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Dov Charney
Dov Charney
Hawking Conscious Apparel That's All-American
Complex
Saidah Blount/Photo By Kareem Black
August/September 2004

For American Apparel's Dov Charney, it all started with a few illicit bus rides from his native Montreal to the States. "I used to import T-shirts to Canada when I was very young," admits the 35-year-old senior partner and charismatic spokesperson of American Apparel. "I'd buy them from Kmart, bring them to Canada, and resell them. The T-shirts in Canada were a little different. I wanted to sell American quality, that's the difference, and that's how I advanced my first business."

Now Charney is a clothing industry fat cat with a heart of gold who's played a major role in defining the American Apparel brand. "Ugh, those XXXL shirts," groans Charney. "Even in early hip-hop, T-shirts were tight and fitted. Guys were trying to look good and they definitely knew how to catch the ladies' eye." Charney wants to get back to basics: "The T-shirts we're making now have the young and sexy in mind. That's the whole idea." Sex sells. But what's different about Charney's approach is that he's not using supermodels or wacky art direction to set unrealistic goals for the consumer.

Instead, AA's been known to test-fit their women's baby tees on local strippers and feature members of their good-looking staff in their ads. Downtown fashionistas and suburban mall rats are biting on the idea big time. Producing a whopping 800,000 T-shirts a week, the company's hoping to make $160 million this year, open more retail outlets including locations in Miami, London and Berlin and add a line of bags and other goodies to the brand. Whether or not AA evolves into the next Gap, of course, remains to be seen. But even if it does, the T-shirts will always remain the core product, if for no other reason than because it's what Charney knows best.

Step into any of the American Apparel stores in New York and L.A. and you'll see the down-to-earth mogul on video monitors chatting about his company's trademarked conscious-cool philosophy. "We treat our employees well, and we get a lot of loyalty out of them as a bonus," boasts Charney. "American Apparel's made by real people. It's designed by young people who don't have institutional experience but they have soul. They know when a tank top looks right. They don't have to have user experience on their resumes."

Charney also believes in compensating his staff royally for their efforts: "Well, first off, we pay proper wages to industrial workers- wages that let them do their jobs and also live their lives."

To that end, the company has dedicated itself to being a sweatshop-free environment. As well as touting higher wages ($12.50 per hour on average), they provide low-cost health and dental plans, subsidized bus passes and free ESL classes. Oh, then there are the free massages and a bicycle-lending program.

Cool clothes by cool people, that's the name of the game. Says Charney, "We don't have institutional investors and we don't have institutional people running the company. It's not fake street, it's real street."