"There's no evidence that physical appearances are the predominant hiring qualification," says American Apparel C.E.O. Dov Charney. "The emails that Gawker published don't reflect the hiring concept that we're pursuing. We're trying to hire people that are trustworthy."
Neither Dov Charney nor anyone else at American Apparel has responded to our attempts to get in touch about the company's photo-based hiring decisions, and the company higher-ups' apparent habit of critiquing (and mocking) their retail drones' appearances. Nor has anyone cared to explain to us why it is, exactly, that American Apparel manufactures so much of its clothing in sizes 0-6 only. But America's sexual-harassiest C.E.O. gave a long, somewhat rambling, self-justifying interview to Y.M. Ousley at Signature9, during which these subjects were broached. It is revelatory of the extent to which Charney appears to genuinely believe his company can do no wrong:
Photographing people head to toe is the right thing to do if you want to see how people present themselves to customers. It's not for a beauty pageant like Miss America where we're looking at someone's breast size. We want to see their style.
I suppose we should have known he's more of an ass man. Then, there's this exchange:
YMO: So if they're not "90's Vogue Chic"…
DC: That was a young worker's way of describing the style.
YMO: So it's not an official policy?
DC: Trying to describe a fashion sensibility — it's difficult to put into words. Our customer is getting older, they're getting more mature. Madonna started wearing safety pins than become an elegant lady. She goes from punk to haute class, and our customer is going through that. In the same way that Levi's followed the boomers, we're following their kids.
Actually, at American Apparel, it's spelled "Chique."
In Charney's view, his company is being victimized by a vicious online hate campaign that finds fault with him for doing what many retailers do: regulate their employees' appearance at work. But according to the company's own internal documents, American Apparel's rules go well beyond those of many competing brands.
"We need to clearly see everyone's hair, color, and length. It plays a big role in how they look," warns the company's 9-point list of instructions for how to take the mandatory photographs (close-up "AND a clear, well-lit head to toe shot") of prospective recruits. (Charney repeated his vague assertion that some of the e-mails and company documents leaked to Gawker were "doctored," but, notes Ousley, Charney "couldn't recall" any specific message that he says was altered.) There are sometimes extremely specific rules about makeup, jewelry, and uniform at most jobs — but where else do we find that higher-ups have to approve an employee's pictures once again before authorizing a raise or a promotion? (Okay, Prada.)
As one American Apparel employee put it, "Your looks determine your position and pay rate, not how effective you are at your job."
Despite all that, in Charney's mind, American Apparel is the party being discriminated against.
DC: I think this is an inauthentic false crusade. The fact that we're concerned about what our employees look like… You run American Apparel and they're wearing old clothes, or you see someone on the sales floor with their pants below their underwear or they look like they just rolled out of bed, and you're not supposed to have a problem with it?
So we use the Internet to do something that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago, and efficiently monitor the presentation of employees in our stores and it becomes a big issue. Efficiency is a part of this business, and Gawker's portrayal of American Apparel employees as some kind of an exploited class is ridiculous. By trying to regulate their appearance we've committed some atrocious act? That's preposterous.
YMO: I don't think anyone is un-supportive of the working conditions for people who are hired.
DC: We had 2500 workers who lost their jobs because the government couldn't get a solution to immigration reform in place. People are so focused on this narcissistic issue that we're taking these photos to evaluate these employees… it's all about tasteful presentation. The majority of people who receive paychecks from American Apparel are people of color — some who weren't even born in this country, of all different shapes and sizes who receive above standard wages and benefits.
Charney also downplayed the company's serious financial troubles. "While 7% is a big deal to stakeholders, if you sold $100 worth of shirts last year and you sell $93 worth of shirts this year...I wouldn't be in panic," he said, apparently unaware that his readers might include some people who know how to Google. "I'm not crying over that."
Sales at American Apparel are down far more than 7%, with sales at stores open more than 12 months — a key indicator of retail health, since an overall sales increase spurred by new store openings can be misleading, as it camouflages the huge start-up costs incurred by openings — showing sharp declines every month since February, 2009. For the year of 2009 overall, same-store sales fell 7%.
In 2010, things have not improved. Preliminary results for the first quarter show a 10% drop in same-store sales. Meanwhile, the company was forced to admit that it would default on its $80 million revolving credit if it didn't renegotiate with the lender, Lion Capital. Although for now Lion is reportedly working with American Apparel — the company is apparently worth more to Lion as a going concern than as a bankruptcy — the brand's financial situation is precarious. The stock price is hovering around $1.73 today, not far off its 52-week low of $1.14.
YMO: Finally, I wanted to ask about customers who wear large sizes. Jezebel noticed that not all of your merchandise is available past a size Medium. Are Large customers "off brand"?
DC: No. That's a misleading statement. We support people in a variety of shapes and sizes. Our men's line in particular has been geared towards smaller men, because when I'd go shopping I couldn't find anything for my body type. The Gap and many American retailers focus on the 175-pound male. We service the 145-pound male, but we have larger sizes too.
We sell probably 5 million garments — about 10% of our production in size XL or above. But we also have a very small store and [our production facilities] were invaded by Homeland Security. We've hired 1000 people in the last 6 weeks, but we haven't had the production capacity for a full range of sizes in all of our products.
YMO: Just out of curiosity, is there really such a big difference in fabric costs for a size L versus a size S?
DC: The cost of a larger size isn't just the cost of fabric, but the cost of it not selling. When I look at our inventory of unsold items, a lot of times it's the size L that's left over. There could be any number of reasons for that. Is it because we alienated them? Is it because the large didn't capture the market? Is it because that style isn't designed for someone 5'11" and 200lbs? Should we represent the style in a different setting?
Online we get crazy with big sizes, but we don't offer them in the store.
Actually, Charney, you don't offer a lot of larger sizes online, either. And why would making a skirt in a size 8 take some kind of special production expertise?
"This is a company that started with me selling t-shirts locally in Montreal, and I've been growing this thing and I'm exhausted," says Charney. "I'm getting punched in the face for the slightest mistake, but it's going to be fun and we're going to do the great things."
Dov Charney Answers Our Questions On Hiring, Gawker, And Why Larger Sizes Seem To Be Disappearing At American Apparel [Signature9]
We Talked To Dov Charney (He Thinks The Looks Discrimination Store Is Fake) [The Gloss]