Two days ago Gawker acquired an email from American Apparel referencing standards for personal appearance for its retailers, down to specifics like outlawing liquid foundation and nixing bleached eyebrows. This, combined with the past heat the company has faced over refusing to manufacture sizes that the general population wears, created a storm that would not quietly pass over. Instead, CEO Dov Charney made his private phone number available to the media and concerned customers. He was personally answering the phone all day yesterday, and spoke to me around 3:00 p.m. Central time.
Charney responded to Gawker’s leaked email in a statement on American Apparel’s website. The statement appears below.
American Apparel does not hire or retain applicants based on 'beauty.' Our main priority is finding people with a strong sense of style who can inspire customers as they make selections from our extensive line. This is an integral part of the job, and we look for people who will enjoy it as a creative outlet. It has never been the policy of American Apparel, as some blogs claim, to fire employees who are not "good looking" or any of the other accusations implied by the anonymous or unverified third party sources. The company legitimately reviews current photographs of job applicants and employees to consider their sense of style and the way in which they present themselves. Through personal interviews, we evaluate whether they possess the skills and personality required to successfully sell our products. This is a standard practice among fashion-forward retailers.
American Apparel has built itself on being open and honest, so we're happy to answer questions and personally address the concerns of anyone interested in having a dialog. You can reach our CEO directly at 213-923-7943 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to address what has been most lost in this discussion, American Apparel is in fact continuing to hire in a major way (over 1,000 factory workers in recent weeks alone and hundreds more for retail internationally). We always accept resumes, and of course photos showing your personal style, either online or at one of our open calls worldwide.
The numbers seemed high to me considering the state of the economy. Charney differentiated between the 1,000 factory workers hired in the past 60 days and retail workers – the 1,000 workers hired in the past 60 days were on the industrial side. The company is still able to hire retail workers because of the high turnover rate that most retail outlets experience. He did not attribute any retail workers leaving their jobs to the email revealed by Gawker. American Apparel employs about 5,500 retail workers in 280 stores, half of which are in the US, and another 5,500 industrial workers worldwide. The CEO stressed that American Apparel is a growing company.
Still, advertising and answering your personal phone line for the general public is a ballsy move. Was there one final straw that made Charney propose this solution? He said he doesn’t remember exactly how it came about, but that Gawker took the controversy further than necessary. The specifics that Gawker published in its “leaked” email were untrue, according to Charney. There is no company policy forbidding liquid foundation or bleached eyebrows. If there were a policy about this type of thing at all, Charney said, he would ban perfume on the retail workers – which has nothing to do with appearance, technically. As of now, there are no such policies in place, and the company is not considering them.
Instead, Charney emphasized that the overall – sometimes indefinable aspects of -- appearance of his employees has a direct effect on his business, and American Apparel is within its rights to expect a certain dress code and professional aesthetic, just like almost every other company in operation. Appearance plays a role, and people want to pretend it's all about physicality because that makes a more inflammatory story, but in this case, it's not.
When I asked if the company was worried about lawsuits from fired employees or those who were never hired because of their appearances, he balked. Employment lawsuits only succeed when a protected class – gender, race, religion – has been discriminated against. Charney’s correct on that point of law, and the Abercrombie & Fitch situation from a few years back is a salient, but ultimately off-base, comparison. A&F hired models to work in the front and put others in the back, constructively discriminating against racial minorities. AA’s situation is nothing like that.
But what about ageism? Would a perfectly good employee be fired after years of service when their appearance could no longer keep up with American Apparel’s youthful image? Charney dodged that question, partially because the company itself is young and the issue hasn’t come up yet. It might be an issue AA should address in the future, however.
It takes a lot of confidence in your customers and employees to open up your personal phone line, and Charney's move was refreshing considering most CEOs are insulated from lower level controversies. I will say that after speaking with Charney, I’m satisfied that he cares about more than just the bottom line of his company. He seems to be involved at most steps, and is making the effort to calm the concerns of whoever wants to dial his line and speak with the CEO of American Apparel. Charney said he’s had the same number for 12 years and has no plans of changing it. So if you have a gripe, constructive criticism, or just want to speak to the CEO of your favorite retail outlet, he can be reached at 213-923-7934.