Lawsuit has fashion mogul in spotlight

Carla Hall for LA Times reports that American Apparel chief executive Dov Charney is facing a sexual harassment trial. He denies the charges.

Dov Charney, founder and chief executive of casual fashion giant American Apparel, acknowledges that he has appeared in his underwear many times in front of male and female employees.

And yes, on a few occasions during work meetings, he donned a skimpy garment that barely covered his genitals.

But those events, he said, have to be understood in the context of the fashion industry.

As early as next week, Charney may find out how his explanations play in court, when trial starts in a lawsuit brought by a former employee alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination.

The case is the fourth against him alleging sexual harassment. One was dismissed. Two others were combined and settled. He has denied the charges in all of them.

Charney’s eccentric behavior in and out of the workplace has become legendary. Most notably, he masturbated in front of a magazine reporter interviewing him in 2004.

The case about to go to trial was brought by former sales employee Mary Nelson, who contends that Charney, 38, created “a hostile work environment” by using sexually explicit language and behaving in sexually inappropriate ways. During several meetings with her — including one at his home — he was dressed only in his underwear, the suit alleges. On another occasion, according to the suit, he appeared in a skimpier garment.

(The Los Angeles Times and other media outlets have been subpoenaed by Nelson’s attorneys, who are seeking access to unpublished material. The media organizations are fighting the subpoenas.)

Nelson, 36, who worked for American Apparel for a little more than a year, claims Charney also referred to women as “whores” and “sluts” and invited her to masturbate in front of him. Nelson’s suit alleges she was fired the day she consulted a lawyer.

The company contends that there was no harassment. Rather, “American Apparel is a sexually charged workplace where employees of both genders deal with sexual conduct, speech and images as part of their jobs,” Charney’s lawyers said in court documents.

Indeed, sexually suggestive marketing is part of what has propelled American Apparel’s rapid growth in the T-shirt and cotton fashion market.

The provocative photos Charney shoots of young men and women wearing American Apparel clothing are featured in the company’s ads and on its website.

And young shoppers have responded, snapping up the company’s close-fitting soft jersey T-shirts and other cotton staples, as American Apparel stores have opened around the world.

American Apparel, which runs the largest garment factory in the United States, also earns high marks for its treatment of workers who make its clothing in a sprawling pink building in downtown Los Angeles.

The company’s very success, Charney says, supports his contention that Nelson’s allegations are overblown. “I’m the CEO of a public company,” he said in a recent interview. “I manage 7,000 employees in 14 countries. . . . Could I have done all this where I’m inappropriate all the time? Where I’m running around in my underwear all the time?”

As creative director of the company, he appointed himself fit model, the person who tests the look and size of his men’s line. He has even appeared in the ads. “I weigh 155 pounds, I’m five-10. Am I not fit? Is there any job that is not appropriate for me to do?” he said. “All the big guys did exactly what I do. Versace — they all wore their own bathing suits.”

In a deposition, he said that during the time of Nelson’s employment he “frequently had been in my underpants . . . because I was designing an underwear line.”

“I’m very proud of the underwear,” he added.

In an interview, he also defended appearing in front of Nelson with just his genitals covered. “The demonstration of the” garment, Charney said, “was a product we were considering — and I was in fit condition for it.” He ultimately decided against putting it in the American Apparel line. “It wasn’t classy,” he said.

Charney’s court papers portray Nelson as a poor sales rep who was frequently emotional. By November 2004, according to the papers, Nelson had earned less in commissions than the company had advanced her against those commissions.

“She wasn’t performing well,” Charney said in an interview. “And we were moving away from commissioned sales people.”

Nelson alleges in her suit that she was fired in January 2005, but Charney says he offered to keep her on salary for three months while she looked for other work. “She disappears, never to come back,” Charney said. He denies that he ever invited her to masturbate in front of him.

In an interview, Nelson’s attorney, Keith Fink, disputed Charney’s assessment of Nelson’s performance. “If she was a bad sales manager, why did she get a raise? You won’t see a single piece of paper in any of her files saying she did anything bad. . . . She was on salary plus commission. She sold more than $3 million worth of merchandise.”

Charney casts the world of American Apparel in particular and fashion in general as a business where everyone casually dresses and undresses for creative reasons and uses foul language with abandon.

“You talk to any man who works in entertainment or fashion, and if he tells you he has not used the word ‘slut’ . . . I think he’s lying.”

Fink rejects Charney’s argument. “It’s the height of absurdity that because it’s the garment industry, that allows him to call women” by particularly vile words, Fink said.

On a tour of American Apparel’s offices Monday, two employees said that language gets “salty” at the office.

A journalist for Jane magazine wrote that during a series of interviews she conducted with Charney, he masturbated in front of her “eight or so times.” Asked about the article, Charney said in an interview, “I didn’t think she would exploit our relationship.”

During the conversations, he says, he thought it was simply “two people having a private time. You could say, ‘You knew she was a reporter.’ I made a mistake.”

The journalist, Claudine Ko, acknowledged that the situation was “unconventional” but said she made clear she was doing a story. “At all times, my recorder and my note pad were there,” she said.

Charney met a Times reporter Monday in his loft-like office at the American Apparel factory looking like a rumpled preppy, which he once was. He graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. He wore an untucked blue button-down shirt and dark-blue cotton trousers on his skinny physique, his bearded face framed with oversized square eyeglasses.

On a wall covered with framed notes and pictures, a long string of calendar photos showed bare-breasted, smiling Polynesian women in tropical locales. “That’s just something personal,” he said. “Reporters always go to that,” he chided.

Although many clothiers have created an overtly sexual mystique to sell their wares, Charney has pushed things further than most. In the signature American Apparel photos, young women — never professional models — peer at the camera, sometimes in T-shirts and little else. The company’s skin-tight shorts and leggings are sometimes photographed on topless women contorted into porn magazine poses. But what makes the photos particularly edgy is their flat background and the lack of glamorous makeup, leaving the subjects looking vulnerable and raw. His fashion colleagues generally commend Charney’s ad campaigns. In 2005, he won an LA Fashion Award for marketing excellence.

“I think it’s no worse than the old Calvin Klein ads that looked like they were shot against a grainy wood paneling in someone’s basement,” said Los Angeles-based designer and retailer Trina Turk, recalling the uproar that the Klein ads caused more than a decade ago. “The people are sort of normal-looking. That’s kind of refreshing. They haven’t been retouched to within an inch of their lives.”

No one wanted to venture a comment on the sexual harassment case that Charney faces. “I think he’s built an amazing business,” said Turk, who burst into laughter when told of Charney’s reason for wearing his underwear in the office.

“That’s hilarious,” she said. “I guess I’m glad I don’t work there.”