American Apparel: A timeline of controversy

From employing illegal immigrants to holding meetings in the nude, clothing maker American Apparel has a long history of drawing attention to itself

An American Apparel billboard that seemed to promote rape provoked commentary in 2007.

Clothing manufacturer American Apparel, known for its provocative advertising, has come under fire recently for requiring store employees to provide full-length photographs of themselves to the company's "unconventional" CEO, Dov Charney. While Charney denies accusations that the company uses the snapshots to decide who's good-looking enough to keep on staff, this is far from the first scandal to plague the high-profile clothing-maker. (Watch a CBS report about Charney and American Apparel.) Here's a timeline of American Apparel's past controversies:

Charney gets sued
July 2005
Two former American Apparel employees file lawsuits against the company, claiming CEO Dov Charney, a Canadian who founded the Los Angeles-based company in 1997, used "crude language and gestures" in the office, hired women in whom he had sexual interest, conducted job interviews "in his underwear," and provided one of the plantiffs with a vibrator. "In my opinion," Charney responded in an email statement, "their lawsuits are a false attempt to extort money from my company and exploit my transparent persona."

A suggestive billboard gets defaced
November 2007
A 50-foot American Apparel billboard in Manhattan's Lower East Side, depicting a topless woman wearing only tights and bent over against a wall, is defaced. The graffiti reads: "Gee, I wonder why women get raped." The additional text sparks a "firestorm of controversy." Obviously, sex sells, says Leslie Goldman in The Huffington Post. But it's now "reached the point where good old-fashioned subconscious imagery has flown out the door and retailers are relying on the most obvious, explicit images possible."

Going political
January 2008
American Apparel, which operates the country's largest garment factory and flaunts its anti-sweatshop policies, runs an ad, featuring two of its workers of Guatemalan origin, in publications across the country calling for immigration reform. While Dov Charney insists that the company's high-profile support of immigrants helps bring the issue to the forefront of Washington's political agenda, critics dismiss the ad as "self-serving propaganda."

A "loser"
April 2008
Plagued by poorly handled finances, Charney tells The Wall Street Journal that his chief financial officer, Ken Cieply, is a "complete loser" who "has no credibility" in the retail apparel industry. Cieply soon resigns, sending American Apparel's stock plummeting.

Misleading investors?
November 2008
Former IT support worker Roberto Hernandez files a suit against American Apparel, claiming Charney asked him to pad inventory numbers to mislead potential investors. Hernandez, who was fired after the alleged incident, also says Charney held staff meetings in the nude. In a statement, American Apparel calls the allegations "fictional."

Going topless
November 2008
Long known for its risqué advertising, American Apparel ups the ante by running online banner ads that show a fully topless model. "We photograph models in a way that's honest," says the company's online advertising strategist Ryan Holiday. "We aren't so constrained by the rules."

Crossing Woody Allen
April 2009
Oscar-winning director Woody Allen sues American Apparel for $10 million dollars for unauthorized use of an image from his film Annie Hall on billboards in Los Angeles and New York, and on a website. Charney contends that use of the image was "parody," and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. Allen later settles out of court with American Apparel for $5 million.

Crossing Malcolm X
May 2009
Residents of Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood call for a boycott of an American Apparel store for failing to close for three hours in observance of Malcolm X's May 19 birthday. "Unfortunately," says company spokeswoman Emily Nerad, "we did not receive advance notice of the request. Once the marchers reached our store in Harlem, the manager immediately closed the store."

An immigration bust
July 2009
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announces that 1,600 of the 5,600 workers in American Apparel's California factory may be in the U.S. illegally. The company is eventually forced to lay off about 1,500 workers. Charney promises to rehire the workers when they are able to get their "immigration papers in order."

An underage model?
September 2009
The United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority reprimands American Apparel for an ad depicting a model who appeared to be under age 16. American Apparel insists that she's actually 23. "Our models are real girls who are often employees or friends of the company," says the company's U.K. operations manager Brent Chase. And the images "aren't Photoshop-ed." Sometimes, "people are made uncomfortable by this, and it occasionally causes an unfortunate reaction."

"Real people"?
May 2010
Critics challenge the company's long-time assertion that it only uses "real people," employees, and "friends of Dov" — as opposed to professional models — in its advertising. It's "a lie," says says Jenna Sauers in Jezebel. "American Apparel's gaggle of utterly conventionally beautiful and slender women are not 'factory workers,'" many are really "professional models," and some are adult film stars and actresses.

The employee photo controversy
June 2010
In response to the leak about the company's full-body photo policy for employees, American Apparel requires employees to sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting workers from speaking to the media about the company. Failure to comply with the agreement carries a $1 million fine.

Looming collapse?
June 2010
Following reports that the company may be unable to repay its debts, financial analysts predict that the company is "on the cusp of a total collapse."

Sources: Gawker, NY Times (2) (3) (4) (5), Now Public, Huffington Post, WSJ (2), Reuters, Forbes, Fast Company, USA Today, Brand Republic, Jezebel, New York, MSNBC


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