A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles

Kate Flannery’s book Strip Tees documents her experience working for fashion brand American Apparel—and how what appeared to be a culture of female empowerment turned out to be anything but.

Last summer, a memoir by Kate Flannery ’03 received rave reviews from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other outlets. Soon after graduating from Bryn Mawr as a creative writing major, Flannery moved to Los Angeles in search of new horizons and landed a job with up-and-coming clothing brand American Apparel, known for its anti-sweatshop stance and provocative ads. Being surrounded by mostly young female coworkers seemed like a dream come true, and she quickly rose through the ranks to manage the recruitment of American Apparel girls for new retail locations. Flannery conveys her dawning realization that unconventional and charismatic CEO Dov Charney was actually using the women for his own gain— both as unpaid models and as “Dov girls,” a handpicked group of sexual partners. In this excerpt, she begins to confront the uncomfortable truth about American Apparel’s culture.

I was at the Factory, dropping off an expense report, when I saw it. It stopped me dead in my tracks—I recognized it right away. My old friend, my treasured heirloom.

My mom’s hat.

But done over in cranberry, not black like the original. It was resting on the head of a girl wearing a turtleneck dress and red lipstick, a froth of red hair sneaking out below its brim.

It was thrilling to see it in the wild—I didn’t realize they were in stores already. I wondered what other colorways they came in, who else might be wearing them around already. I must have stared too long, because the girl seemed to feel it.

When she turned around, her eyes widened with a jolt of recognition.

“It’s you!” she said, pointing at me. “I know you.”

I had never seen this girl before. She spoke with a heavy accent, and I was sure I didn’t know any French girls.

“I think you're confusing me with someone else,” I said.

“No,” she insisted. “It’s you.”

“Lilou, you know Kate?” Ivy asked.

I had been so gobsmacked by the hat, I hadn’t even seen her there, guiding the French girl by the elbow down the same hallway she had guided me during my first trip to the Factory.

It was only ten months ago, but it may as well have been a different lifetime.

“You’re the girl in the video,” Lilou said. “You dance.”

She wagged her hips back and forth in demonstration.

When she did that little dance, a memory ignited—a night when we had to stay late and snap size rings on all the new metal hangers, back at the Sunset store when I was still a shopgirl.

The girls and I had been goofing around, mugging for Ivy’s video camera while we worked. I discovered the plastic bags of size rings rattled like little percussive gourds, and I shook them to the beat as we danced to the title track from the 1968 soundtrack to Barbarella, which was blasting from the store iPod.

Barbarella psychedella . . . Dazzle me with rainbow colors

Fade away the duller shade of living Get me up hiiiiigh

We were doing our best approximation of go-go dancing, just being silly. I never gave the footage a second thought.

But Lilou, here to get fully indoctrinated at the Factory before heading back to Paris to open more stores, told me that the video of me dancing was blown up larger than life and playing in a loop in the window of the Paris American Apparel, just a few blocks from the Pompidou Center.

“Paris loves you,” Lilou told me, shaking her head in amazement “Paris just loves you.”

Lilou was looking at me like I was something special. A celebrity. Just the way I was probably looking at Caralee when she walked off the back cover of the LA Weekly and into the Echo Park store the day we met.

Suddenly I began to feel very special—somehow a video of me had made it all the way to Paris before I had. And even better—Paris loved me!

That famous feeling glowed under me all day, but when I got home and bragged about it to my roommate, he was unimpressed.

“Did they pay you for that?” he asked.

“Well, I was on the clock,” I said.

“That’s it?” he asked.

That’s it, I thought. $10.50 an hour.

“So they're using your image—without your permission—and didn’t even pay you for it,” he said, smugly. “They’re ripping you off.”

I felt myself bristle at the suggestion. Anyone attacking American Apparel back then— from an old classmate at Bryn Mawr who said she was sure I had to be sleeping with Dov, or the two ex-employees who had just filed sexual harassment lawsuits, claiming the environment of American Apparel was full of sexual innuendo that created a workplace hostile to women— they were the enemy. I was in for the greater good of the company, not nickel-and-diming like some greedy Hollywood sycophant.

“You don’t know what you're talking about,” I said. “We’re spokesmodels; we do it all.” When Ivy had said that to me, it sounded inspirational, but now the words sounded hollow coming out of my own mouth. They hung in the air like misshapen clouds, hard to define.

“Sure,” my roommate snorted. “Of course they want you to think that.”

What a mansplaining ass****. He had no idea what American Apparel was really like on the inside. And he also was making huge assumptions about knowing what was best for me, which was dinging my misogyny radar. Maybe it was time to move out and get my own place now that I could afford it. I had been working so hard and it was finally starting to pay off—he was probably just jealous he was making peanuts for emptying Ben Stiller’s trash can.

My roommate was a nobody—I was an American Apparel girl who was big in Paris.

But later that night, I couldn’t get to sleep. My roommate’s words were looping through my head.

Strip Tees book cover

"You’re getting ripped off. They didn’t even pay you for it."

You’re getting ripped off. They didn’t even pay you for it.

He did have a point.

Why hadn’t I gotten paid for the video? Ivy hadn't even bothered to tell me that it was used for an ad campaign, or even asked me if it was all right—that felt pretty suspicious, almost dishonest. I thought we all looked out for each other here.


From Strip Tees: A Memoir of Millennial Los Angeles by Kate Flannery. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright© 2023 by Flannery. All rights reserved.