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Is There Substance Behind Clothing Factory Owner's Brash Style?

American Apparel chief says he offers workers wages and dignity rarely seen in the business.

January 12, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles, where garment factory owners seem most likely to make the news when they are raided by the government, Dov Charney wants to be famous, not infamous.

The 33-year-old owner of one of the city's largest garment factories has built a reputation as a fighter for workers' dignity. Media profiles praise him for lavishing generous pay and benefits on his employees and preserving jobs that might otherwise be lost to foreign sweatshops.

Charney takes out full-page newspaper ads accusing his competitors of exploitation, hires buses to drive his workers to immigrant rights rallies, and invites labor organizers into his factory.

In fact, Charney started offering health insurance to his 1,000 employees only two months ago, and he does not provide paid sick days, paid vacation or retirement benefits. But because he pays an average of about $10 an hour -- much more than the state's $6.75-an-hour minimum wage -- and helps employees take advantage of public benefits programs, he has successfully sold himself as a champion of better working conditions in a county with 90,000 apparel workers.

"In a situation where everybody's scrambling for bits and pieces at the bottom, a guy who is halfway decent stands out as a saint," said Richard Appelbaum, a UC Santa Barbara sociologist who co-wrote a book on the Los Angeles garment industry of the 1990s.

A PBS television documentary last year featured Charney leading a tour of his downtown factory -- American Apparel -- comparing himself to Christopher Columbus because his is "the first company in the state committed to removing exploitation" from garment making. And Time magazine suggested that the U.S. garment industry "could use more companies like Charney's."

Apparel employment is up about 25% in Los Angeles County since 1980, despite job losses in recent years. Sewing has become the largest sector of the county's manufacturing economy, surpassing much higher-paying industries such as aerospace.

But only about a third of Los Angeles garment factories comply with federal and state labor laws, such as minimum-wage standards and overtime pay and record-keeping requirements, according to U.S. Labor Department studies.

Into this economy came Charney. Born in Montreal to a Harvard-trained architect and a painter and art professor, he has always relished playing the rebel. At age 11, he published a neighborhood newspaper that ran another child's firsthand account of being molested.

As a student at Choate Rosemary Hall, the same Connecticut boarding school attended by President Kennedy, Charney went into business.

He stocked up on blank T-shirts at Kmart (cheaper and better than Canadian shirts, he said) and hauled them back to Montreal on weekend train trips. There, a friend silk-screened designs on them for sale on the streets.

At Tufts University near Boston, Charney was selling T-shirts wholesale out of his dorm room. In his junior year, he dropped out to sell shirts full time in South Carolina. He set up shop in Los Angeles in 1997, consolidating his operations.

Along with T-shirts, American Apparel sells a few styles of bras, panties, knit tops, shorts and pants. Charney said the firm is profitable; it had $22 million in sales last year. This year, he said, he has nearly doubled his work force, 700 of whom operate sewing machines.

Charney said he is able to pay a relatively high wage for several reasons. His shirts are a premium product, sold at about twice the price of other T-shirts. Unlike most garment companies, American Apparel designs, markets and sews its products in-house.

By cutting out contractors and middlemen, Charney said, he saves money he can pass on to workers, and he can better control working conditions.

Charney himself photographs his garments on models he sometimes recruits on the street or at strip clubs, and writes copy for the company's ads and catalogs. Although he estimates that he spends about 50 hours a week at the factory, Charney said he is always either working or thinking about work. After all, he explained, "T-shirts are everywhere."

He says he lives a modest life in a two-bedroom house in Echo Park, and he comes to work dressed in his own T-shirts. "I believe in functionality," he said.

Two years ago, Charney and his business partner -- Sam Lim, an established L.A. garment contractor -- moved their operation to a 165,000-square-foot plant in a former Southern Pacific rail depot at 7th and Alameda streets.

There, workers paid by how much they produce -- with a $7-an-hour minimum -- focus intently at their sewing machines, sitting in chairs that look as if they were salvaged from restaurants and offices. Some wear a strip of fabric across their noses to keep from inhaling the airborne particles generated by the cutting and sewing.

The machines are noisy, but no one wears earplugs. Fans stir a breeze in the afternoon heat. (A promotional video on the company Web site touts "heating and ventilation" as some of American Apparel's sweatshop-free attributes.)

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