In an hour-long podcast for VICE with Reihan Salam, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney railed against the apparel industry, arguing that the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh – the one that killed over 1,000 workers, not to be confused with one of the other sweatshop disasters – should be used as "an opportunity to have a serious dialogue" about the salary of these employees because "fast fashion is costly." This is partially because "you don't want a sexy piece of underwear or lingerie to be made in a slave-like setting." Dov, never change, except please please do.
In the interview — which is certainly lively — Charney advocated for the imposition of an international minimum wage, because "20 cents an hour is slavery." At times, he got testy with Salam (who is a noted conservative), snapping, "You're saying well, slavery's okay," after Salam argued that the quality of life has vastly improved in Bangladesh as the apparel industry has grown there. Salam quickly refuted the claim that he supported slavery, but Charney took the conversation to an emotional place, asking Salam, "How much money should the retailers pay for each life in Bangladesh? My answer is, whatever is going to get that country out of the poverty trap it's in."
"I think these retailers need their ass handed to them!" Charney said with a raised voice. "If they're going to make clothes and sell them to rich people in Toronto and London, they better get their act together, or they're engaging in death trap manufacturing," specifically calling out companies like H&M, which he says have "so much money they don't have to have their hands dirty," but are playing dirty nonetheless.
H&M doesn't stand alone, however. But Charney argued that the deaths in Bangladesh should be a wake-up call for the industry:
"I think the CEOs at the top 50 apparel companies should be coming together and having a talk about it. 1,100 people? I mean only 3000 people got hit in the World Trade Center and we talk about it every day in the United States...this is a September 11th, I think, for the apparel industry and for the working people..."
Charney has spent most of his life working in the apparel industry, and his passion seems genuine ("I was very sad for those people because I know what it is to work on a sewing machine...It's an embarrassment...they got screwed by the relentless pursuit of low cost in my industry") — but he was also as distracted as ever, unable to remember the name of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire ("My bubby was a garment worker"), a landmark moment for worker's rights in America.
Charney also spent some time continuing to argue that American Apparel is (basically) financially sound, expressing his desire that the company get more attention for their successes than they have (maybe because he keeps distracting from any good they've done with the many sexual harassment cases brought against him). Nevertheless, Charney has a plan for American Apparel's expansion, and its chances of ever getting respect in the industry:
"It's a little bit foggy and there's hair on the story, but if you carefully dissect my financial statements, I've landed the plane. Now I've got to scale it. I've gotta take it from 617 million to 1000 million dollars approximately...and at about 1 billion to 1.2 billion, the thing starts to really make sense."
Charney said that in order to become financially prosperous and receive the respect he'd like it to, each American Apparel store needs to start making 20 percent more per store ($1000 a store a day), the whole company needs to double its internet business and their margin needs to be raised four or five percent. Then:
"This company will be worth a multiple billion dollars and I'll be able to say, boom, we did it, without leveraging art, design, technology, marketing, what have you."
You know like their great ad campaigns.
Charney's honesty and understanding of reality has always been selective and this interview is no exception to that rule; he notes that American Apparel has recently automated distribution, "which so far has been a disaster the first four or five weeks in but it should get better," while also speaking frankly that his opinions on fair treatment and payment of workers are all tempered by his belief in the capitalist system. Ultimately, whatever his intentions, he seems set on being remembered more positively than he has been so far:
"When I hit 80 years old I want to say I was an avant-garde thinker; the boy didn't rely on slave wages to get it done. And maybe it wasn't as glamorous, I wasn't always there in the helicopter or I didn't have a private, private private jumbo jet or whatever but I got it done."
He also said he still feels 15 years old, asked young people watching the video to not "take anything I've said as truth" and compared himself to a dog:
"Some days I'm like you, I'm love it or leave it competitive, but on other days there's a little bit of compassion. I bark and then I hug and then I think and then I love....I'm like a dog. I'm a loving dog but I'm competitive."
At the end of the day, Charney is just worried about the little guy or gal:
"The most vulnerable have to be protected..someone has to speak for them and I think they deserve better than what they're getting."
Like his employees.