"I am a bit of a dirty guy," American Apparel founder Dov Charney told Jane reporter Claudine Ko at an interview in a Manhattan hotel suite in 2004, "but people like that right now."
Times have changed. On Thursday, American Apparel's board of directors voted to suspend Charney from his roles as president and CEO of the company, with the intent to terminate him within 30 days. Board member Allan Mayer, appointed as co-chairman in Charney's place, told the Los Angeles Times that the decision "grew out of an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct."
When Charney moved his fledgling clothing company to Los Angeles in 1997 and began churning out blank T-shirts to the wholesale market, his was one of the few U.S. companies producing sweatshop-free clothing made in America. But soon after American Apparel hit the market — announcing itself to the world with provocative ads and billboards — Charney was hit with sexual harassment allegations.
In his 2004 interview with Ko, Charney reclined in a chair, told her that oral sex helps him relax, and had her watch as a female employee aided him in release. Later, in front of Ko, Charney loosened his belt, masturbated, and checked his email. "Masturbation in front of women is underrated," Charney told her. "It's much easier on the woman. She gets to watch, it's a sensual experience that doesn't involve a man violating a woman, yet once the man has his release, it's over and you can talk to the guy."
Even when lawsuits accused Charney of demanding sex from employees, making lewd comments, and walking around in his underwear, the company stood by him. In 2011, the company told the New York Times that all harassment claims against Charney had been dismissed or settled (perhaps because employees were forced to sign arbitration and confidentiality agreements as a condition of working there). One suit was thrown out after emails and texts surfaced showing that the aggrieved employee had repeatedly begged Charney for a job, asked him to buy her clothing in exchange for "delicious blowjobs," sent him nude photos, and demanded that he wire her money.
The company at the time insisted that while its environment is sexual — American Apparel sells underwear — it is consensual. "I'm not like other girls," one employee told Ko. "People were like, 'Be careful, he's a walking erection.' I wanted to know what a 'walking erection' is."
Still, spinning sexual harassment claims into publicity has its limits. In 2008, American Apparel initially agreed to pay a former sales manager $1.3 million to drop a sexual harassment suit against Charney, as long as it could culminate in a press release announcing that the dismissal of the suit brings "clarity to the role of the First Amendment in the American workplace." Details of the agreement surfaced when the manager and her attorney backed out of the deal.
In a follow-up to her story, Ko wrote that she's "pissed that people keep misconstruing my story and using it to feed a flawed cliche where men are evil and omnipotent while women are mute victims lacking free will.''
Even if some women were eager to please, what about all of the other women who didn't want to have to fellate their boss in order to get ahead?
Allan Mayer told the Los Angeles Times that the board is only acting now because it "can't make decisions on the basis of rumors and stories in newspapers." Whatever the board uncovered in its own investigation hasn't yet hit the press, but it's finally caught up to Charney.
Back in 2004, Ko wondered whether Charney's cadre of apparently willing, young female employees had been "seduced" by their boss' charms, and his company's promise of an egalitarian sexual utopia. "It's a misconception to say it's a cult," Charney told her. "It's about being free. It's about telling the boss, 'F**k you.' "