Like any creative industry, the fashion world derives its entertainment value from the wacky characters that populate it just as much as its products. Wunderkind designers like Alexander Wang are its heroes. Then there are cool sidekicks, like the Not Jason Dill Guy in every Supreme campaign, or quirky goofballs like Marc Jacobs. And there's no lack of villains. Think creepy uncles—Terry Richardson, Dov Charney—or middle school bullies such as Abercrombie's Mike Jeffries. These characters are important because they add some drama to what is, after all, a series of boring economic transactions.
One of the most talked-about recent developments in the industry is that American Apparel CEO Dov Charney got fired. The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman theorized that it was due to his divisive persona, by which she means his tendency to jerk off in front of women he's just met. Consumers having found him equally repellent may have just have tanked the company's sales. Friedman compares American Apparel to Abercrombie, which is famous for its campaigns that featured beautiful people cavorting naked. The latter brand has adjusted to bad sales by switching up its aesthetic to be more, um, loser-friendly, I guess?
According to conventional wisdom, consumers are turning to brands with a kinder, gentler or, at least, more progressive image. As Refinery 29 put it, "With Charney out…maybe public opinion is finally turning against the 'sleaze sells' ethos that's dominated fashion for too long."
The more I think about the idea that a company's values affect its sales, the more it seems to be wishful thinking. For example, Karl Lagerfeld is basically a comic book villain, cartoonishly uniformed, sporting a thick German accent, always stroking his beloved cat. He is prone to saying the exact same kind of awful things that Mike Jeffries says, but Lagerfeld can get his Regina George on without consequences because Chanel is, well, Chanel. Here are a few assorted gems from Lagerfeld: "No one wants to see curvy women. You've got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying thin models are ugly. Fashion is about dreams and illusions." In another interview, he gave the following style tip: "The body has to be impeccable as well—that helps a lot. If it's not, buy small sizes and eat less food." Do people find quotes like these any less repulsive than the quote that comes up whenever people write about Mike Jeffries? I mean c'mon: "We want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that."
So it doesn’t seem to inherently matter if a brand's figurehead says the worst things ever. But maybe American Apparel is in economic trouble because the amateur porn that is uses as advertisements are backfiring. This seems to be a moral victory for self-proclaimed sensible people who have always said, "What's the point of using naked bodies to sell clothes?" But the ads of hot girls in thongs and tube socks weren't selling clothes, they were selling the idea of the company that made the clothes. These ads were successful at lending a striking and clearly defined sort of loucheness to extremely bland, normcore clothing that might otherwise have been forgettable. Why would people five years ago not have minded if people today have serious problems with it? Why does this negative suddenly outweigh the positive of sweatshop-free, made in America clothing?
The rug slipped out one way or another. Does it matter whether it was because Dov Charney creeps people out or because it's easier than ever before to find good clothes?
American Apparel's core target demographic is college students. As a college student, anecdotally, it seems to me that my peers have been aware for some time that American Apparel stores look like sex shops and that "Dick in a Box" could have been written about Dov Charney, and I go to a school where people are shamefully uninformed about the world outside of campus. More broadly, Charney's propensity to whip it out has received a lot of media coverage for a long time. And people were still buying American Apparel a few years ago, when we knew basically just as much as we do now. The executive board of American Apparel cited Charney's risque behavior as the reason they fired him, but that wasn't exactly brand new information. Realistically, the board didn't care that Charney was acting like a creep as long as he was making them money. He was fired because his company's profits are down and his persona is a pretext. And I don’t think profits are down because his image and his company’s image are too sexually transgressive. Transgression is what the erotic imagination is made of. Sex absolutely does sell and it has always sold, or, at least, it's never single-handedly served as a deterrent. Similarly, the whole sweatshop-free, made in America shtick that's supposed to appeal to the consumer's sense of ethics didn't single-handedly keep AA afloat. The company's profits declined for reasons related to the product, not the marketing of the product.
AA also can't expect to dominate the Basics For Hipsters market the way it used to. First, nothing can expect to dominate any market the way it used to. The market is way more crowded. The rise of online shopping is tough on big corporations because it levels the playing field for online-only stores encroaching on the turf of brick and mortar companies, as well as smaller stores overcoming the disadvantage inherent in not being physically ubiquitous. AA and other large clothing corporations aren't just losing the logistical advantage, they're losing the advantage on product as well. Are you going to spend your $15-22 on a cotton T-shirt from American Apparel or would you rather pay the same price for an inventive design from ASOS or next-level high-quality fibers from Everlane? In other words, AA's problem may be more that the kind-of-affordable, decent-quality rug slipped out from under its feet.
But so what? The rug slipped out one way or another. Does it matter whether it was because Dov Charney creeps people out or because it's easier than ever before to find good clothes?
Just like the downfall of Abercrombie, this is the story of a brand that was wildly successful at setting a trend and then didn't do as well once fashion changed. It’s an economic story that made headlines because the main character happens to be a villain.
At their respective peaks, AA and A&F had great sales in spite of CEOs who came off as assholes and advertising campaigns with massive amounts of nudity. Both companies' repellent personas remained constant and, regardless, profits were up then, and now they're down. Do the values of a large pool of consumers change that radically in five years?
What does link profit fluctuations and a douchelord of a CEO is a neat wishful-thinking story wrapped up in a feel-good bow. To say a company is going down the tubes because of the flawed values embodied in its public representative brings us the cathartic satisfaction of a villain getting his deserved comeuppance. Even better, this retribution was delivered by the consumers who stopped buying the products as a form of protest. Consumers (we, the people) did the right thing and stuck it to the man because consumers' choices (our choices) are motivated by ethics.
Except that pretty much every piece of clothing you can buy for less than $100 (and some that you can't) is made with sweatshop labor in the Third World or prison labor in the United States. We still buy it. Even with nearly unlimited means, which most of us don't have, it's incredibly difficult to buy goods whose production has no negative consequences for the world. Besides, clothing is a product with a primarily aesthetic purpose and our choices of clothing are motivated by aesthetic values. As a vegetarian who owns a leather jacket and a lefty currently wearing jeans I bought from the conservative-owned Urban Outfitters, I'm not here to judge anyone. Instead of inventing a moral reason for economic decisions, I'd rather grab some popcorn and take a seat to observe the latest celebrity antics.
Emily Lever is a French-American writer who wishes she led a life of adventure. You can follow her on Twitter here.