“I am a bit of a dirty guy,” American Apparel founder Dov Charney told Jane reporter Claudine Ko at an interview in a Manhattan hotel suite in 2004, “but people like that right now.”
Times have changed. On Wednesday, American Apparel’s board of directors voted to suspend Charney from his roles as president and CEO of the company, with the intent to terminate him “for cause” within 30 days. Board member Allan Mayer, appointed as co-chairman in Charney’s place, told the Los Angeles Times that the decision “grew out of an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct” that began earlier this year after “new information came to light” about his questionable management techniques.
When Charney moved his fledgling clothing company to Los Angeles in 1997 and began churning out blank T-shirts to the wholesale market, his was one of the few American companies producing totally sweatshop-free clothing made in America. But soon after American Apparel hit the retail market—announcing itself to the world with provocative ads and billboards, and promoting Charney’s face (often covered in ironic mutton chops and tinted ‘70s eyeglasses) and body (sometimes swathed exclusively in a pink pair of his own underwear) as the central figure of its alterna-sexual brand—concerns mounted about his treatment of employees, as sexual harassment allegations against Charney formed a steady drumbeat beneath the company’s fashion takeover.
In his 2004 interview with Ko, Charney reclined in a chair, told her that “oral sex” helps him relax, and had her watch as a female employee aided him in release. Later, Ko and Charney chatted about hiring practices as Charney loosened his belt, masturbated, and checked his email. “Masturbation in front of women is underrated,” Charney told her later. “It’s much easier on the woman. She gets to watch, it’s a sensual experience that doesn’t involve a man violating a woman, yet once the man has his release, it’s over and you can talk to the guy.” As his assistant put it: “I think it’s really healthy to have an orgasm four times a day. It’s got to be great for business.” Even when lawsuits hit accusing Charney of demanding sex from employees, making lewd comments, and walking around in his underwear—the company had dealt with at least four of them by 2011, when four more employees filed suit—the company stood by him. Charney said the lawsuits are a “testimony to my success.”
Indeed, the details leaked from the suits painted a complicated picture of American Apparel’s bizarre psychosexual dynamics. In 2011, the company told the New York Times that all harassment claims against Charney had been dismissed or settled (perhaps because, as the Times reported, employees were forced to sign arbitration and confidentiality agreements as a condition of working there). One suit was thrown out of court after emails and texts surfaced showing that the aggrieved employee had repeatedly begged Charney for a job, asked him to buy her clothing in exchange for “delicious blowjobs,” sent him nude photos, and demanded that he wire her money. The company previously insisted that while its environment is sexual—American Apparel sells underwear—it is consensual. “I’m not like other girls,” one employee told Ko. “People were like, ‘Be careful, he’s a walking erection.’ I wanted to know what a ‘walking erection’ is.” In a Jane follow-up to her 2004 story, Ko wrote that she’s “pissed that people keep misconstruing my story and using it to feed a flawed cliche where men are evil and omnipotent while women are mute victims lacking free will. Who was really exploited? We both were—American Apparel got press, I got one hell of a story. And that’s it.”
Still, spinning sexual harassment claims into publicity has its limits. In 2008, American Apparel initially agreed to pay a former sales manager $1.3 million to drop a sexual harassment suit against Charney, under the conditions that the case would be decided in arbitration with a judge of Charney’s choosing, and could culminate in a press release announcing that the dismissal of the suit “puts an end to the sexual harassment claims against Charney and the company” and brings “clarity to the role of the First Amendment in the American workplace.” Details of the agreement surfaced in the Wall Street Journal when the manager and her attorney backed out of the deal. (A triumphant press release looks a little less exculpatory when you learn how the sausage got made.) And even if some women were eager to please Charney—in 2004, he said that he’d get a new sexy photo from a young woman looking for a job every 48 hours—the workplace environment put different pressures on male and female employees. Providing sexual favors to the CEO earned at least one woman a job and some nice things, if not a successful lawsuit. But what about all of the other women who didn’t want to have to fellate their bosses in order to get ahead?
Allan Mayer told the Los Angeles Times that the board is only acting now because it “can’t make decisions on the basis of rumors and stories in newspapers.” Whatever the board uncovered in its own investigation into its CEO’s behavior hasn’t yet hit the press, but it’s finally caught up to Charney. Back in 2004, Ko wondered whether Charney’s cadre of apparently willing, young female employees had been “seduced” by their boss’s charms, and his company’s promise of an egalitarian sexual utopia. “It’s a misconception to say it’s a cult,” Charney told her. “It’s about being free. It’s about telling the boss, ‘Fuck you.’ “