• Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

American Apparel’s Rise and Fall Was a Whirlwind


Jul 25, 2023

In the early 2000s, American Apparel was taking off in Los Angeles and around the country, selling an irresistible image of sexiness to then-teenage millennials. That was years before founder and CEO Dov Charney was ousted amid sexual misconduct allegations, and before the company infamously filed for bankruptcy. But in the company’s heyday, Kate Flannery was there to see it all — a Philadelphia native, she moved to Hollywood in her 20s and worked her way up the American Apparel ranks, eventually managing stores and scouting for models and employees.

She recounts the highs and the lows of being an American Apparel employee in those early days in her new memoir, “Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles.”In this excerpt, Flannery recounts visiting Charney’s home in Los Angeles with other American Apparel employees.

In the fall of 2005, I hit one year in LA.

I celebrated by signing the lease on my very own apartment—an attic studio in a hundred-year-old house that had been carved into apartments in Frogtown, a tiny neighborhood underneath a nesting of freeway interchanges next to the Los Angeles River. It was a surprisingly natural enclave. The concrete chute of the river has a natural bottom there, and it was full of shaggy blue heron diving for fish and toads that sang all night. I never realized a city like Los Angeles could be so pastoral.

Off to the west was Forest Lawn cemetery, planted full of dead film stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to watch over me. At night, a big electric crucifix atop the church there sent a beam of light to bounce around my dark kitchen like a persistent mote of glitter.

It was my first time living alone, and I loved it. I ignored all the initial drawbacks—the 5 freeway was so close there was a permanent rattle in my apartment, so it was like sharing the place with a poltergeist. But at night, the hum of the traffic was a white-noise lullaby—I thought of all the people coming and going on their own cosmic Californian journeys, and it brought me comfort as I’d drift off to sleep. Even though I was so far from home, I wasn’t really alone. And once I was settled, I adopted a kitten and named her Squeaky Fromme, after the least culpable Manson girl.

My attic rose higher than all my neighbors’ rooftops and gave me a spectacular view of my new neighborhood. Right across the river lay the Technicolor scrim of the San Gabriel mountain range—it had a cinematic quality, changing with the light of the day. In the morning, it reflected pink. At night, a psychedelic purple doom flickered in. So different from the relentless green of Pennsylvania. Watching sunsets through the skylight became a hypnotic experience—I was transfixed by all the new beauty.

It was cheap for a studio, but expensive for me—$750 a month and worth every penny. Just a few months ago, living in a company apartment full-time would have been something aspirational to me, but I was starting to realize that free rent was a Dov girl thing. A cost of its own. Having my own apartment meant having access to a neutral territory where I could think, a place to be truly independent. I wouldn’t be compromising too much of myself if I stayed here, where I could watch all the craziness from a safe distance.

As long as I paid for my own place, I’d be okay.

I had to be sure to never lose it.

Soon Dov moved into a new place, too. It was a major upgrade from the thousand-square-foot Echo Park bungalow he’d been calling home for the past three years while he built the company from scratch. The working-class kid from Canada swapped the humble digs for his own Playboy Mansion in the Silver Lake hills—a four-million-dollar safe haven where he could keep a watchful eye on the US Bank tower blinking from the downtown skyline.

All the girls called it the Big House.

It was a great big Deco mansion on Apex Avenue, all of Los Angeles hanging around it like a diorama. A palatial bunker of sorts, it was built a hundred years ago by another eccentric business tycoon named Frank Garbutt, who designed the house to be a concrete fortress because of his debilitating phobia of earthquakes.

“An unshakable house,” the paranoid Garbutt decreed, so the walls, the floors, and even the roof were constructed of concrete and lined in fireproof travertine. Each door was reinforced with steel. There were no fireplaces. Tucked away in the Big House, a family could survive any Californian natural disaster, and all with a view of the Hollywood sign, which captioned the windows on its north side.

When Caralee asked me to come to dinner at the Big House, I was pumped. The purchase of the property had been big news, but invites seemed reserved for the hallowed inner circle of American Apparel employees. Now I was counted among them, too—a trip to the Big House was an acknowledgment of how far I had come, and no matter how I had been feeling about Dov lately, I was proud that I had made it that far up the ladder.

I earned my invite to the Big House and I hadn’t had to f*ck Dov to get it.

I was such a good little feminist.

Caralee was waiting for me at the foot of a huge staircase that led to the Big House’s front door. It was as imposing as the steps of the Lincoln Monument, dwarfing her—she looked out of place in front of them, like a high schooler on a field trip in her Ray-Bans and jean shorts. She twisted a cigarette out underfoot and gave me a wave.

Caralee was back from Tel Aviv with a tan. I was back from Minneapolis with a cold. We hugged as though we hadn’t seen each other in years.

She held out my arms and gave me the once-over.

“Did you get extensions?” she asked.

“No, my hair just got long. Did you dye yours?”

Caralee’s hair had golden bits woven through it like tinsel.

“No, I learned how to surf in Tel Aviv and the sun bleached it.”

After full inspection and approval of each other’s appearances, we climbed the stairs to the landing in front of the door. The setting sun had produced a dreamy haze over the city with only the tops of palm trees poking through. Planes twinkled like shooting stars as they zoomed across the peachy-gold sky.

It was a glorious view of the city I was conquering.

“I’ll give you the tour,” Caralee said.

I followed her up the rest of the giant staircase and through the front door.

We stepped into a cavernous foyer with glossy cherrywood walls, an ornate teak ceiling, and the noble scent of old wood. The room was empty of furniture but filled with a dozen rolling racks loaded with sample garments, handwritten spec tags fluttering from each one.

I reached for a cotton bathrobe that I had never seen before.

Sz XS-XL, Cotton terry,
Miguel on 4th floor dye bath:
Salmon, lemon, stone, pink

It was a comfy cotton robe with a Peter Pan collar that rested sweetly above a row of covered buttons. Much longer than the 1970s terry robes that grazed the midthigh, and way more demure. It looked like a vintage 1950s housecoat, something to wear rollers and flip eggs in.

So domestic.

The Wifecoat was an anomaly amid the sensual disco-glitz look that American Apparel had been evolving into these days. What exactly was en vogue about being a housewife? After nine months in the company, marriage seemed like an old-fashioned concept to me, like tuberculosis. I didn’t really see its commercial appeal.

“Dov’s obsessed with the Wifecoat,” Caralee said. “He’s shooting it upstairs right now.”

She gestured to a set of double doors at the top of the stairs, shut tight.

I wondered which poor dummy was getting shot in there and only compensated with a little bit of spotlight and a free iPod from Circuit City, the going rate for a sexy photoshoot with Dov.

What a rip-off, I thought. I had been stripped of all my delusions about modeling. I had played that game and lost, and now I was over it.

Sounds and good smells were emanating from the kitchen, the only room alive with activity. A lofted skylight poured sun onto Wedgwood blue tiles hand painted with vegetables alongside their French names, which seemed comically quaint as a crew of Dov girls in crop tops buzzed around a pot of chicken soup bubbling on the stove. His favorite.

I recognized two of the girls.

Aika was new in town, from a rural corner of Japan and here on a work visa. I had seen her following Dov around at the Factory, learning the ropes. Aika was older than all of us. She was in her early thirties, not that you’d be able to tell by looking at her.

Junie was a local girl, nineteen, fresh out of private school and already appearing in ad campaigns. She was devoted to Dov and the company, and even went as far as harassing one of the girls who filed a lawsuit and getting slapped with one herself. Junie was a loyal subject—one of Dov’s favorites.

Aika spotted me and Caralee, and brought over two champagne flutes, each with something floating in it. The waxy-sweet smell of jasmine wafted from my glass as I took it.

I looked in and saw a single bloom of tuberose bobbing around inside, threaded with silvery champagne bubbles.

“An aphrodisiac,” Aika said.

I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip. I waited to feel something.

Junie drained her glass and hovered over Aika’s shoulder for a refill.

“Everyone must share,” Aika told her, slapping her hand away.

Junie stomped brattily into the corner to sulk. She was always a reliable font of crabby teenage attitude, but there seemed to be something else up her ass today. She barely looked at us when we said hello and ignored Caralee’s invite to join the rest of the tour.

We left her in the kitchen and continued to the dining room, Aika leading the way. Giant picture windows filtered golden light onto a long oak table set with laptops instead of plates. A row of girls I recognized from the upper Factory echelons sat typing away.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap.

There was one empty place setting at the head of the table. Aika stopped to straighten the silverware.

Daddy’s seat.

How patriarchal, I thought, before I could stop myself.

“Perfect, right?” Caralee said.

“Huh?” I asked.

“The light,” she clarified.

I nodded—the house was beautiful, there was no doubt about that—and I wanted to see all of it. We climbed the stairs that led to the master bedroom’s set of double doors where the photoshoot was taking place.

“Who’s in there?” I asked.

Caralee put a finger to her lips, and we listened for a second.

“Not Junie.” She stifled a laugh. “She’s so pissed. She wanted to shoot the Wifecoat.”

That explained Junie’s black mood. She was jealous. Something that Caralee never seemed to be.

Up until that point, I had always thought of Caralee as the ultimate sexually liberated woman, but seeing her in the Big House where everyone had to share, waiting her turn in the sisterwife rotation to get shot by Dov and then printed on the backs of LA Weeklys in her most intimate moments—it all struck me as very sad and exploitative.

Excerpted from STRIP TEES: a Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Flannery. All rights reserved.


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