Working At American Apparel Is All It's Coked Up To Be

Illustration for article titled Working At American Apparel Is All It's Coked Up To Be

When last we chronicled our adventures working retail, a boring high school job at an Indiana Hollister store culminated in a stockroom orgy. So you can imagine what it's like working at American Apparel. Or maybe you can't! Anyway, because the chain has once again been in the news for, once again, objectifying young women and crap, I decided to finally come forth with my tale of how I, like so many other embittered twentysomethings, worked at American Apparel once. And lived to tell the tale.


I thought cocaine was kind of scandalous when I started working at American Apparel. And so I naturally found it kind of scandalous that a major coke dealer actually served as a kind of informal HR chief for many of the American Apparel stores in New York. He happened to be this guy I knew from a completely different set of circumstances in a completely different city, and he had gotten into the business at, like, 13, so unlike your coke dealer or your best cokehead friend's coke dealer this was a guy who actually knew, like, how to use weapons.

The dealer had what I thought at the time was an ingenious setup: he lived down the street from the American Apparel store in the Lower East Side and would find hipster cokehead girls jobs at the chain's various outlets and then, in turn, find clients among the other employees, which worked really well until everyone got so coked-out they had to blow it up their asses and a girl stole $14,000 from the till and everyone sort of left town after that.

Anyway, during those months I liked to think of American Apparel as just another front organization for this guy's cocaine business, even though that was almost the opposite of the truth. American Apparel owned the largest remaining clothing factory in the United States, and it had proven it could make a profitable business model selling clothes made by workers who were earning a living wage in the United States.

I had never had anything against globalization, but it's different in low-tech businesses like textiles and clothing. The garments are made so cheaply, and the possible profit is so vast if you can command a Polo Ralph Lauren/Abercrombie type markup, that the whole system just perpetuates appalling waste, corner-cutting, exploitation, setting up shop in dictatorships where dissent/unionizing is discouraged and the kids manning the sewing machines are herded out before the corporate responsibility department goes on its annual tours, all so a few really rich guys who aren't smart enough to compete in software or biotech or what have you, can get richer. American Apparel wasn't like that; you knew where your clothes were coming from and that the people sewing them were pretty stoked to be working there. They made an average of $13 an hour, $4 more than the starting salary for a retail worker. Wage-wise, the retail workers were at the bottom of the totem pole, the real sweatshop workers of the organization. But they seemed like they were the most excited to be there. For which I always credited coke.

You have probably heard all sorts of stories about how Dov Charney, the insane Canadian who founded American Apparel, masturbated in front of a reporter, berated girls for not finding him hot enough "pussy" with which to staff his stores, took certain female retail employees as glorified concubines whom he would house in special American Apparel apartments and whose shitty retail wages he would subsidize with special allowances. Also sometimes these retail employees would give him blow jobs, and also sometimes other employees would be invited to watch.


All these stories were true, but it was hard, after awhile, to find them scandalous, namely because everyone was so complicit in the whole thing, starting with one of the women who had sued him for sexual harassment. The recruiter that hired the woman — who sued him on the basis that he had fostered a sexually hostile environment — told me, somewhat embarrassed, that he had hired her because after the interview, she had stuck her finger in her vagina, put it in his mouth and promised if he got her the job, she'd become his "personal dirty whore." It was hard, given what I knew of her and the company, not to believe him; it certainly seemed like an appropriate tactic to get hired there. But it was gossip like that that turned most people who worked for the company off the gossip altogether. When you'd bring up the notion that Dov fucked his employees or photographed fifteen-year-old girls or really had actually masturbated on eight separate occasions in front of a reporter, or that he wanted to impregnate one of his concubines with an "American Apparel baby" or whatever, a lot of times people would just pretend not to believe it. Denial, as Larry Craig's wife and generations of citizens of brutal mind-controlling dictatorships have shown, is a very effective way to cope with shit. Add drugs to denial, and the job could sometimes even be fun.


The one thing that was neither fun nor repressible was Dov's voice. It was shrill and weird and babyish and he loved to hear himself talk almost as much as everyone else hated to hear him talk, because he would repeat himself over and over so incessantly that fucking Terry Schaivo herself could have risen from her bed to tell you the major tenet of Dov Charney management: "It is imperative that the people who wear our clothes are really attractive, vain hipsters, and any priority they exhibit that runs counter to looking really awesome should be a warning sign that maybe they should not work here."

To this end, he would defend himself against accusations that not putting sensors on the clothing was attracting shoplifters by defending the practice of shoplifting as a sort of pureness of intent: if someone was particularly good at it, that meant they prioritized "looking hot in a coveted item" over "possible legal ramifications" and thus deserved to be wearing American Apparel. (No really, he said this on a conference call.)


Conversely, if employees exhibited any interest in the notion that the company was "ethical" or "sweatshop-free" or whatever, Dov's nerd-radar went up. When I went to work for the company he was in the last stage of purging all the employees who had been attracted to the company for its social agenda; he referred to them as the "WTO" kids, who were "so '99," and instructed all his managers to keep a strict "10% rule," whereby the ugliest/most "WTO" 10% of all retail employees were constantly eased off the schedule. "He says it's something they do at IBM," my manager had told me, at which point I informed her that it was actually Intel, because my basic understanding of management philosophies and corporate cultures was about the only way I could feel detached enough from the rest of my co-workers not to feel totally fat/old/haggard/uncool all the time.

This shouldn't have been so hard; I worked at American Apparel specifically because I was trying to glean some insight into this basic theory I had. I don't remember its specifics anymore, but essentially it revolved around the idea that certain sectors of the American economy had lost so many of their old functions and necessary skills to outsourcing and automation that the workplace was basically reverting people wholesale back to high school, where all that mattered was how hot you were, whether you had such and such pair of cool shoes first, and whether you knew where to get illicit substances.


I'm pretty sure American Apparel proved my theory. At any rate, the shallow, coked-up electroclash-listening kids who replaced the sullen WTO kids were certainly more effective at showcasing American Apparel's leotards and lame leggings and neon thermal-lined hoodies to society, and they were a bargain at $9 an hour plus the value of the merchandise they would inevitably end up stealing. But it was still kind of depressing to think that a company that should serve as an inspiring beacon of possibility in our superficial high school economy had to couch all its good and promise in the mindless trappings of Generation Myspace.

It was even more depressing when the coke dealer got out of the business and left town. After that, coke never quite felt the same again; it could be psychosomatic or the result of important changes in the supply chain, but the sensation of blowing a line went from "exuberance!" to "Well, this is a relatively painless way to prolong this relatively pointless experience." There might be something symbolic in that, but you know, whatever.


Spaceman Bill Leah

My only foray into retail was at the Disney Store. Somehow I think my experiences there were vastly different.