needed more T-shirts, I noticed that my personnel worked harder when I pay them more", smiles the Toronto born entrepreneur.

Charney, who calls himself a "Jewish hustler", made good use of the label sweatshop free. In a period where American students protested against the exploitation in sewing plants, he quickly established a name in the highly competitive textile industry. Fashionable and politically conscious youngsters buy Charney's baby-soft, bright coloured T-shirts without logo for a competitive price, on mass.

"In the first place it's because of the product", is Charney's opinion. "You have to consult people's self-interest, not their mercy."

The proof lies around the corner, he says: sweatshop free SweatX went broke although being financed with the millions of ice-giant Ben & Jerry's. Charney can pay his workers a decent wage because his company is "vertically integrated". This means that the whole production process, except the weaving of the cotton, is taken care of in the pink warehouse. Even after the deduction of the high wages, the company is about 30 to 50 dollar cent cheaper when we would have outsourced our production, says American Apparel Vice President Marty Bailey. "Outsourcing has many hidden costs", he explains: quality problems, delayed deliveries and bribes.

Charney is going against the grain of the outsourcing wave and proud of it. "American Apparel is an Industrial Revolution", is painted on the building in colossal letters. Experts say that the industry is not able to respond to the example set by American Apparel. "The big brands have to come with a new collection every ten weeks and are not able to reduce their cost by making the same product over and over again like American Apparel does", says Ilse Metchek, director of the Californian Fashion Association.

Professor Richard Appelbaum, who wrote the book Behind the Label, expects that within five years, American Apparel will move its production to China also. Ever since the industrialised countries have abandoned their quota system, which laid down how much textile they were allowed to import, the US and Europe moved their factories and their design departments to China. Within ten years, according to a calculation made by Appelbaum for the UN, half of all the clothing made in the world will be made in China.

Charney is planning to open factories in China and Mexico, but he wants to pay the American minimum wage and sell the clothes in the countries where they are produced. Charney with his hyper tight pants and long side-beards, sees his company as a part of an international movement of young urbanites, who combine the ideals of the 70's with modern business acumen. In his vision, boundaries do not exist ("You should be able to work and travel every where") neither do "old institutions" such as labour unions. An attempt from UNITE, the labour union for textile workers, to organise Charney's personnel were unsuccessful due to intimidation of the company. Charney says that his workers have no interest.

"I believe in a real left, not in the political correct leftness of the babyboomers. Noblesse oblige! They understand that the poor do not want to be part of a union, but rather have money and a sexy life." People are driven by their libido, says Charney, who himself is the living proof of his thesis. He once appeared naked in an advertisement for a Dutch magazine for homosexuals, called Butt. Also the advertisements in the US are controversial: sweaty pics from scantily dressed girls - often only their lower part of body.

"We are so used to a sanitary version of sex," says Alex Spunt, who is responsible for the campaigns. "Our pictures are more intimate, it makes people uncomfortable. It's the difference between something that you can and can't smell."

In the future, Charney would like to spread his philosophy though his own media. However, the entrepreneur could be his own stumbling block. Last year, three former employees went to court because Charney was said to create an "unbearable", "intimidating" sexual atmosphere.

They sketch a bizarre picture: Charney would walk around almost naked, gave away a vibrator and called women "sluts" and "whores". Two cases are settled. The case of Mary Nelson, who said she was asked to masturbate together with Charney, has still to come up for trial.

Charney denies the accusations. On the other hand, the fact that he masturbated eight times in front of a journalist from the magazine Jane, although with her consent, does give the impression that the entrepreneur has a pretty lose sexual norm.

American Apparel does not suffer from that, he says, sitting in his office were pretty girls are knocking on his door constantly. "I focus on people who are intelligent about their sexuality." America is becoming very strict. "But the right to live, freedom and to strive for happiness I don't give up for no one."

Read the Dutch version here