Shopgirl Pride: On Kate Flannery’s “Strip Tees”
By Mariella RudiNovember 2, 2023
Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery
I was 17 but power dressing as a ball-busting Reagan-era businesswoman in high-waisted pleated trousers and penny loafers. I didn’t wear makeup, nail polish, or a bra. I kept my eyebrows unplucked and my hair air-dried and wore senior citizen accessories like oversized eyeglasses and demi-fine watches. I worked at the West Hollywood store and sold a languid Mary-Kate Olsen mesh underwear, had a standing date with Justin Bieber’s bodyguard for purple zip-up hoodies, and introduced Florence Welch to the maxi skirt. I did my homework at the gay bar next door.
All my friends worked there too, stationed across the city, and we formed an American Apparel teenage gang. None of this was by accident. The treacherous allure of belonging and a kind of structure I never got at home galvanized me into working-girl mode. Even then, I knew that living in Los Angeles—like working at American Apparel, like being 17—carried the power of myth.
Similar memories of a fantasy stitch together Kate Flannery’s retail tell-all, Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles (2023), based on her stint at American Apparel from 2004 to 2008. The 23-year-old Bryn Mawr alumna, who moves to L.A. on a whim and waltzes into a dive bar “on the night the Santa Ana winds arrived,” is immediately scouted by a Manson girl–type in a racerback tank. She hands Flannery a business card for a “sweatshop free,” “progressive, provocative retailer and manufacturer,” unrestricted by “logos or politically correct tribalism” and with “great travel opportunities.” An indie sleaze odyssey sends her across the country and up the corporate tube-sock ladder. Cracks form in the company’s sex-positive, bottom-up empowerment schtick; as ever, all leads back to its charismatic-creep CEO and founder, Dov Charney. “I would work the hardest and be the sexiest one who would never have sex with him,” she writes.
Strip Tees is perhaps the first book on the American Apparel era. An echt-early-2000s coming-of-age cautionary tale no doubt positioned for literary adaptation. You can practically hear the Netflix POV narration when Flannery describes AA’s trademark Lolitafied ads as “real and intimate, like a snapshot you'd take with your best girlfriends […] practicing the ropes of sexiness, just getting a feel for it […] eager, wanting to please.” Uffie’s probably already cashed her royalty checks.
That an existentially horny Canadian Jew built the great American fashion brand was further proof of Dov’s mercantile manifest destiny. A staunch free-market libertarian, he cooked up a proprietary blend of caring capitalism, money, and sex while also creating fair labor conditions, paying above the minimum wage, and lobbying for immigration reform and LGBTQ+ rights (and marketing never let you forget it). But in an attempt to demonstrate the erosion of identity politics, there was a simultaneous creation of them. The wet dream of a hip, neoliberal, post-Fordist had become too formative and personal, too galaxy-brained. “[D]on’t hate me for stealing from an independent clothing company, because then you’d be basing your hatred on something that isn’t real,” Tao Lin writes in his 2009 autofiction novella Shoplifting from American Apparel.
The illusion of choice forms the basis of Flannery’s prima facie case against the toxic pre–#MeToo workplace. Unfortunately, it all collapses under the cognitive dissonance she attempts to reconcile between then and now. The propulsive plot stalls at Colleen Hooverish homilies (“I did look pretty great in the skimpy romper, second-wave feminism be damned”), self-deprecating groaners (“I felt like the stupidest idiot alive”), and too many dramatic ironies (“women ruled here […] I was looking at the corporate version of Bryn Mawr”).
I identified with Flannery’s shopgirl pride, how being called an American Apparel girl “was the highest form of compliment.” But then she’d write, “At American Apparel, I was always hearing that I was too skinny,” and in the same paragraph, “I had bigger fish to fry at the moment than upholding my feminist principles.” Often, I wondered where in the narrative were the gays, immigrants, and child labor force who kept the place running.
If you worked at American Apparel, you’re likely triggered by Swiffer Sweepers, gold-lamé, and this book. “Retail is a boring mistress,” Flannery observes as an insouciant sales associate. She escapes the floor thanks to her knack for hiring the perfect American Apparel girl, “a baby face with a curvy body, slightly bohemian, ethnically ambiguous,” she writes. Backstock boys were “a necessary evil” and looked like “clean-cut dorks in button-down oxfords,” a.k.a. “Mini Dovs.”
Flannery starts sleeping with her male recruits, emboldened by the company’s incestuous atmosphere. “If Dov had no qualms about dating his subordinates, why should I?” Flannery writes. She calls it “The Year I Fucked Everybody.” One man (“I ought to give him a whirl,” she writes) later gropes her in her sleep on a work trip. Dov coerces her into telling HR it was no big deal: “Come on. You know my ass is in a sling here.” His name would soon become synonymous with sexual harassment. “American Apparel was my life now—I had nothing else,” she writes. She stays at the company for two more years, passing the time at DJ Steve Aoki shows and checking The Cobrasnake the morning after.
It’s a long way from former American Apparel marketing director Ryan Holiday’s sizzling 2012 exposé, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which outlines his PR shock tactics used to court (and fake) controversy. “I had some promotional images for a Halloween campaign I also couldn’t use,” he writes. “I still wanted them seen, so I had one of my employees e-mail them to Jezebel and Gawker and write, ‘I shouldn't be doing this but I found some secret images on the American Apparel server and here they are.’ The post based on this lie did ninety thousand views.” The book’s second half tries to make amends by sounding the alarm for fake news.
Unlike Holiday, Flannery is neither reformist nor apologist. That’s okay. Someone else’s bad behavior isn’t her cross to bear. Instead, she paints Dov—the company always by extension—in his own shades of tri-blend gray areas: his closet of Hitachi Magic Wand vibrators for gifting, his live-in geisha, his feather duvet covering an underage model she hired, and his hairy thumb in that model’s mouth. “Fuck sexual harassment culture!” he says at an employee meeting. “It’s the fabrication of a bunch of pierced protestors. It makes victims out of women, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s victim culture.” It’s not even her fault that the best aperçus and anecdotes come from Dov, the foil doomed to become the main character of every plot he ends up in.
Dov’s true pained love affair has always been with his adopted Los Angeles, “a city haunted not only by the past but by lost futures,” to borrow from Mark Fisher who borrowed from Derrida. The book, like its subject, is a memory of someone else’s fantasy. It’s but one key to understanding how we got here today. That American Apparel existed, lived, and died by its contradictions. That women lie and men take advantage. That cancel culture is another name for damage control. That art and sex feed one another.
Early in the book, the Echo Park store is hit with a flyerbomb of Dov’s mug and the words “OBEY YOUR MASTER-BAITER.” It had happened before, a colleague explains, when reporter Claudine Ko published an article that featured Dov masturbating (about eight times) in front of her during interviews. The reader isn’t allowed context, regrettably, never a 2023 update about how it kicked off Dov’s pervert persecution, or how the reporter rejected the victim narrative and, in fact, felt in total control. We only get what’s said in the moment, from a pissed-off female co-worker cleaning up the mess: “She came looking for a great story, and she got one. Opportunist.”
Mariella Rudi is a Cuban American writer from Los Angeles. She has reported on her hometown since graduating from Pepperdine University with a journalism degree in 2015 and written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, W Magazine, Bon Appétit, i-D, Vox, and more.
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