I’ve been following the news about Bill O’Reilly and his recent firing intently. The story of a serial harasser who leveraged his workplace power over the people around him is familiar to me.
So is the one where the culture of the company allows him to weather the storm around the multiple public lawsuits he was forced to settle, only to be fired when the financial pressure becomes too much to bear. Only in my situation, the accused was proud of what he did. That’s because I worked at American Apparel under its founder and CEO, Dov Charney.
Charney’s sexual transgressions have been widely documented at this point. We’ve all heard the stories of him sending explicit texts and emails to multiple employees, or about the trove of graphic videos and photos of Charney having sex with employees and models saved on a company computer. I can only confirm that these kinds of stories were traded by employees for a long time at the company.
But Charney cultivated this environment early on. Workers were vaguely told upfront to expect an “unconventional” work culture — which largely translated to sexual in nature. In order to get hired, employees had to send headshots and full-body photos of ourselves to management. It was widely known that Charney had sexual relationships with plenty of women at the company.
In light of the recent news of the Canadian clothing company Gildan buying American Apparel and its decision to shutter every retail location, I sat down and thought about everything I went through. For most of it I was in my early 20s, new to New York, and working enough overtime to enjoy a pretty good life. I came away from my 18 months at American Apparel with plenty of stories, which I still tell today.
When I talk about them, my friends remember what the store and company represented. How brazen it was about almost everything. We’ve spent nights Googling the most disgusting and offensive ads American Apparel ever put out. We talk about how the company was hit with harassment case after harassment case, but none of it mattered until Charney started to become a problem for the company’s bottom line.
There are big differences between the American Apparel harassment accusations and what happened at Fox News with O’Reilly. For one, even though Charney was a fairly high-profile executive, he had nowhere near the fame and popularity O’Reilly enjoyed as a host on a national news network. Charney was also the CEO and completely in charge of the company until he was terminated in 2014.
Still, there are important similarities — both men were high-powered figures with multiple harassment cases against them, and both men were not punished for it until they became financial liabilities. Both Fox and American Apparel had cultures of sexual harassment cultivated by powerful men at the top of the food chain. These cultures were widely reported and discussed as an “open secret,” yet the men at the center of the charges were protected.
When I look back at my time at American Apparel, I begin to understand how it was possible that this kind of behavior persisted — it was created by the men at the top.
Working there was a strange experience
I worked at American Apparel at two separate points in my life, from December 2008 until December 2009 and then in 2010 from April to October. After I graduated from Boston College in 2008, I spent a summer doing security at Best Buy and then working at a temp agency in Boston. Adrift in a nondescript health insurance claims adjuster job for which I was sadly on track to be hired full time, I was looking for an out.
That fall, a friend had recently been promoted personally by Charney to be the regional manager of the Washington, DC-area stores. As the company hit a boom, she offered me a job, and with no real retail experience, I was put in as the assistant back stock manager of a soon-to-open location on Newbury Street.
After working up the ranks in Boston, I decided to move to New York. I was transferred to managing the back stock at the Upper West Side store but was quickly promoted to a more regional level and oversaw any store from Maine to DC that needed training or restructuring. Once I got to a management level, I began to see just how deeply entrenched the sexual harassment culture was at the company.
While I mostly worked with my regional team, I was often a point person when the LA higher-ups came to town. Charney constantly traveled around the world to personally check in on his stores. When he came to mine, I worked beside him.
Charney was, in many ways, incredibly personable. He had a particular kind of charm if he took a liking to you. He was open and forthright. He’d extend this to both men and women. And in some respects, that could feel liberating.
When I first met Charney, he came into my store and began arguing with us about why we hadn’t updated every single mannequin with the large-breasted models he had recently sent over. What started one time as a polite conversation ended with him forcing me to drink a carton of orange juice while he watched and told me, “I’d like to watch you mow my lawn in LA.” In the next breath he was telling me that my belt looked awful and I should buy a new one. He slipped a $20 into my pocket. It felt perverse, like I knew it shouldn’t have happened. Like I knew this could have been the start of something. I didn’t even know what it all meant. But these kinds of propositions were often the beginning of a wider known issue.
Charney, long before I worked there, was known to be aggressive and forceful with how he approached sex. The infamous 2004 story in Jane magazine that described him openly masturbating in front of the female reporter (Claudine Ko, who said it was consensual) set a tone for the company. Charney very often and very specifically said he wanted that sexual openness to be present. It’s how he thought of and encouraged talking and thinking about sex in the workplace.
What he considered openness led to many allegations and five major sexual harassment lawsuits brought against him. He settled them all. Yet it was rarely the details of the claims that he objected to, but more that they were nonconsensual or actual harassment.
The culture at American Apparel wasn’t “unconventional” — it was exploitative
I’ve had plenty of people ask me why I think the culture of sexual harassment was tolerated for so long. There are certainly a lot of reasons I could speculate about, but if I had to go based on what I saw firsthand and heard from co-workers, it’s that what Charney did was considered part of the atmosphere of the company.
His actions were rarely copied by others; very little happened in his slipstream. His cult of personality meant that others were looped in by covering up and excusing what he did. He was the company, and was omnipresent in the stores. And that atmosphere was navigating the boundaries around what was harassment and what was not. To Charney, the owner of the company, what was harassment was very little.
It made sense to plenty of people that what he was doing was fine because it was his company and he could dictate how we should react and respond. The entire air around American Apparel was that kind of general openness and progressiveness. So we were groomed to expect a certain level of inappropriateness as sort of the base level of working there.
When I was working there, the way stores operated focused more and more on how many of us, especially the people on the sales floor, looked. On our company intranet message board, Charney posted a cropped photo of one woman’s eyebrows at a store with a big “NO” under it — that one went public. We had to start taking pictures individually and as a store to be approved. We’d get notes back. Sometimes managers were told whom to fire based on those pictures. If anything, it created a terrible bottleneck, but it also became clear that our bodies were what the company considered above all else.
There was a general feeling that your body was on display, and therefore your sexuality was too. A lot of the employees were young — in college, maybe just out. Some were high schoolers. If the owner of the company came in and started saying how great a job you were doing, some people didn’t notice or care if he would, at the same time, go overboard about complimenting your body. Or putting his hands on you. Or widely talking about you in the store or on a company-wide call.
It seemed, with the culture of everything else you knew about the company, that him saying how sexy you were was maybe even a good thing. Maybe his proposition for you to come stay in his house was the normal path. Many of those people got to model for the company. So perhaps he just mixed work into the equation so it never felt like it was going too far.
Charney was a predator. He knew he had power. As the owner of the company, he commanded a lot of respect and asserted it on people, seeing how far he could push the boundaries. And there was something in how public he was about it that it probably became a feedback loop for him, and for the company and us working there.
I sometimes wonder why I, and so many other employees, tolerated this culture. I think a lot of us just considered it to be a job and maybe pushed it all away. Every job has its ups and downs. We just went through our days without really thinking about why we weren't doing anything. I’ll also say, I’m a guy. I wasn’t really who Charney was preying on, despite a few weird encounters. So I had that benefit and privilege in my life and at the job to say, “It’s not that bad.”
If you knew that Charney had openly masturbated in front of a reporter and you worked there, you would sometimes think, “Oh, well maybe I’m just okay with it. It feels good to be so open about it.” And then after cultivating that throughout his company, he’d groom and then prey on the people he knew he could work over and push to the next level. He set the rules and the culture, rewarded those who enabled it, especially if he could get something out of it, and made you feel bad for ever pushing back on it.
Beyond that pushback you would get from Charney or other top-level managers or even fellow employees, there was a sense of pointlessness you would feel if you ever sensed things might be off. When I joined the company, I was warned I would be entering into a workplace with “an unconventional environment.” I also signed a contract that forced arbitration on us if we ever wanted to bring a civil suit against the company or its employees. When I was hired, four of the five sexual harassment lawsuits had come and gone. If Charney could be that open about it and get caught so many times but still come out clean, it often felt as if the company wasn’t ever going to change.
Things eventually did get better — but it was because of the bottom line
But change did happen. Much like Bill O’Reilly, it wasn’t that Charney was publicly and regularly accused of harassment and assault that brought about his downfall. We live in a society where a man can call a woman he worked with, audibly masturbate while telling her the things he wants to do her sexually, have the recording of said call leak to the public, and still keep his job, with his company supporting him.
Charney experienced a similar support from American Apparel. Not long after I left the company for the first time, the most horrifying of the allegations against him came out. Irene Morales alleged in a lawsuit that Charney trapped her in one of his apartments and raped her repeatedly over the course of a few days. In response, someone claiming to be Morales set up a blog and leaked nude photos that Charney received from her. While not the official response from the company, it is widely understood that a current employee, somehow with access to photos sent only to Charney, was the one who set up the blog.
The company knew all this and in turn still did not fire Charney. In response to yet another sexual harassment lawsuit in 2011, the company put out a public statement saying the plaintiff and friends “colluded with one another to shake down Mr. Charney and American Apparel for money” and that it was a “hoax and effort to extort the company.”
Why did they fire him then? Just like the O’Reilly situation, no matter the window dressing, it all comes down to money. Charney’s termination letter cites many of the issues Charney was known for, especially in regards to his repeated sexual harassment. Yet the logic was not about the abject wrongness or illegality of those issues, but how much it cost the company. As the letter put it to Charney, “In terms of finances, your conduct has required the company to incur significant and unwarranted expenses, including expenses associated with litigation and defense costs, significant settlement payments, substantial severance packages that were granted to employees, and unwarranted business expenses that you incurred for personal reason.”
Even before Charney was fired, even back to when I was first hired, American Apparel was on life support already. Soon after he was ousted, the company was being mined for parts and about to go on the auction block. Charney would publicly claim it was outside mismanagement that caused its downfall. But in an annual report in 2013, the company plainly said, “We have experienced negative cash flows from operating activities in the past, and our business may not generate sufficient cash flow from operations to enable us to service our indebtedness or to fund our other liquidity needs.”
Charney, with his constant harassment becoming increasingly more public, was more a liability, and his star power wasn’t outweighing the financial burden his actions were causing. He considered himself to be the company. One source claims that during his termination, he exclaimed, “This company will fall apart if I’m not running it!” Since being fired, Charney has kept up his way of thinking, claiming, “I think chaos is an amazing thing. I think people underestimate its strength.” And he spoke with pride about how American Apparel “broke a lot of rules and it worked.”
American Apparel for a long time was built on his culture of free-flowing sexuality and chaos. In that way, the company comes off as being much more sinister than Fox News. O’Reilly was a more “standard” sexual harassment situation where the allegations were shoved under the rug, and denied up and down.
Charney ran a company that encouraged what others might consider sexual harassment, but he groomed us at a company-wide level to think what he was doing was okay. O’Reilly just says it never happened. He claims it’s all “being orchestrated by far-left organizations.” But Charney didn’t deny that almost all of the claims against him happened, merely that it wasn’t as bad as she said, and really, it was all okay regardless.
But from my time there, I saw that it wasn’t boundary-pushing or transgressive for a powerful man to force himself on women. It was actually a lot more common than Charney could ever have imagined.
David DeKeyser is a music and media consultant living in Brooklyn. He currently runs a marketing company called Pressy. You can find more of his writing and stories about his time at American Apparel here. You can also find him on Twitter.