It Happened to Me: I Worked At American Apparel

Everyone I worked with basically looked like a model, because American Apparel treats their employees like working models and assumes that if customers see “attractive” girls wearing their clothes, people will want to buy the clothes so they can look like them.
Publish date:
October 12, 2012
sexism, American Apparel

The horrific sexual missteps of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney have been well documented. Ever since he masturbated in front of a Jane magazine reporter in 2004 (hi, Jane!), the bad juju has snowballed. American Apparel always seems to be mired knee-deep in muck, despite their progressive stance on LGBTQ rights and immigration. While I cannot tell you what it is like to work directly with Dov Charney (I never met him), I can tell you exactly what it is like to work at an American Apparel store, something I did for a whole year.

I have always loved American Apparel’s clothes, but they were utterly out of reach on my small student budget. So when I heard they would be opening a store in my small-ish city, I was determined to get a job there for the employee discount alone. My first contact was attending an Open Call, where people waited in line to drop off their resume, get their picture taken and chat for a few minutes with intimidatingly well-dressed managers. It seemed unprofessional, but what did I know? My “interview” was about 3 minutes long, and, sure enough, I got the job.

My training session was run by a woman who wore a sheer mesh shirt and shiny navy blue “disco pants” that made her look like an astronaut by way of Studio 54. She sat us down in a circle and told us how naturally beautiful we all were and how we were hired because our personal style reflects the brand of American Apparel. The remaining hour and a half of our training shift was spent putting outfits together and trying on the most revealing items we could find. I was actually getting paid to try on clothes. It was like a minimum-wage paradise.

No one at the store had actually been hired to be the store manager, so Disco Pants Lady ended up choosing a 19-year-old girl who bore a striking resemblance to Ke$ha -- it was the hair -– with zero management experience to run the store. It hardly mattered though, since she was the most attractive, friendly and flamboyant employee in the place, and could probably sell decorative gourds if she batted her eyelashes hard enough.

Working at American Apparel was like entering a completely different universe: one where everyone was disproportionately attractive, and I was a bona fide popular girl. All of a sudden, I was thrust into working with girls who would have mercilessly teased my loser ass if we had known each other in middle school. But instead of making fun of me, we became friends and I was privy to the dramatic happening in their lives: fights, falling outs and more boyfriends than I could keep track of. I felt like my face was pressed against the glass fishbowl of their lives, and though I always felt like I was on the outside, we went out a lot and dominated the dance floor in our skintight American Apparel dresses.

Everyone I worked with basically looked like a model. That's because American Apparel treats their employees like working models and assumes that if customers see “attractive” girls wearing their clothes, people will want to buy the clothes so they can look like them. It’s the same logic of aspiration that permeates fashion advertisement everywhere. The fashion industry as a whole is responsible for perpetuating these mythic standards of female beauty, but American Apparel unquestionably enforces it as rule. We turned away a lot of competent people, based on the fact they had too many piercings or just didn’t quite look the part -– that is, thin, well groomed and conventionally attractive.

I worked with women who had different body types and women of different races, but never anyone who was fat. American Apparel stocks about four sizes: XS, S, M, L. Sometimes they will stock XXS, but rarely will you ever see XXL in anything other than a T-shirt. I worked there when their “Next Big Thing” contest for plus-size models was being held and watched in horror as my employers both objectified fat people and lauded themselves for carrying sizes that any normal store should have the decency to carry.

The politics of American Apparel are pretty messed up, but working day-to-day in a retail store was (surprise!) hugely boring. We had to follow stringent standards of appearance every time we worked in the store, which meant no “off brand” footwear like Dr. Martens or Keds, no chipped nail polish and we couldn't even wear our own eyeglasses. Any employee who wore prescription glasses had to buy a pair of American Apparel frames and get them filled on their own dime.

We were required to wear head-to-toe American Apparel during every single shift; even with a 50% discount, committing to buying the clothes always took a huge chunk out of my paycheck. The only excitement came when we spent our shifts discussing our weekend exploits instead of helping customers, or when the store would close and we would get high and drunk while still on the clock to complete overnight merch flips or weekly inventory checks. If that sounds unprofessional, just remember we had a 19-year-old manager.

On the positive side, I did not feel like I needed to put up with unwanted sexual attention in order to keep my job. Sure, I found it questionable that all the sales floor employees were girls and the only guys who worked there did the heavy lifting in backstock. Sure, I cringed whenever I had to put up flyers that prominently featured girls' butts. But the people I worked with were friends or peers, and I thank God there were no predatory older men there to salivate over my shiny ass.

Over time, I was no longer willing to compromise my feminism for a paycheck, and I made the decision to quit. But for a brief period, working at American Apparel was simultaneously the best/worst thing that had happened in my life. The problematic aspects of working at American Apparel were numerous, but I cannot deny that the time my co-workers and I broke it down to "Deceptacon" by Le Tigre on the sales floor was one of the best work experiences I have ever had.