Back in the ’90s, I worked at what was then called the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. (These days, having gone the way of all unions, it’s collapsed with Amalgamated Textile Workers’ Union to become UNITE.) It was a smash-up first job, overall. Not only did I meet friend-for-life Amy and shake Bill Clinton’s pretty hand, but I was able to say at the end of most days that I’d done something, however indirectly, to improve rather than further complicate the lives of a great deal of immigrant women.
One funny result of working there, however, was that I really did feel compelled to look for the union label. Even back then it was proving increasingly elusive. Truth told, it was impossible to spend all day scribing angry propaganda against Nike or the Gap, and then slap on a pair of swooshy trainers produced by sweatshop workers earning 2 cents a day. Shopping was a nightmare: For years, I could only either buy clothing at stores like Benetton, as I knew the Italians to be too prickly to use anything but organized labor, or fool helplessly with the sewing machine my grandmother left me. Over the years, as I befriended more and more Brooklyn and downtown girly designers, I started to look the other way when it came to pinpointing who exactly manufactured their too-cute-for-school gear. Only when the D train crossing the Manhattan bridge afforded me a fullscreen glimpse of the Chinatown sweatshops did I confront the women toiling at least in part on the little shifts my friends and I were sporting.
Which is why I’ve been clinging to American Apparel like an ideological life preserver. Sure, Dov Charney, the mustached man behind the screen, has proved himself (in the slick pages of feminist-lite mag Jane, no less) to be a chronic public masturmabator and all-round abject objectifier (in a bad way). But the ropa is clever, accessible, simple cotton, eminently affordable, and sweatshop-free. Facts impressive enough so that a church-state separation has seemed warranted in the case of Feminism Vs. Labor Politics.
A Behind the Label release, however, suggests that as usual the separation ain’t possible. Dirty sexual politics and dirty labor practices is in fact the real name of the game. O ye wearing the sweet hoodies, polo shirts, and sexy camp counselor shorts, I must announce that Charney is as ugly an owner as he is a sexual prospect. Ugly, of course, in the most of spiritual of senses. What to do? Maybe we should start growing cotton ourselves.