Socially Responsible Clothing in Soft-Core Porn? | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Socially Responsible Clothing in Soft-Core Porn? 

Local Matters

BURLINGTON - American Apparel's marketing tactics include amateur snapshots of barely legal girls in bras and panties, splayed out on couches and kneeling on all fours. A company model is also a popular porn star voted best "orgasmic analist" by Adult Video News two years running. And company founder and CEO Dov Charney is a self-proclaimed "hustler" who admits he's had sex with his employees in the workplace and once masturbated for a reporter during an interview - a consensual act, he claims.

Welcome to Burlington's newest "socially responsible" retailer, which opens August 12 at 145 Cherry Street, formerly the site of The B Side.

"The funny thing about our marketing is that people think it's this super-planned-out thing," says Alexandra Spunt of American Apparel's brand-management team. "In truth, it's very fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants. And, it's very un-corporate."

But before anti-pornography groups begin circulating petitions and organizing demonstrations outside the new store, they might consider how the company treats its employees. The average garment worker at American Apparel's downtown Los Angeles facility earns more than $13 per hour, Spunt notes; an experienced sewer can make $18 per hour - among the highest wages in the U.S. garment industry.

The company also subsidizes bus passes for its employees. When L.A.'s bus drivers went on strike, American Apparel launched a bicycle-lending program for its staff, complete with free helmets, locks and monthly bike maintenance.

American Apparel offers free English lessons to its workers, many of whom are Latino. Employees pay just $8 per week for health insurance and can add a child to their plan for as little as $1 more. American Apparel's operations are all housed under one roof - a 800,000-square-foot facility that, the company's website boasts, is the largest and most modern garment factory in the United States. It's naturally lit and climate-controlled, and employs five certified massage therapists who work on employees free of charge.

In fact, this privately held manufacturer markets its line of no-logo clothing - T-shirts, sweats, bathing suits, lingerie and other casual wear - as "sweatshop-free" and 100 percent made in the U.S.A. By most measures, the sales pitch is working. According to Spunt, American Apparel has doubled its revenues every year for the last four; this year, the company expects to earn $240 million. American Apparel opened it first retail outlet in 2003; the Burlington store is the company's 55th worldwide.

Recently, American Apparel suffered some bad press when the 36-year-old Charney, a Montreal native, was hit with two sexual harassment suits filed by three former employees. The women all claim they endured sexual misconduct in a hostile work environment.

Charney himself was unavailable to comment on the lawsuits, and Spunt can't discuss their specifics, either. She does say, however, that the charges are "completely false" and "everybody here takes [them] with a grain of salt because we know the accusers."

Spunt acknowledges that her workplace can be sexually charged at times, but says that people know that going in. "This is who we are, and raw sexuality is a part of it," Spunt says. "We're not using girls with fake boobs to sell a car. We're using real girls who are part of our demographic, maybe a 22-year-old who's been [photographed] by her friends. If she has a pimple, you see the pimple."

But not everyone is buying American Apparel's socially responsible label. For example, union activists with UNITE HERE, which represents apparel and textile workers throughout North America, complain that in September 2003, the company used illegal union-busting tactics to stop workers from organizing. AA employees filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, which was later settled. American Apparel is still union-free.

Others aren't thrilled with the harassment allegations or the over-the-top sexual marketing. For example, the Burlington Peace and Justice Store, which purchased T-shirts from American Apparel two years ago, has indicated that, next time, it will buy its shirts from another source.

Others complain that the anti-sweatshop movement has been slow to create standards for the "sweatshop-free" label. Adam Nieman, CEO of Bienestar International, which manufactures "No Sweat" clothing - a direct competitor of American Apparel - says competition is a good thing in the niche market of socially responsible clothing. However, he doesn't believe American Apparel lives up to its reputation. "Honestly," says Nieman, "Dov [Charney] has always been more interested in ladies' underwear than in social justice."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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