An insider account of American Apparel’s toxic culture


Though “Strip Tees is a memoir, its story begins like a classic Hollywood noir. Kate Flannery is down on her luck, out of work and nearly out of money, drinking alone at a bar in Los Angeles. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gorgeous stranger beckons with a mysterious job offer. Soon, Flannery is engrossed in a shadowy world of sex and money, while contemplating moral compromises that threaten her very soul.

The job offer, to be clear, was at a clothing store.

American Apparel opened its first retail shop in 2003, and it quickly became one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States, with hundreds of locations and advertisements so ubiquitous that their aesthetic (overexposed, hypersexual, brash, Helvetica font) would come to define what kids today nostalgically refer to as the “indie-sleaze” era. A few years after that, the entire empire would come crashing down: Founder and chief executive Dov Charney was ousted from his own company in 2014 after numerous sexual harassment lawsuits, and American Apparel filed for bankruptcy the next year, becoming a tragic relic of the aughts, like neon plastic shutter shades and Kevin Spacey.

In “Strip Tees (subtitled “A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles), Flannery offers us a glimpse behind the micro-ribbed cotton curtain during the company’s heyday. As a recent college graduate disillusioned with impersonal corporate culture, she was seduced by American Apparel’s promise of a postfeminist utopia where the girls folding the merchandise were also the ones photographed for ads, “spokesmodels” for whom sexy photos were supposedly fun and empowering. And if they happened to be hooking up with the company’s CEO, well, that was their prerogative as independent women with agency.

Within a few months, Flannery is a hiring manager — promoted by Charney personally for her ability to identify employees who have the “Classic Girl” look. (As Charney characterizes the vibe, “She’s cute, but she’s not trying too hard. She’s no beauty queen, but she’s definitely hot …” His description ended with a vulgar descriptor.)

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In her new role, Flannery flies across the country, filling each new American Apparel retail location with a fresh crop of gamine hipster girls while engaging in her own personal off-the-clock debauchery, buoyed by a sense of her own importance and the promise of reimbursed expenses. “I rolled so many joints on the onion-skin pages of hotel Gideons Bibles, I could papier-mache my own staircase to hell,” she writes.

Even when he’s not physically present, Charney is a ubiquitous presence, part mascot and part cult leader, referred to as “Daddy” by some of the employees who slept with him and were in turn rewarded with better travel perks, free rent and placement in prominent ads. “He’s a little unorthodox,” Flannery concedes to a high school junior she hires, “but that’s our strength — doing things differently.” Not long after, Flannery would catch Charney having sex with another employee in a store’s dressing room. Flannery herself never had a sexual relationship with Charney, a decision that, she suggests, cost her quicker career advancement and more glamorous job postings, but she bears witness to plenty of his explicit behavior: Nudity, pornography and vibrators were all normal encounters on the job.

“Strip Tees” goes down as easy as a rum and Diet Coke, breezily written and punctuated at its intermission by a few pages of glossy photos. Reading it reminded me of being in middle school and sitting cross-legged on the couch with my neighbor, a freckled all-American blonde a few years older than I who had just gotten a job working at Abercrombie & Fitch at the mall. Back then, Abercrombie was infamous for its shirtless male models and attractive salesgirls, infamy that would be compounded by several highly public discrimination lawsuits. “Oh, it’s all true,” my neighbor said, blowing her bangs away from her face. “They definitely make the ugly people work in the back.” I was enthralled. I made her tell me every detail of what it was actually like to work there. It was a hidden world I would never be otherwise privy to (I was never at risk of being “discovered” for a retail position where looks were a key criterion for employment), and the fact that it was exclusive, glamorous and unambiguously wrong created a potent, addicting cocktail — the best sort of secondhand gossip. Reading “Strip Tees” feels similar, as if Flannery were recounting the saga of her ill-fated years at American Apparel directly to you — not in a suburban basement, but perhaps over frozen rosé outside a hotel bar, where we can smell the pool water and swimsuit Lycra.

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The climax of the memoir builds percussively to several harrowing scenes, one after another, each promising to be the final straw, in which Charney’s corporate take on the Playboy Mansion evolves from merely adolescent to harrowing. Still, Flannery remains at American Apparel past every breaking point, willing to accept the devil she knows and frightened of losing her sense of purpose and place. “Truly amazing,” Margaret Atwood wrote in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.”

Though Flannery is clear-eyed about the exploitation and pettiness of American Apparel under Charney — and the cruelty of a culture in which a woman’s best method for career advancement was turning him on — she avoids the pitfalls of easy dogmatism, weaving in the sneaking suggestion that perhaps every company is just as exploitative, if not quite so nakedly. When American Apparel inevitably falls apart, and Charney’s one-man regime is diluted by a more conventional corporate board, Flannery views it with sadness, even nostalgia: “It’s just like Hollywood to take the thing that makes someone special — what made them stand out from the pack in the first place to become famous — and then run it through the meat grinder and pump out the same old hamburger for mass consumption. The same thing was happening to American Apparel.”

Audiences are drawn to wealth, fame, beauty — stories about those exclusive and rarefied places we’d otherwise never glimpse. All the better when the tension of our jealousy resolves into the major key of schadenfreude, when we’re able to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it was rotten at the core there. But still … didn’t we want to be a part of it once? And merely dismissing Charney as an aberrant offender — the one bad apple, good riddance — is a too-tidy conclusion for why these messy, glittering worlds continue to captivate us. Flannery seems unwilling to turn her memoir into a tidy morality tale. Good. Perhaps the book’s most important moral exists in the telling of the story itself. Here, Flannery says, gather round and let me tell you what happened to me. I went through this, she says, so maybe you won’t have to.

Dana Schwartz is the author of the best-selling novels “Anatomy: A Love Story” and “Immortality: A Love Story.” She lives in Los Angeles.

A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles

Henry Holt. 222 pp. $27.99

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