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The American Dream
From how much you pay your staff to the cut of the colourful tee, getting the basics right is something Dov Charney, boss of American Apparel, insists onFashion Inc
Can ethics be sexy? Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel thinks so. A little over three years ago, the Canadian entrepreneur and self-confessed "Jewish hustler" set up his fledgling clothing label from a base in downtown Los Angeles. Offering a fair-pay deal to his largely immigrant workforce and overseeing every aspect of the design and manufacturing, Charney has created one of the most covetable labels around and revolutionised the idea of "ethical fashion". "Right now, the world is becoming more aware", he says. "We're elevating the quality of humanity". Today, American Apparel is an empire to rival the major streetwear brands. Charney has over 140 stores worldwide selling AA's trademark selection of leisurewear in a dizzying palette of colours. He has also just signed a deal with private financiers to expand the company to the tune of £61 million. "Ask me what I'm gonna do with it," he says - "ask me." I oblige. "Well actually, I can't tell you right now. But wait and see. We're gonna go crazy!"
Born in Montreal (in the same neighbourhood as Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and outspoken critic corporate thing of fashion maverick. He is fond of a grand, provocative statements: "Socialists have a tendency to eat their own babies," he says, at one point in the interview. "I want to make products that appeal to a new generation," he adds. "As I travel about, I see a new international web emerging of artists, photographers and financiers. It seems like it doesn't really matter where you are from anymore. Where people are located geographically has become less than how they think." Eschewing traditional business models and ignoring the competition, Charney has forged his own unique path within the highly competitive fashion industry, rooting out a new type of customer. Whether it's their much praised Y-fronts ("a particular favourite of mine," says Charney) or a head-to-toe fluoro look (very nu-rave), the AA experience seems an almost anti-fashion statement. While many fledging brands establish their identity by emblazoning their logo across the range, Apparel wear is discreet to the point on anonymity. Fun, functional and emphatically straightforward, the label aims to reach beyond seasonal trends and dictated style. "There's a definite utility to what we do," he says. "We avoid the baroque where possible."
Although Charney claims to never read fashion magazines, undoubtedly one of the keys to American Apparel's ongoing success is it's simple, sexually charged advertising. Reminiscent of outtakes from homemade porn films and often featuring employees in various states of undress (an early on displayed Charney's own decidedly pert buttocks), the ads chime perfectly with the current fashion climate. After one much-publicised run-in with the press, Charney is now keen to play down the nods to "porn chic" but still, there's no denying that he has made the humble tee, jogging pants and sweatshirts seem rather more exciting - a major achievement for what is essentially cotton basics.
"People are willing to pay a higher price for the perfect T-shirt," says Charney. "The question isn't what does it cost? "but does it fit perfectly well?" Now extending the line to include such items as skinny jeans (in a rainbow range of colours, naturally), he is refreshingly honest about his product. "There is always room for improvement. I want to optimise our performance, to become an expert at what we do. We didn't build this thing for a fast buck." For someone who currently has £61 million riding on him, Charney seems surprisingly laid back. Having kick-started the current trend for ethical fashion, he remains unfazed by the likes of Levi's and Nike moving into similar territory. "I believe in spontaneous combustion, " he says, trying to explain why so many labels are thinking along similar lines at the moment. "I think it's only natural." Whether it's a global sportswear brand suddenly discovering its conscience or new entrants into the field, such as Ali ("Bono's wife") Hewson's label Edun, Charney argues that there's more than enough room for everyone. "No one wants to work for a company where it's known that the source is exploitative. There's always going to be some levels of injustice but if we know that there's absolute injustice then something needs to be done. Right now, there's so much opportunity. It could be good for everybody." To all the fashion haters, meanwhile, his message is clear. "Let's not be so negative. Get out of your chair and see what you can do."
Made in Downtown LA—Vertically Integrated Manufacturing