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American Apparel's Dov Charney: Marketing on the EdgeThe Counselor
Photos by Jacob Abrams
There are certain indicators that, when you pay attention, can tell you what your day's going to be like. Make every green light and hear an old favorite song on the way into work — good day. Get a flat tire in the rain — bad day.
My day interviewing Dov Charney, co-owner of Los Angeles-based American Apparel, began with a little dog named Hedkayce greeting me at Charney's front gate gnawing on a bone that looked suspiciously like a femur and a 4-foot high hand sculpture giving me the finger. As it turned out, this would be the most normal part of the day.
Dov Charney, for those who may not know, heads up American Apparel, the upstart wearables firm that has taken this industry (and quite a few others) by storm in less than a decade, racking up impressive growth and trailing in its wake a lot of traditional apparel suppliers who once saw Charney as a fringe-dweller but now emulate his every move. He is, quite simply, a marketing phenomenon, a rock star in a room full of suits. He's also, shall we say, a little odd.
My assignment: Shadow him during the course of a "normal" day; be a fly on the wall; discover the method to his madness.
'Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.'
- The Rolling Stones
Charney bounds out his front door, manic as always, with a cell phone in each hand and wearing a headset. He stands on his front steps and motions hello while carrying on simultaneous phone conversations. You should also know that he's in his underwear and remain that way for next five hours — mostly.
His home, from which he works for half the day every day, is a constant parade of colorful, quirky characters: clients, employees, the cleaning woman, my phographer — none of whom appear to be the least bit taken aback by the fact that Charney's flitting around the house in his briefs like a fruit fly on speed.
He's built like Mick Jagger and that's not where the comparison to the famously eccentric Rolling Stone ends. In addition to being a larger-than-life, charismatic character, Charney's business instincts — like Jagger's — are razor-sharp and dead-on. Let me just say this: He is weird — but I mean weapons-grade weird — but he may also be the most brilliant marketer this industry has seen in a long, long time.
Charney has his hands in every aspect of American Apparel — from photographing the models to designing the apparel — though PR is clearly his forte. On this particular day, numerous media outlets are calling to interview him, Amnesty International wants him to do an online chat and an employee who's been charged with opening up American Apparel's new retail shop wants Charney's approval on the décor. Alex, Charney's live-in assistant who he hired two weeks prior and flew in from Canada where she had called from an alternative newspaper to interview him, is handling these tasks. Meanwhile, Charney is double-holding — for his lawyer on one line and a state senator on the other.
Jake, the photographer, asks if maybe they can step outside so he can get a shot of him with the giant finger, and Charney looks offended. "I think that's a little inappropriate, don't you?" he says, standing in his briefs.
'Now this looks like a job for me, so everybody just follow me, 'cuz we need a little controversy (and) it feels so empty without me .'
The senator has called back and Alex brings the phone to Charney, who's in the shower. I assume he's finally ready to get himself cleaned up, put on some big boy clothes and head over to American Apparel's factory.
A few minutes later he comes out of the shower, obviously done with the senator, and is pissed because no one seems to get that his employees don't want to be bothered at home by reps looking to unionize the company. "What the hell! The employees are happy — they don't want a union. I've asked them; I listen to them; and I resent them being strong-armed into something they don't want!" he says. The employees sitting in the living room with Alex, the photographer and I all nod in agreement. It's impressive that Charney is so passionate about the welfare of his employees. So passionate, in fact, that he has not thought to put on clothes. He's ranting to us in the nude. Again, no one seems the least bit thrown by this except one noticeably shocked person. "Michele", whispers Jake, the photographer, leaning over to me, "your mouth is hanging open."
Odd, yes, but it would be a mistake (and way too easy) to write him off as a kook (though he certainly is). At the ASI Show in Las Vegas last year, American Apparel was named the industry's second fastest-growing supplier with a 300% increase in sales in just 12 months — a year that saw economic chaos for a lot of companies and our industry suffering its first losses in more than a decade. I firmly believe that Charney is the walking, talking, ranting example of the axiom: There's a fine line between genius and madness. He seems to spend equal time on both sides of the line, and the best thing to do, I soon discovered, is just find a safe place to watch.
Only 34, Charney's personality has gotten himself and his company covered in: The New Yorker (where he waxed poetic about women's breasts), Time, on CNN, a PBS special, NPR, and in GQ, Elle, the LA Times and MacLeans, among others. And there's scant evidence he self-edits for any of these people. Witness a random quote from an article he did with a Canadian publication earlier this year: "When you're 15, you're just a ****ing teenager. When you're 20, it starts getting a little more serious, but you're still partying with the bottle. But then when you're in your 30s, you take over and kick the old ****ers out." The words of a dropout, or maybe your typical Antioch or Berkeley grad, but what's interesting is that Charney attended boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut — the same venerable institution President Kennedy attended.
"In elementary school I behaved the same way. I was always the class clown, but eventually, when I matured, I became student council president," he says. "I guess it's the Yiddish showman in me. I don't think I behave like an ass on purpose, but sometimes it probably comes off like that, and it works to the company's advantage. Lori Gonz at Impressions once removed me from [the ISS] Tampa Show before I could afford a booth, because I was soliciting people in the hallway. But today I'm an important client of hers."
'You say you want a revolution .'
- The Beatles
He strides through his factory with fists thrusting in the air, yelling "Viva La American Apparel!" and the workers cheer for him like he's Cesar Chavez or Che Guevara. They clearly worship him, and it's no wonder — he pays them (the majority of whom are Mexican immigrants) more than a living wage, provides a clean work environment, good ventilation, healthcare, free massages, ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, a bank of phones for personal use and exercise programs, among other perks.
The factory, huge and stocked full of the looms and machinery it takes to handsew all of American Apparel's products — that's right, all made in the U.S. — is Charney's stage on which to shine. He's proud of everything he's able to offer his employees, some of which they've never had before. "Dov is a highly creative and charismatic leader with a vision; I just make sure what it takes to run the factory and produce our products happens on a day-to-day basis," says Marty Bailey, senior vice president of operations and the yin to Charney's yang. As a veteran executive at Fruit of the Loom, an apparel company in the more traditional sense of the word, I ask Bailey how he handles the Tsunami that is Charney. "He's got the passion that keeps the rest of us motivated and focused — though it can be exhausting to be around him, ya know?"
Yes, I know.
Charney has other passions as well, one from cheesy '70s art, some of which is scattered around his home and factory — photos of topless Polynesian women and a velvet Linda Evans painting in his bathroom. Things like this line the hallways of American Apparel, along with hand-written testimonial letters from clients, avant garde photography, original artwork from employees and old, kitchy print ads from the '70s. There's also a 1980 article from the Canadian Jewish News with a photo of a smiling (though maniacal looking, even at that early age) Charney under a headline that reads: "11-Year-Old Schoolboy Edits His Own Newspaper."
'When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.'
- Hunter S. Thompson
Like a domino effect, the media found Charney because of his big mouth, out-there antics and much-touted anti-sweatshop stance. They became transfixed by his new school, unorthodox way of being a CEO, and their fascination with him resulted in invaluable press for American Apparel. Think of Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher, Virgin's Sir Richard, Branson and GE's Jack Welch — all smart, savvy CEO's to be sure, but so are a ton of others. What still gets them — even after Welch and Kelleher have retired — more press than they can buy? They're colorful, spontaneous and unabashedly wacky. Their personalities made them — and their companies — famous. Charney is cut from their cloth, and American Apparel is reaping the benefits.
"I certainly believe that positive PR is important," he says. "But I think that, at the end of the day, if you actually stand by what you're doing and are transparent in your business practices, a little bit of controversy won't harm you either."
He'll do about $40 million in promotional product sales this year, and is expanding his Classic Girl, Standard American and Classic Baby lines to include environmentally friendly fabric. But Dov gets hawkish when people stereotype him as a knee-jerk hippie leftist. "Don't paint me as some bleeding-heart liberal - that's just horse****," he says. "I love money! Do you hear me? I LOVE MONEY!!!" In case I didn't hear him, he's yelling and jumping up and down in his office.
What he also loves is what the money allows him to do for his employees. Hence the reason he is what he says: a hyper capitalist-socialist. Innovation and social responsibility, he says, are the new American dream and what he strives for with American Apparel.
"Maybe I'm the one who flew over the cukoo's nest — well guess who's next?"
- Limp Bizkit
American Apparel seemed to come out of nowhere. Charney and a partner bought the company seven years ago, and began appearing at promotional products shows about four years ago, though they've had a presence at apparel shows, the ISS and Magic for a while. It didn't take long for people to notice them, and they're to the point now where attendees do a once around American Apparel's booth just to see what they're up to. "They're like MTV experience - cute young girls handing out underwear, music blasting, the owner being broadcast on a loop on 20 different TV sets in the booth - it's pretty cool and I always stop by to see what they're doing," says AIA distributor Dave Liegeot. "It's like a sideshow."
This is the culmination of Charney's maverick vision for a trade show presence, and his instincts have been borne out once again. They may have almost been kicked off PPAI's show floor by the decency police three years ago, but now distributors look at it as something they'd be remiss to miss.
"There have been many times I've told Dov he's out of his mind when he comes up with one of his epiphanies. I still do try to be the voice of reason with him, but I've learned that, in retrospect, his decisions for American Apparel have been dead-on," says Jin Kang, who handles American Apparel's marketing in concert with Charney.
'Come here, come here, come here, I'll take your photo for ya .'
- The Vines
And that's just their booth. American Apparel's real influence has also been felt with its groundbreaking print catalog, which features models (originally strippers Charney would hire because of their "great body types of all shapes and sizes" and now employees, pets, Charney's parents — really anyone who strikes his fancy), strange art and interesting black and white photos that have nothing to do with apparel that Charney has collected over the years.
They're there just because he likes them. "They're kinda cool, you know?" Some people were offended, I remind him, and wouldn't accept his magazine ads that showed models in his clingy baby doll tops and short shorts.
"Who cares?" he shoots back. "They got over it, and they're certainly taking my advertising money now. If they needed me to push them into it — well, luckily I'm really good at pushing." Naturally, that kind of in-your-face attitude doesn't work with everyone — like any successful maverick, Charney has his critics. But it really doesn't bother him. "My employees rock, my products rock, my business is up 300% in a bad economy, and I'm surrounded all day by beautiful girls wearing my clothes," he says. "What the hell do I care what people think of me?"
Charney currently spends "a few million" a year on marketing the company through advertising and trade shows, and points out that the returns on the voluminous amount of unsolicited press he gets far outweighs what he pays for. "This is what I do," he says, spreading his hands to indicate hallways full of press clippings and testimonials. "This is my art."
Cynthia Semon, a PR consultant Charney hired to handle all the press inquiries and requests for interviews and information on the company, finds the attention a little unbelievable. "The way it usually works is you send out some press releases and hope the media call," she says. "With American Apparel, they don't stop calling — and they all want Dov."
It's as though he's bait that lures people to the real catch, American Apparel's garments. "There have been times when I've had to turn down interview requests or ask the reporter if late-night interviews are okay because Dov literally doesn't have enough time to handle all the media requests and run the company," Semon says.
As for industry reaction, distributors now wait for the new print offering from American Apparel catalogs to arrive with the anticipation of a frat house getting the latest Victoria's Secret catalog. "It's like getting a little gift from God," says Glen Colton, MAS, owner of Seville Marketing and Advantages columnist, of his admiration for the American Apparel book.
"Three years ago, no one in the promotional products industry knew Dov Charney or American Apparel," says Phyllis Mutnick, the company's ASI sales rep who has worked with them to build their name through advertising and trade show presence. "Now everyone in the industry knows Dov and the company. And it's totally because of him — he's charismatic, a brilliant businessman and completely unpredictable. He doesn't understand the word 'no.' But most of all, I believe that Dov is dedicated to the success of American Apparel and committed to improving the quality of life for his employees."
She also points out the depth of the control Charney wields over the company's image. "When American Apparel first started running ads, many industry magazines — including The Counselor — were hesitant to run them because they were so racy. Now, because of Dov and the company, people are used to them, but at the time we got letters saying we were going to hell because we ram their ads. At one point, we took it upon ourselves to redesign an ad for them — at no charge — that was very nice, but very sedate and much less 'them.' Dov wouldn't hear of it and refused to approve it. He has a very focused vision of what he wants and doesn't deviate from that. He is not swayed by those who doesn't get his vision."
That's true without question, but the ship has sailed as far as no one else doing what they do. Bella Inc. and Alternative Apparel, just to name two, have both obviously been influenced by American Apparel's look and photography and taken a page - quite literally from its book.
"In the earlier days, when we were still defining the company's style, I shot most of the photos myself," Charney recounts. "They reflected how I was seeing T-shirts on people, what image I wanted to project about myself and who I thought the customer was. As far as competitors copying the style — well I guess it's just proof that my vision is shared by others, and I'm flattered by that."
'Into my big mouth, you could fly a plane .'
Having interviewed Charney before and now spending the day shadowing him, I have to admit that one of the reasons he's like the Holy Grail to journalists is that he doesn't go off the record. Never. Not even when he should. His thoughts on everything just spew forth like some geyser-of-consciousness without a dam to filter out the hyper-frenetic clutter from the clarity. Everything just spills out. To the media, finding someone like him — especially the owner of a multimillion-dollar company — is about as rare as it gets.
At certain points during the day, I was in the room when Charney met with a group of investors where they discussed — in great detail — the finances of the company, and when he was on the phone with lawyers, employees and representatives about the threat of the union infiltrating American Apparel. For a member of the press to be given unfettered access to this kind of sensitive information is unheard of, and it gets to a point when I think that maybe he doesn't know any better, or that it's ok if he asks me to leave the room or go off the record. "No," he says. "Listen to everything and write what you want."
So what did I learn from my day with Dov? Perhaps the most valuable lesson is this: If you want the kind of amazing press and attention Charney and his company get, then pre-packaged, sanitized, boilerplate business-speak isn't going to do the trick. Of course, Charney's way won't work for everyone, but clarity of vision — regardless of how many feathers in ruffles or how unconventional it is — and a refusal to be hindered by the opinions of the status quo are both good paths to follow.
Charney may have started off all along letting his freak flag fly, but other companies are now patterning their catalogs and photography after American Apparel's groundbreaking model, and being the catalyst for that kind of radical change is quite an achievement.
"What do you think?" he asks me at the end of the day. I tell him that, despite the fact that I think he's a complete kook, I believe he's a business and marketing genius.
"Really?" Charney replies. "I just saw a study that said criminals and geniuses do their best work in their 30s."
That's either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whether you're one of Charney's critics or one of his fans.
Made in Downtown LA—Vertically Integrated Manufacturing