American Apparel CEO Dov Charney's personal phone number was posted online earlier this week — in the event that serious journalists might actually wish to call him for a quote about the chain's strict dress code and controversial hiring practices (like submitting full-body photographs of potential new employees to corporate). In short, American Apparel has been accused mainly via a series of leaks on Gawker of using a "head-to-toe" screening process to weed out "off-brand" people. Once hired, employees must obey the rules, which include a ban on eyeliner, eye shadow, blush, glitter, liquid foundation, shiny lip gloss, overplucked eyebrows, dyed hair, greasy hair, bangs, gauges, Uggs, Vans, Chucks, moccasins, dirty Keds ... the list goes on. Moreover, some employees have accused AA of telling them to lose weight, and posting photos of their dress-code infractions on the company's intranet for purposes of mocking.
We rang Charney up, of course, and had a pleasant enough chat, but he refused to go on the record since he had been awoken in bed at 7 a.m. L.A. time. He did say, however, that his company's dress-code policy was a non-story, that every store has a dress code, and that Gawker only likes to write about American Apparel — as opposed to, say, White House Black Market — because its readers actually shop there. He further emphasized that hiring store clerks is not about beauty but about personal style. Then he suggested we dress up like Kiss and try applying for retail jobs and see how far we get in the hiring process.
Tempting as that was, we arranged instead to call Charney back that night and talk on the record. We called repeatedly — and texted — but never connected. Bloggers over at the Gloss had better luck, and nailed down Charney for a pretty thorough interview. He told them that the e-mail Gawker published allegedly detailing American Apparel's grooming guidelines had been altered, and essentially reiterated what he told us about this being a non-story:
I think there are dress codes at every hotel, I think there are dress codes at McDonald’s. I think it’s a fake story, okay? I think there’s a dress code at Home Depot. I think it’s a fake story to say that American Apparel has a dress code that’s different from all retailers. I don’t think you can even work in the concierge desk at the common mall if you don’t follow a dress code.
To find out if American Apparel's dress code is really that egregious, we surveyed more than two dozen New Yorkers currently working in, and/or recently employed by, the local retail sector, from big-honkin' chains to cool indies. (Full disclosure: In some cases, we identified ourselves as reporters and spoke with store managers; in others, where employees were cagier about speaking to the press, we went undercover as earnest job-seekers, curious about the wardrobe/style demands of potential employment.) The findings were enlightening, to say the least.
Abercrombie & Fitch
What could a store that sticks half-naked beefcakes at its entrance possibly say about dress codes? A lot, apparently. While the company doesn't take photos during the interview process, Individual and group shots are snapped every six months; the photos are then sent to corporate "just for records." Employees must wear in-season clothing (they receive a graduated discount), keep makeup to a minimum, and leave the jewelry at home (engagement rings are okay). Piercings are a deal-breaker, except in the ears (and even then, only one piercing per lobe), and hoops are verboten. Some hires are given a full outfit to start, including a top, bottom, and flip-flops (or in the current case of the Fifth Avenue flagship, tanks and jeggings). The point, noted one employee, is to exhibit "as little glamour as possible."
American Eagle Outfitters
AE-branded clothes are preferred but not required. "I wear Banana Republic all the time and get away with it," one employee boasted, but then added that he can't advertise any logos for competing brands. Tattoos and piercings are generally tolerated, and the company does not photograph its employees or job applicants.
Two different employees at this boho-trendy chain, owned by Urban Outfitters Inc., admitted that the store's hiring practices were intense. Interviews were conducted in groups, and questions included "Are you well-traveled?" and "What kind of music do you like?" Some interviewees felt so pressured to prove their creativity, they brought art portfolios and demo CDs to the interview sessions. Once hired, the pressure was on to look "well-groomed," wear minimal makeup, and buy and wear clothing sold by the store. Tattoos, piercings, and dark-wash denim are all cool, but there's a ban on short shorts, logos, and light-colored denim. "The basic rule is that you dress to our aesthetic," one employee said. "You're still allowed to express yourself [though]. We don't want a bunch of Anthropologie girls running around in the same outfits." Photos are never taken during the hiring process, but the store's "personal shoppers" sometimes try on clothes and accessories, and then have their pictures taken. These images are used as "inspiration" for the other employees, but never leave the stores and aren't submitted for corporate review.
The Gap Inc.–owned chain asks its employees to wear three business-casual pieces at all times, but is pretty flexible when it comes to defining those three-way combos. For example, pants plus a shirt plus a cardigan or blazer counts, as do pants plus a shirt plus a statement necklace or oversize belt. The items needn’t necessarily be from Banana Republic (though the chain does offer a significant employee discount), but they should be within the collection’s color palette (translation: taupe = good; safety-cone orange = bad). There’s also a laundry list of no-nos: no unnatural hair colors, no visible piercings (ears are okay), no offensive tattoos, no neons, no miniskirts, no bare shoulders or backs, no low-cut tops, no shorts, and no belly-baring midriffs. Corporate has yet to respond about its photo policy.
"Our style is pretty outrageous," one manager told us. "What the girls wear on the floor represents Betsey in every way, shape, or form." Employees are required to wear Betsey, denim is banned, and there are zero rules when it comes to hairstyles, tattoos, and piercings. The company does not photograph its employees or job applicants.
The newly opened bridal shop asks its employees to wear a white Thomas Mason shirt, charcoal slacks, and two-tone gray flats — all of which are provided by the store. Workers are also requested to keep their nail color in the nude or light-pink family. Corporate has yet to respond about its photo policy.
The North Face
Employees are asked to wear head-to-toe North Face, and are given two shirts, one pair of pants, and a pair of shoes. Visible piercings are not permitted. The company does not photograph its employees or job applicants, but someone from corporate visits every two to three months to make sure all workers are obeying the dress code.
No surprises here. Management takes a very laissez-faire approach. Explained one boss, "We encourage people to be themselves, but they can't be boring if they're on the floor ... I draw the line when they're too naked. It's not cool to come in naked." Still, management sometimes bends the no-nudity rule for special occasions. "One of our employees dressed as a naked unicorn for Halloween — that was cute," he continued. "It's all about taste. If you can do something and have it be fabulous, then go for it. We try to let people grow." The company does not photograph its employees or job applicants.
Saks Fifth Avenue
Looking "appropriate" is key. That means no denim unless you're working the denim floor (and then it has to be a style that's for sale), no bare shoulders, no miniskirts, no shorts, and no flip-flops. The company does not photograph its employees or job applicants.
Seven New York
There's no formal dress code at this ahead-of-the-trend designer boutique, but employees must possess "innate style" and be "reflective of the merchandise." Skimpy outfits are fine ("[One of our employees] doesn't wear pants anymore, à la Lady Gaga," one worker said), but vintage clothing, bell-bottoms, flared pants, blue denim, and "cheap mainstream shoes" are forbidden. The company does not photograph its employees or job applicants.
Point being, practically every retail business has an image to uphold, and subsequently, a dress code it adheres to. It seems that most of American Apparel's dress-code requirements are comparable to the requirements of other chain retailers. Where the company differs is mainly in its photo-submission rule for potential new employees. Given that sexual-harassment suits have been filed against Charney, this doesn't seem like the brightest policy — in terms of public perception, at the least.
But let's be real: If you've applied for a job at American Apparel, you sorta know what you're in for. You've seen the ads, right? Some things are just par for the course. If you're selling khakis to frat boys at Abercrombie & Fitch, you can't expect management to turn a blind eye to your Adam Lambert makeup. Conversely, if you dress like Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz, you're probably not cut out to sell clothes to fashion diehards at Seven.
At some point, job seekers have to face this reality: It isn't about them. American Apparel, just like Anthropologie or American Eagle Outfitters, is a business, not an hourly worker's personal catwalk. These companies exist to make money, and they do that by selling the public on a specific look — in their store windows, on their racks, and, yes, behind their counters. So American Apparel wants an au-naturel-looking staff, and it wants its managers to take pictures of potential AA reps. That's their prerogative, it's well-documented, and they're pretty forthright about it. If you want to dress up like David Lee Roth and not submit to the hiring whims of corporate management, you'd probably be happier with your naked-unicorn friends at Patricia Field anyway. End of story. Or non-story, as it were.
Additional reporting by Sally Holmes, Shakthi Jothianandan, and Caitlin Petreycik.