The employees of the US clothing company Feminist Apparel thought they were creating tools for the resistance. The online store’s viral shirts and accessories — which feature sayings like “Cats against catcalls” and “Trans rights are human rights” — became staples at events like the Women’s March and Pride. The brand amassed over 360k followers on Instagram and Facebook and was behind viral moments like the “No Catcall Zone” signs that took over NYC. Plus every item sold helped support an independent artist, and in many cases, a partnering organisation that would receive part of the proceeds.
It all came to a grinding halt in June of 2018 when Feminist Apparel staff discovered that the brand’s founder and CEO Alan Martofel had an admitted history of sexually abusing women. In fact, he claims it’s the reason why he started the company in the first place. After asking for his resignation, all nine employees were fired without notice or severance. (Only Martfel and an outside consultant remained.)
“This is the patriarchy and toxic masculinity at its fucking finest,” says Rebecca Green, the company’s now-former art director. “I feel righteous and angry. I feel supported by my coworkers and friends. I also feel tired. I feel incredibly sorry knowing that there are survivors in this office who were led to believe that their contributions to this company were directly going to creating a safe space and platform for survivors, feminists, and marginalised identities. As an artist myself creating work based on my own experiences with the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and harassment for this company — and by extension this man — I feel used and wilfully mislead.”
On June 21, Feminist Apparel was tagged in a Facebook post accusing Martofel of rape. The employees investigated and found a Facebook post that Martofel wrote in 2013 that describes his own sexual abuse of women, how he came to learn about rape culture, and that he was starting a company called Feminist Apparel as his “humble attempt” to “solve it.”
“We’ve all either faced this firsthand, seen it, heard a firsthand account of it, or are guilty of it ourselves,” Martofel wrote in the the post. “I’m someone who’s guilty of it. I’ve grinded up on women on buses and at concerts without their consent. I’ve made out with ‘the drunk chick’ at a party because it was easier. I’ve put a woman’s hand on my dick while she was sleeping.”
The long post — filled with statistics and a PSA that the majority of rapists are people you know and trust — concludes with the announcement of the new company and an ask to help him spread the word about it.
This was a far cry from the origin story that the team had been told. In interviews, Martofel said he came up with the idea for Feminist Apparel in college while brainstorming for a documentary he was making about sexual assault. A glowing 2014 piece in Forbes rehashes this discovery: “I learned what feminism is and preaches, and I thought it was incredible. I began working on a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses at my alma mater, and while I was brainstorming ways to raise funds to better carry out that project, I came up with the idea for Feminist Apparel.”
"This was a place that claimed to be ethical and feminist,” says Ryker Fry, the company’s now-former office and HR manager, told Refinery29. “It was so hard to hear that Alan had done those things and hidden them from us, because that meant that we had been working for an abuser who was taking money from abuse victims.” The day after the June 21 post, members of the Feminist Apparel team confronted Martofel.
“As a group of people dedicated to activism and social justice there was only one thing to do: take action,” the now-former employees wrote in a joint statement released publicly to get word out about the story. “[We] decided the only thing to do was to demand Alan step down as CEO of the company, separate himself, and issue a public apology to our customers, creative partners, and the larger community of intersectional feminists and social justice advocates that he exploited along the way.”
According to employees, Martofel immediately admitted to the allegations. He said he’d step down because he was now “a liability to the company” and left the office soon after. The employees went back to work, but things soon took a turn for the worse.
While placing a routine order for blank shirts that same day after Martofel’s departure, a production team member found that the company card was declined. Some employees told Refinery29 that they then decided to close the site to new orders until everything was sorted out. Four days after Martofel resigned, he messaged the entire team on Slack to tell employees not to come to work for the week, and that he’d fulfil the outstanding orders through a third party, and update everyone on Friday.
On Saturday, employees noticed their company email accounts had been closed, but the Feminist Apparel website was live and receiving orders. The employees reached out to Martofel several times, but all of their messages went ignored. Shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday morning, they were all fired via individual emails to their personal accounts.
“The way he's handled this whole situation has been less of a surprise and more of a shock to the system,” says Kerri Grogan, a now-former graphic designer and communications associate at Feminist Apparel. “Not just lying to us about stepping down and then firing us, but the silence. The fact that he could stay silent — aside from one two-sentence Slack message — for almost two whole weeks, about our jobs and livelihoods being at stake? That was really shocking and very telling.”
Martofel declined to be interviewed, but he has acknowledged the situation, first with a post on the brand’s Facebook page where he announced the company is seeking new management. He told Refinery29 that “this entire situation has been sad and difficult, and I'm going to continue needing to take time to reflect on it further before I'll be ready to say more.” He also posted a statement on the company’s blog:
“While I continue to regret my past behaviors, my ongoing reflection and conversations regarding them have helped to shape me into who I am and have given me the tools to build an organization that has always strived to be a safe and welcoming space for all,” he wrote in the post. “Sadly, in the meeting that took place with my now-former employees last Friday, I was made aware that they, unequivocally, do not share my views on either business or feminism. It is then that the operations of the company were halted for a week, while all employees continued to be paid and I assessed all available options for how to move forward at this juncture. After much deliberation, and in accordance with both state law and our employee handbook, I made the difficult decision to proceed without them. I truly believe in Feminist Apparel, it's [sic] mission, and in the important causes and individuals it supports. As a result, I also need to do what is best for the company's long-term success.”
The response echoes something many of the former employees have pointed out: Martofel’s ignorance about what it means to be an ally. Many claim that he centred the company’s feminist pursuits around himself, often putting his opinions first and ignoring the requests and advice of people of colour, queer people, and survivors, including in campaigns geared towards those groups.
“I feel like with many brands of allyship, there is an enormous miscommunication over who should be given voice. Alan seemed to feel that his voice should come first,” says Claire Quigley, who was a graphic designer at the company until the firing.“The strongest way to be an ally would be to NOT profit from feminism or survivors of sexual assault,” says Grogan.
“It's ridiculous that an abuser could have the audacity to call himself a feminist or to think he has a right to make money off of the people he abused and then consider himself a hero for it,” Fry added.
Quigley told Refinery29 she’s faced workplace harassment and abuse in previous jobs, but that her Feminist Apparel coworkers are what gave her the “courage to finally do something, to say no to an abuser, to organise, to fight back against injustice in the workplace.”
The fired employees have not commented on plans for legal action, but several have spoken out on their personal social accounts, and together, they’ve even launched a Tumblr page detailing the events.
“This had very real implications for all of us,” Fry said. “We knew that it may mean unemployment and whatever other retaliation Alan may try to inflict on us, but he had gathered a group of people who were passionate enough about these ideals to literally make it their full time jobs. He shot himself in the foot by surrounding himself with real feminists and activists, because it took no time at all for us to come to the decision that the most important thing was the truth.”