︎︎︎episode 27

2000’s Trends: The Hipster Empire - Vice magazine, American Apparel, Terry Richardson, Ironic Ironies

Feb 2nd, 2021

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“How did the hipster burn his mouth? He ate pizza before it was cool”

The origins of the aughts hipster movement originated in part from the 90’s alternative and indie subculture that rejected corporations and consumerism. They were the Empire Records kids that shopped thrift and listened to Pavement. in an ethnography called Neo-Bohemia : Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City of Wicker Park, Chicago in the nineties, the sociologist Richard Lloyd documented how what he called “neo-bohemia” unwittingly turned into something else: the seedbed for post-1999 hipsterism. Drawing from parallels to 1920s Paris and New York City’s Greenwich Village, Lloyd explores the numerous facets that coalesced into creating a new Bohemian enclave in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood during the 1990s - as a narrowed in look at the microcosms of other neighborhoods that were being cultivated in other places like Greenwich Village, SoHo, Capital Hill (Seattle) and Mississippi Ave (Portland) creating these emerging epicenters for new economies of culture and capitalism that were attractive to neo-bohemians - like coffee shop cullutre, music scenes, thrift and indie shopping destinations, etc which in turn caused trends that started to shape global cities. This created a subculture that would be the platform in which 2000s hipster counterculture took off as well as the reinventions of decaying districts by artists was built upon and mirrored in urban areas through the aughts.

Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City

In many cases this is how some of these key neighborhoods gained their relevance - the artists come in and gentrify and get priced out and displaced just like the original locals before them - only to pick up a new spot and the cycle continues. These neo-bohemians moved into more dilapidated and industrial areas because the artist lofts and rents were low  - then the 2000’s hit and the industrial aesthetic was considered “cool” and non-conformist - this was the case of Williamsburg where I lived in the early aughts until I moved to LA in 2016 -  and the hipsters after them embraced the dilapidated and gritty - Almost like cockroaches they can make anything habitable and not just habitable but desirable. Gentrification is obviously not something I condone by any means but it  was a huge part of the cycle.

Like most countercultures - Hipsters were heavily enmeshed with the music culture and scene - So from the 90’s music and art subcultures it is no surprise they were arguably birthed essentially from the Emo kids and evolved from there. White belts and floppy hair. There were quite a few stages and developments that happened during this period - Electro-clash in the earlier part of the century fostering 80’s and 90’s new wave disco -the mods- gritty NY rock and moto culture-  there was that blue collar working class authenticity I talked about lasts week and the Ye olde everything with handlebar moustaches and plaid shirts - just to name a very few. There were Trust funders, art school educated and middle to lower class kids. All in the same orbit.

The Culture to Counter

So why did it evolve? Well mainstream culture really was something to behold. We talked about the influence of celebrity style, Raunch Culture, Reality TV etc…. Hipsters couldn’t stomach the early aughts and were alienated by mainstream culture and their icons.  So, they created their own world with its own references. Hip, ironic, irreverent and kitschy oh and (most importantly) counter to all mainstream culture at the time. Micro economies flourished and then after some passing of time those non-conformist trends started to appeal to the masses - which i feel like sometimes gets forgotten - kale, coffee, urban farming, localism and niche everything - but at the time this sort of consumerism (shall I say pre-conscious consumerism) was very individual to these communities. It was a very proud and loud revolt against consumer habits and trends. Hipsters were the new urban bohemians who consumed and produced in alternative and often indie ways. Microcosms to cultivate trends in each local like adding a fixed gear shop or vintage store, artisan coffee shop and health food store -  that the neighborhood would then support themselves. The love of kitsch was a nod to nostalgia as well as curious look back into simpler times - subverting “low culture” that has been considered tacky or cheap or trashy - during a time period that in itself was tacky and cheap and trashy for other far more gross reasons like Raunch Culture and mass produced highly corporate garbagery and post industrial mass production conformity. Not that hipsters didn’t also embrace Raunch culture - which they did.

Hipsters are notorious consumers not producers. While previous subcultures developed consumerist habits for a rebellious end, what most distinguished hipster culture as pro-consumerist is that consumerism is the primary means of self-expression. Take for example Apple products - consuming Apple was originally a really hipster concept. Same with the time of music, coffee or green juice, etc. What you consumed often had a direct reflection during this time period of which tribe you belonged  to. There was a consumption or anti-consumption of DIY as well - teaching yourself how to play the banjo, thrifting and fixing clothing like Pretty in Pink, homemade art installations, etc. I remember there was this great DIY magazine called ReadyMade that i loved - all about the burgeoning DIY culture with a focus on interiors and fashion.

Hipsters didn't really generate new cultural forms, but instead retool old countercultural symbols and tropes. In the New York Times article “What Was the Hipster,” Mark Grief evaluates the hipster’s creative expression:

“One could say, exaggerating only slightly, that the hipster moment did not produce artists, but tattoo artists, who gained an entire generation’s arms, sternums, napes, ankles, and lower backs as their canvas. It did not produce photographers, but snapshot and party photographers: Last Night’s Party, Terry Richardson, the Cobra Snake. It did not produce painters, but graphic designers. It did not yield a great literature, but it made good use of fonts. And hipsterism did not make an avant-garde; it made communities of early adopters.”

They embraced being unique and nonconformist which led to a need to seek out obscure things, irreverent things or funnily ironic things. That in itself was sort of an art form - how to reinvent vintage clothing & furniture, low-class paraphernalia, ignored neighborhoods in disrepair, local economies, and slow food, indie makers and notably indie music or music unheard of for over a decade - anything that the mainstream hadn’t incorporated in the increasingly expanding marketing machine and had turned their backs on was ripe for the picking.

There is an article called Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization from an Adbusters article in the late aughts by Douglass Haddow who writes:

Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.

Walk by any Williamsburg or Portland street corner and you will hear  “you’ve probably never heard of it” or “I liked ______ before it was cool”. 

This does take me on a sidebar - the negativity around the hipster culture was really intense. I mean I read tons of think pieces from the time and it is like reading the same tone of Millenials killing everything. Amanda, do you  have thoughts on this hostility that you recall?

Beyond spending habits, the embracement of anti-corporatism followed into professional and employment status. Hipsters were artists:  visual and graphic who preferred to work in non corporate establishments. They were tech savvy and forward thinkers working in the digital, ecom  and new media industries that were all burgeoning. The service economy was getting huge and hipsters worked at local establishments like coffee shops, bars, record stores or as bike couriers - to not conform to society's general demands and commitments for corporate attire and the 9-5 grind. Surly there was a better way to live that aligned more with their philosophies. This helped to support the microcosm within each flourishing neighborhood even more. Hipsters liked to visit other hipster neighborhoods - there was a kinship and understanding that was cultivated. They were the early DIY entrepreneurs too.

They also demanded authenticity - after years of mass and corporate culture being forced down their throats - authentic everything was at its core. Sometimes it was seen as mainstream trends but make it “authentic” -  so trucker hats but not Von Dutch like the real vintage sourced ones. Or coffee - Starbucks was corporate so make it artisanal from independent coffee shops. Tattoos but authentic (or ironic for that matter) Which kinda got lost for this last decade - authenticity kinda moved into disruption and the glamour of branding - but now - Gen Z kids - disillusioned with the Millennial movements are demanding this authenticity and nostalgia and irreverence all over again - but likely in a much more PC way.

I think it is interesting to note that they embraced technology in a way unlike any other group. Every article mentions this as an identifier. Particularly Apple products.  In the Aughts hipsters were synonymous with being obsessed with Apple and technology - which is now just so mainstream you kinda forget where it started.

They made good use of new media and blogs - I remember reading Free Williamsburg the blog when I lived in Wisconsin and felt like I was missing out on something that made sense to me.

Out of hipsters we got a lot of Knits and tees, Skinny Jeans, Scarves (especially that Keffiyeh), Vintage Clothing, beards and highly groomed moustaches, plaid flannels, birds or owls on everything …..

Hip or Dangerous and Hip or Homeless was a “game” played during this time. I remember myself seeing people on the street and thinking their style was really cool until I realized they stopped and were digging through the garbage.

Economies of Irony

As I mentioned the origins come from the bohemian roots with an emphasis on non-conformity and authenticity,  eschewing anything mainstream or chain unless it is ironic. And I mentioned irony last week as a rather significant driver of trends - which was more amplified by the Hipster movement. But as the irony of Hipster culture becoming mainstream culture the irony i think was sort of lost!

The original hipsters were tastemakers - they were on the forefront of so many not extremely mainstream trends -  i mean this begs to ask are hipsters still around? I mean yes there are trendsetters and style forward people but a lot of the ideas that were considered counterculture are now mainstream. In essence the hipster culture is - for the most part - mainstream.

I would guess ultimately the internet and social media expansion effectively collapsed the hipster movement.

To the point that the hipster “taste” and sensibilities which were often supported and adopted by the graphic design circles and tastemakers who embraced the typeface trends - created the minimal and blanding aesthetic that is now so mainstream it is subverting into being not very cool. DTC brands really popularized this sort of aesthetic but it was hipsters that originally developed the first brands like Warby Parker back in 2010. Which makes the case for hipsters being the original disruptors and original thinkers in the new millenia - setting a mindset for the aughties to become a disruptor utopia.

In his 2015  book, The Flat White Economy, McWilliams sees the phenomenon of the hip young entrepreneur as a central element of the new world economy,

The term 'Flat White Economy' is named after the increasingly popular coffee drink, which has been adopted by hipsters all over the globe. How the digital economy is transforming London and other cities of the future'. McWilliams suggests that hipsters and their ecosystem represent the future of British prosperity. They tend to be greener and more ethical and work in the industries beginning to drive our economy, such as ecommerce and marketing. Where these creative, internet-driven businesses start to gather, independent retailers and restaurants spring up around them - particularly coffee shops. This forms a kind of symbiotic relationship, where independent businesses thrive and compete with one another, boosting the local economy. A good example of this is Old Street in East London, where cheaper rental spaces attracted internet-based start-ups, and subsequently more bars, coffee shops and restaurants. 'Millennial' spending habits also play a part. Because of the high cost of living, Millennials are less likely to save money. Instead they spend disposable income on experiences - such as brunch. This mixture of creatives in close proximity and more lifestyle spending results in a kind of Renaissance effect, where businesses, as well as consumers, encourage and influence each other to be excellent and innovative. This is usually good for the economy, and we're starting to see this effect take place in cities across the UK, like Cardiff. But it has its drawbacks… Flat White economies can contribute to problems such as gentrification. As middle-class workers move into cheaper areas, they may price-out locals as property value goes up

Hipsters to Hopsters

By the end of the aughts the word Hipster and the culture around it was ravaged and really devolved into something rather grotesque - an aesthetically lead self obsession with an alignment with party culture and gross misconduct lead to the word “hipster” becoming sort of a really offensive “slur”.  As the original hipster was watered down and associated with just lots of different subsects of people and partiers. There was a loathing towards the group - do you remember this time when hipsters were kinda like a hated subsect of lower humans?

"the millennial hipster," which "came to be represented as an uber consumer of trends and as a new, and rather gullible, target market that consumes cool rather than creating it."

Mockery is the greatest form of flattery I mean Portlandia took the urban hipster and made a whole show about it

The made fun of the culture going so far as to having a Hipster olympics in Berlin in 2012: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2012/jul/24/festivals-germany

The Last of the Countercultures

In this way, the hipster movement has universalized. People may continue to fight for environmentalism, urban farming, authenticity, and organic food, but it’s no longer connected to hipsters alone.

There is an amazing op ed in the New York Times that claims that Lesbians were the original hipsters: Krista burton argues:

Lesbians were working on communal organic farms and freaking out about pesticides decades before the rest of the country. Who do you think made food co-ops cool?

Lesbians did, my child.

We lesbians have been making our own pickles and brewing gross health teas forever.

Now quick — describe society’s idea of a “typical hipster” for me.

Did plaid flannel come to mind? Work boots? Weirdly cut or especially shaggy hair? Maybe a bike?

How odd. You just described the cartoon stereotype of a lesbian.

Now you straight people carry your own reusable bags back to your Prius after comparing artisanal brands of sriracha mayonnaise. That is super gay. You voted for Hillary Clinton, you freak out if someone throws plastic in your compost bin and you’re considering a week without eating meat — would it be so bad?

You’re all lesbians now, America.

The After Party

So what happened after the aughts Hipsters - Ummmm Millennials.  There are also some subjects that have been identified like the Yuccies were were “Young Urban Creatives” - Cutester - Health Goth - Lubersexuals - Sea Punks - Cottagecore - or just Gen Z! 

The Trio of Terribles: Vice Magazine, Terry Richardson, and American Apparel

Well, you can’t talk about hipsters without talking about three things that were very closely linked: Vice Magazine, Terry Richardson, and American Apparel. And all three of these “things” seem super dated in 2021, super ill-advised, and well, super gross.  So what a great series of things to discuss!  I’m excited to break it down because I think we will start to see that the hipsters weren’t exempt from the shitty sexist raunch culture of the mainstream.  Raunch was universal, baby!

Vice’s Vice

It’s hard to know where to start, so I guess we’ll pick Vice.  For more than two decades, this iconic magazine that was like THE print version of hipsterism has been available for free at many cool boutiques across the world, including all American Apparel locations.  And virtually every issue published during the aughts contained a full-page ad on the back cover, if not more ads inside.  If Vice magazine and American Apparel were a Venn diagram, there would be some heavy overlapping, and that section would be called “cocaine.”

A lot of the information I’m going to share here comes from a New York Magazine article called A Company Built on Bluff>>.  This was a super valuable resource because I found it very difficult to find good info on the origins of Vice and kind of like what happened there.

Vice was founded in 1994 when Suroosh Alvi, Gavin McInnes, and Shane Smith used money from a Canadian government welfare program to start a magazine in Montreal.  That magazine is still published in a paper edition--ironic in an era where magazines are no longer thriving and are even shutting down/shifting to online only.    The content hasn’t all held up — “The Vice Guide to Shagging Muslims” — but nonetheless, for the aughts and maybe the early aughties, it offered an outlet for people who found the mainstream culture (and all of its Juicy tracksuits and Ed Hardy hats) very, very lame.

Now, as I mentioned there were three founders:
  • Suroosh Alvi was sort of the captain of the ship
  • Gavin McInnes was responsible for the editorial voice.  And that’s important, for something I’m going to tell you later, so keep that in mind. He created the voice, the tone, the vibe if you will of Vice
  • Shane Smith handled ad sales, and he told everyone that they were going to get rich off of this magazine.  McInnes called him “Bullshitter Shane”  and perhaps he earned that title when he pulled off schemes like sending a few copies of the magazine to a record store in Miami and a skate shop in Los Angeles and telling advertisers they were distributed across North America.  “Shane would talk all the time about how stupid people were for giving them money,” says Jessica Low, who dated Smith and helped with the magazine at the time.

In 1998, Smith told a reporter that a wealthy media mogul in Montreal named Richard Szalwinski had invested in Vice.  That wasn’t actually true at all, but Szalwinski heard this and was like, okay, let’s see what these guys have to say.  He scheduled a meeting and ended up investing! In 1999, the entire team moved to NYC to work out of an office paid for with that investment money. When a Canadian reporter came to do a profile, the company paid a friend to pretend he was an MTV executive interested in a Vice-branded show.

Of course, then the dot com bubble burst, and all of their money evaporated. Still, this was the magical hipster era where a magazine could solicit work just by paying with booze and access to super cool parties...so they were able to grow and thrive sort of by not paying for any of the content.  And think of all of the edgy content of the time:  party photos, really interesting fashion spreads, dos and don’ts (their signature segment), and some actual news, too! A lot of coverage of the failing global drug war and the fight against AIDS. In the middle of the decade, Vice did two really smart things:
  1. First, they started their own ad agency called Virtue.
  2. Next, Vice became one of the first digital-media outlets to get into online video with vbs.tv, a digital-video site funded with a $2 million investment from Viacom.

But Vice also realized that they needed to sort of maybe tone down their edginess. An early episode of Vice’s MTV show, which ran for one season, cost the program dozens of sponsors after airing a segment about sex dolls.

In 2008, Alvi and Smith bought out McInnes, whose uh “humor” was becoming a liability, even though it had initially sort of defined the voice of Vice.

Case in Point - Vice Do’s and Dont’s :

So let’s take a moment to talk about Gavin McInnes.  McInnes went on to write a series of books, like “How to Piss in Public,” and articles for right-wing websites, like Taki’s Magazine and VDARE. And McInnes would tell you without a hint of shame: he is islamophobic, he is anti-semitic, he is transphobic, he is homophobic, he is racist, and of course, he is sexist.  He told the New York Times, “I’m an Archie Bunker sexist. I don’t like Gloria Steinem, but I’d take a bullet for Edith.”

In 2016 he launched The Proud Boys, a neo-fascist, men's rights and male-only organization classified as a "general hate" organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Women and trans men are not invited to join the Proud Boys, just in case you were considering it Kim. This group is incredibly sexist, transphobic, racist, and homophobic, just like McGinnes himself

And the initiation process is well, stupid:
  1. Step one  is a loyalty oath, along the lines of "I’m a proud Western chauvinist, I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world";
  2. The next step is getting punched until YOu can recite specific pop culture trivia, such as the names of five breakfast cereals;
  3. Next, you must get a tattoo and agree not to masturbate
  4. The last step is getting into a major fight "for the causeThe Daily Beast reported in February 2018 that the Proud Boys have amended their rules to prohibit cargo shorts and the use of opioids and crystal meth, but cocaine is okay.

So knowing now what we know about McGinnes, I can’t look back at old issues of Vice without seeing how fucked up they were.  Super sexist, classist, overtly anti-semitic and homophobic...and while the general feeling was that all of that was supposed to be ironic, now I just don’t know.  It didn’t seem quite nice back then, and to be honest, it just felt wrong, and now I know that it was (and it wasn’t just me being hypersensitive)

Vice carries on today and now it’s a mega-company, with a media empire, a show on HBO, massive investment from Rupert Murdoch (yes, the creator of Fox News)

But it has also been called out for all kinds of nefarious behavior of the years, including massively underpaying and abusing its staff (which makes sense based on its history) and creating a toxic and abusive environment for its female employees (which also makes sense, it’s practically written into the brand DNA).

Uncle Terry

Which is a great segway to mentioning Terry Richardson, aka Uncle Terry, who was practically the staff photographer for Vice (or so it seemed at least). Richard was *the* hipster photographer of the aughts.  And even his origin story was pretty hipstery (and this is all from Wikipedia):

Richardson's mother reportedly gave him his first snapshot camera in 1982, which he used to document his life and the punk rock scene in Ojai. He originally wanted to be a punk rock musician rather than a photographer.  He played bass guitar in the punk rock band The Invisible Government for four years.  He played bass for a variety of other punk bands in Southern California including Signal Street Alcoholics, Doggy Style, Baby Fist and Middle Finger. In 1992, Richardson quit music and moved to the East Village neighborhood of New York City, where he began photographing young people partying and other nightlife. His first published fashion photos appeared in Vibe in 1994.  He then shot an advertising campaign for fashion designer Katharine Hamnett's spring 1995 collection.  The campaign was noted for images of young women wearing short skirts with their pubic hair showing. Which…...ahhhhhhh

Side note:  I think we are starting to see the hipster version of “raunch culture” develop here, lest we thought it was just a part of the mainstream culture and that all of the hipsters were innocent of this.  And we’ll be talking about this even more as we get to American Apparel.

Richardson’s work has been in just about every magazine (Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Vogue) and he’s worked with tons of major designers like YSL, Marc Jacobs, and Tom Ford.  And he’s also worked on music videos for Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus

And his work is known for being very sexy (in a creepy way), lot’s of full-frontal nudity, simulated (or real) sex acts, and just weird 70s porn vibes.   I mean, very much the hipster definition of “raunch culture”. Richardson described his style as, "Trying to capture those unpremeditated moments when people's sexualities come up to the surface.”  Which ugh just feels so gross in a post #metoo era…

This means this is a great time to say that since 2001, Richardson has been accused repeatedly of using his influence in the fashion industry to sexually assault or exploit models during photo shoots, including coercing them to engage in sexual acts with him. And what began as a whisper campaign, picked up steam in 2013 when a petition was launched on Change.org, urging brands to stop working with Richardson. It documented many of the allegations against him up to that point and linked to numerous examples of hardcore pornography arising from HIS fashion shoots that he had tried to remove from the internet in the wake of controversy.

By 2017, many brands and magazines refused to work with him.  And as of 2018, he has been under investigation by the NYC SVU (special victims unit) for several allegations of sexual assault.

Terry Richardson had this iconic hipster look:  creepy molester aviator glasses, a mustache and thick sideburns, and a signature flannel shirt.  Just so early aughts.  And sometimes in photos, I would think he was Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, perhaps the most quintessential (or at least biggest) “hipster brand of the aughts.  

The passion of American Apparel

American Apparel was founded by Canadian businessman Dov Charney in 1989.  It’s impossible to talk about American Apparel without talking about it’s founder, but let’s skip that for a moment and talk about the brand/company...

In 1997, American Apparel moved to LA.  At this point, their product was primarily tees, generally used as blanks for printing by bands and other brands.   And these blanks were kind of the standard for any cool band or brand.  They had a nice thinner fabric and a better fit than the standard boxy Hanes beefy tees of the 80s and early 90s.  Charney used a subcontractor named Sam Lim to do the sewing.

But a few years later, Lim and Charney became partners, moving into the huge complex in downtown LA that you might recognize as the American Apparel factory complex.  They were still focusing primarily on making blank tees for screen printers.

But Charney wanted to make a move into retail.   And you can’t create a retail empire selling only blank tees. So the assortment was expanded to include underwear, bodysuits, dresses, and so on. 
  • The iconic hoodie with the white drawstring. That hoodie became the signature top layer for all hipster dudes in the aughts
  • Thinner fabric, more fitted basic tees
  • Holographic fabrics
  • Sexy high cut bodysuits, body con dresses, and leggings of all varieties.  Leggings were a COOL STYLISH thing to wear
  • And I will argue, the quality of these clothes were kinda eh, the fabrics were whatever...certainly not “elevated basics” but they looked different than anything else out there and American Apparel also had very sexy and shocking marketing that really made the brand. And the price point was pretty “premium” for basics 

In 2005, sales exceeded $200 million.  That’s huge! And remember, they were making all of this stuff in downtown LA.  It almost felt like American Apparel had just come out of nowhere, with stores popping up everywhere and those hoodies walking down every street. Retailers were scared by this (that was my experience at UO).

And to be fair, on the surface American Apparel was a good mission.  The workers were paid well, they had benefits like health insurance and free lunch, and generally, the conditions were good in the factory.

But that’s the happy part of the story. Because of all of Dov Charney’s work to create this vertical company that treated its factory employees well, Charney was also creating a toxic, incredibly sexual work environment both in the offices and in the retail stores.  The stories from that era could be a podcast on their own, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  But here are just a few things:

  • Employees were forced to sign an NDA accepting that AA was a sexual environment and that they wouldn’t try to sue over it
  • And this sexual environment started at the top. Charney was famously quoted as saying “Sleeping with people you work with is unavoidable.”
  • Charney was also the photographer behind most of the company’s most famous marketing shoots.  Usually, he liked to work in the nude and he was known for gifting dildos to his favorite models.
    • And the ads themselves were iconic in their overt sexiness, shocking whether they were in a magazine or on a huge billboard on Sunset Blvd:
      • Two women are lounging on beach chairs, stripped down to #8301 hot shorts and nothing else. The slogan reads: CAREFREE, COMFORTABLE, COTTON. YOU CAN FEEL HOW GOOD IT LOOKS.
      • A girl wearing #8315 red boy briefs, photographed from her upper thighs to her bare midriff, sitting back on a laundry machine, and reads in big block letters: SUNDAY AFTERNOON. WASHING MACHINE. CALIFORNIA.
      • Alex Spunt was Dov Charney’s right hand person on these photoshoots for a few years. She told Jane Magazine, "We get mixed criticism. Women saying they love that we don't use real models. Or 'You're socially conscious, but exploiting women.' I disagree. It's a fine line. Of course, the women are sexualized in the images, but I don't think anything's wrong with that. It's not just about being socially conscious, it's about being a profitable company.”  HI RAUNCH CULTURE RIGHT HERE
      • She went on to say “Dov's not sexist. He wants nothing to do with PC backlash. He rejects early-90s feminism. Sure, he might come across as offensive, but truthfully, he really respects women who work here. And he would never hurt anybody....He's never [masturbated] in front of me”

Which is a great transition into Jane writer Claudine Ko’s legendary feature on Dov himself in 2004.  I just reread it and it’s still just as shocking and upsetting now as it was 17 years ago.  Over the period of days, she was interviewing him, he masturbated in front of her both in person and while they were on the phone.  Multiple times!!!! Can you imagine this flying now in 2021?

You know, let’s take a moment to marvel at the disgustingness of his interview with Ko:
  • I asked him how he relaxed. Oral sex, he says, settling into a chair behind a cloud of smoke. "I love it...I am a bit of a dirty guy, but people like that right now."
  • (I mean, barf city...but also, SO AUGHTS)
  • "I think sex motivates everything," he says, peering at me from behind his boxy '70s frames.  "It motivates my work, too. You don't want something that's sexually driven, like panties, but then have them made in a horrible sweatshop.”
  • His assistant Iris Alonzo--who went on to found everybody.world with Carolina Crespo--said at the time “I think it's really healthy to have an orgasm four times a day. It's got to be great for business."
    • Side note:  what do we think of two women who worked in this environment, directly with Dov, starting a company and using his factory to this very day?

Needless to say, eventually all of this was Charney’s downfall. Around LA everyone has a terrible story about him.  And I’ve worked with some previous American Apparel employees who also had horrific stories about his brutal temper.  What followed was lawsuit after lawsuit for sexual harassment and related workplace violations.  Some were settled and some went to court. 

Eventually, the company reached a point of bankruptcy, the result of bleeding money from both settling these lawsuits and over expanding into retail.  Remember how it seemed like there were as many American Apparel stores as Starbucks?

Anyway, after various reorganizations and attempts at using venture capitalist investment to save the company, Charney was ousted.  And pretty shortly after, the company was bought by Gildan.  The stores were closed but the business lives on--sort of--online

Last year Charney was back in the news with his new brand, LA Apparel.  I urge you to check out their website, because it looks exactly like American Apparel.  Same super sexy, somehow oily marketing and photography. Everything is made in LA.

Start Up Podcast>>>

  • In June, a physician reached out to the LA health department to express concern about the LA Apparel factory being a hotspot for Covid.  At that point, about 150 employees had tested positive.
  • The health department swooped in and discovered that social distancing wasn’t being implemented, workers were separated by cardboard instead of the mandated plexiglass.  Hand sanitizer and mask weren’t in use.  And furthermore, LA Apparel was unwilling to give the health department a full list of its employees (which says to me that they were hiding something...either more workers were infected than they wanted to let on or there were undocumented workers), and at one point, the company wouldn’t even allow the health department to have access to the facility.
  • So, the health department closed them down.  Now, the health department said that the factory could reopen after the infected and exposed workers were fever-free for ten days.  They were clear that LA Apparel was not permitted to reopen the factory with new employees.  Well, what happened? Charney brought in new workers! The city found out and shut down the factory again! It has since reopened

So question:  would you rather buy something from a company that paid a fair wage and treated the factory employees well, but was lead by a sex pest who created a culture of fear and humiliation for the other employees? Or would you rather buy something that was made in China but no one was sexually harassed along the way?