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American Apparel: Bad behavior, bad fashion

Dov Charney's marketing 'genius': perverse political correctness

Of the countless ways to feel old in your 40s, perhaps none is quite as perplexing as seeing a young person trendily decked out in 1980s-style garb and saying to yourself, "I can't believe that look is back in style. It was bad enough the first time around!"

I'm sorry to say I have this thought every time I'm served a soy latte by a barista wearing eyeglass frames nearly identical to the oversize tortoise-shell horn rims I wore in high school. Usually, I assume those frames were purchased at the retailer that has essentially become the McDonald's of millennial fashion: American Apparel.

Originally known for making basic T-shirts in multiple colors, American Apparel is responsible for bringing many of the worst trends of the 1970s and '80s (think sweatbands, high-waisted pants and leotards worn outside of ballet class) into the 21st century and foisting them on impressionable young people. Last week, its founder and (as of now, former) CEO, Dov Charney, was fired by his board of directors over what the board characterized as "an ongoing investigation" into, among other things, allegations of misuse of company funds and — wait for it — refusing to take sexual harassment training.

Not that a deep investigation was perhaps necessary. Surely even the most casual reader of Gawker or consumer of billboard advertising can cite the evidence that indicates the 45-year-old Charney is his own special brand of sleazy lothario.

Over the years, it's been oft-reported that Charney walked around his office in his underwear. As far back as 2004, a magazine reporter wrote that he masturbated in front of her.

The lawsuits started in 2005 and have kept on coming. A number of his employees, some of whom served as models for the company's notoriously graphic advertisements, have sued Charney for harassment. The cases were settled or dismissed, but in at least one, according to an American Apparel annual report, the government found "reasonable cause" to believe harassment was going on. In 2012, a male store manager accused Charney of attempting to strangle him while rubbing dirt in his face and threatening him with sexual and ethnic slurs. The charges were denied.

Last week, American Apparel's board of directors attempted to spin Charney's ousting as a moral decision, but it was quickly reported that what was more likely at stake was money. The company has suffered losses. Investors had become wary of doing business with the company, and according to a leaked copy of the termination letter, thanks to Charney's behavior, employment liability insurance costs had risen exponentially.

The board noted in the letter that Charney had cost American Apparel "significant and unwarranted expenses." In other words, the company that had for years defended him against harassment "shakedowns" finally appeared to be acknowledging problems, but only as the bottom line dwindled. The directors should be ashamed that they took as long as they did.

They're not the only guilty ones, though. Similarly ashamed, or at least mildly embarrassed, should be the consumers who bought into the company's mythos as a bulwark of progressive politics — for its Made in America, anti-sweatshop stance — and transgressive, and to some even transcendent, sexuality, if using transgender and other atypical models qualifies as transcendent.

For years, even as Charney's "eccentricities" became common knowledge, American Apparel asked its customers to overlook not only its CEO's misogyny but to actually celebrate the perverse political correctness of its brand. It asked them to view the near-naked, often pubescent-looking bodies in its starkly lighted, minimally Photoshopped ads not as a winking reference to pornography but as some kind of uber-hip expression of realness.

American Apparel put pubic hair on mannequins and sold it as feminist commentary. It constantly reminded the public that its factories did not exploit workers overseas but paid them fairly in downtown Los Angeles. All the while, it peppered Sunset Boulevard with billboards depicting models looking not unlike sex workers in the developing world.

And even though some people complained, others continued to shop there. American Apparel's profits may be waning, but it still operates 260 stores in 19 countries. Charney may be gone (he is fighting his ouster), but many pairs of high-waisted pants and eyeglasses like my 1980s tortoise-shell horn rims remain. Because apparently they weren't bad enough the first time around. Like their creator, they'll only go away when the money goes away too.

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