A sense of sleaze has long surrounded Dov Charney, the American Apparel founder who was fired last night.
On top of several official sexual harassment lawsuits (which have been dismissed or settled), x-rated rumours have swirled around the 45-year-old. He is famous for buying employees vibrators as presents; for asking them to masturbate in front of him; for walking the factory floor in his underpants, or wearing a sock where the underpants might have been. In 2004, a female journalist claimed that he had oral sex with a female employee while being interviewed for Jane magazine.
Far from being embarrassed, Charney has seemed proud of his attitude to sex, and a sense of extreme libertarianism has been promoted by the brand. In 2008, in official court documents, lawyers defending Charney said: “American Apparel is a sexually charged workplace where employees of both genders deal with sexual conduct, speech and images as part of their jobs.” In that 2004 interview, Charney said: “I am a bit of a dirty guy, but people like that right now.” Could it be, in 2014, that people don’t like it any more?
Charney began his career importing T-shirts in his native Montreal and launched American Apparel in Los Angeles in 1997. By 2005, the company was declared one of the fastest-growing in the US. When it arrived in Britain, in 2004, opening its first store on Carnaby Street in London, American Apparel quickly flourished, becoming so ubiquitous among the fashion-aware that it was named the Guardian’s brand of the year in 2008. Charney was known to be an obsessive, hands-on leader of the company, dedicated to producing the clothing ethically, and though many former employees hated him, others would evangelically sing his praises.
American Apparel took off at the height of a 1980s fashion revival. Its most famous designs were reminiscent of the outfits worn by Kelly Le Brock in Weird Science: brightly coloured, sportswear basics and body-con pieces. T-shirts and hoodies were staples, as were leotards with plunging necklines and racy cutouts. One of the store’s first big hits in the UK, lurex leggings available in all the colours in the Smarties tube, became streetwear shorthand for the turn-of-the-decade East London hipster.
American Apparel has always been about a lifestyle, and aspects of that lifestyle currently feel far from fashionable. All that is left, now, are the tops and skirts and lurex-covered leggings, and a company left distancing itself from its founder as it tries to retain some of its sheen.