This summer, American Apparel’s debt had risen to $120.3 million. I wonder if that includes the $100 the company owes me for spending an hour after work sweeping and doing dishes in one of Dov Charney’s extra apartments this summer. Somehow, I doubt it.
Working at American Apparel requires an incredible suspension of belief. The belief that you have valuable job skills (you don’t), that you’re worth more than $9 an hour (you’re not), that you were hired for anything other than your looks (you weren’t). Employment begins when a “recruiter” (read: hot British model decked out in neon pink high-waisted pants) approaches you outside a Whole Foods and asks if you’d like to join the company.
Initially, working for the company didn’t seem too far from a normal summer job. After hearing about Dov’s creepy antics and experiencing firsthand their bizarre recruiting tactics, I was somewhat relieved to find my location filled with equally recession-fearful college students. The job entailed greeting customers, opening the dressing rooms, trying not to fall asleep standing. And, of course, dressing head to toe in lace and spandex.
Yet while ex-employees and the blogosphere perpetually target American Apparel’s dress code as some apex of the company’s irrationality, they are missing the larger issue within the company’s overall attitude. Dov Charney approaches everything — from dress codes to hiring to store expansions — with a childish mindset, irrationally demanding what he desires at any moment without considering the costs.
For one, each new employee is given a pile of free clothes — after which, I’ve seen a good 30 percent of the new hires never return for another shift. Moreover, the employees that do manage to stick around are marched through a bizarre series of activities and exercises that are honestly so amusing that they incur mild embarrassment, rather than abhorrence, for the company.
During a “branding meeting,” the company flies in various “recruiters” to give the employees rousing speeches on the importance of image in selling clothes. At one mandatory meeting I attended, two bra-less, lace-leotard-clad French models described the art of flirting with your customers, while we all tried not to stare at their prominently displayed nipples. At another employee meeting held on a Sunday night, we were giving two pages of “meeting minutes” and forced to sit through three hours of exceptionally profound advice, such as “put a trash bag in the trash can before throwing something out in the break room.” One part of the meeting entailed listening to Dov on speakerphone, personally calling in from California to thoughtfully remind us that any visible piercings would result in immediate dismissal. At around 1 a.m., the heels and pinafore-clad district manager got so frustrated by our lack of responsiveness that she irritably asked how many of us had worked in retail before.
I stared at the 15 glassy-eyed girls in front of me — not one of us raised our hands.
Here lies the problem (or, many problems) of American Apparel. The company is staffed with young employees with no experience who were hired for their looks. Which would be fine, if it were not also run by young managers and models with no intelligence who were hired for their looks. The company is overflowing with attractive French women, who are paid and flown around the world to give lengthy lectures on selling scrunchies, while the sales floor workers quit in droves after enduring one too many “branding meetings.”
In early August, Dov Charney flew to New York to assess the East Coast sales (or, as we later learned, to survey his nearly-ruined fleet of stores.) Running around the sales floor with his posse of spacey Am Ap drones, he manically rearranged our store, and then insisted it stay open until 3 a.m. that night. I’m pretty sure the next day half the employees changed their availability to exclude closing hours.
Housing his traveling group of mannequin-dressers in company-owned apartments, Dov had various cutlery, lamps and assorted bedding shipped to the store to furnish the residences. Two of my coworkers, while clocked in as sales associates, were taken off the sales floor to carry an air conditioner up to one of Dov’s apartments. The employees, whose combined weight must have been 200 pounds, later told me that the apartment was a six-floor walk up.
Which brings me to my own Am Ap apartment experience. After all the employees refused an offer to clean one of the apartments during our shift (aka for $9 an hour) Dov finally called and told my manager he would pay two of us $100 for the hour. (Approximately what we make in a week.) Jumping at the opportunity to pad our meager paychecks, my friend and I walked over to the apartment and quickly began cleaning. As I swept the floor, my friend washed the dishes and chanted “I have a college degree” to herself.
Three months and one paycheck later, I have yet to see our hard-earned dollars. Admittedly, after pestering my manager three times, I’ve largely given up on the money, leaving NYC and the company behind as I begin my last college year before true unemployment begins. Yet as I watched the company emerge in national headlines for bankruptcy, rather than for another sexual-harassment lawsuit, I doubt any ex-employee is very shocked. Dov Charney may make fantastic shiny leggings. Nevertheless, he runs his multinational company with the maturity of a 15-year-old who is bored by financial consequences, but knows that he likes see-through shirts.