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Dov Charney: Rebel With A Cause
At the age of 35, he's the youngest, most innovative, energetic and galvanizing Counselor "Person of the Year" we've ever had — he's also the loudest, looniest and most audacious, hands down.Counselor
There's one thing you can say for sure about the choice of Dov Charney, American Apparel's lunatic fringe CEO, as this year's Counselor "Person of the Year": No one saw this one coming. If Ira Neaman, Vantage's president and last year's "Person of the Year," was a prototypical and predictable choice, Charney is anything but. Ira is polite, politically correct, respectful and genteel. Charney, well, isn't really the poster boy for any of those virtues. And if those in attendance at last year's Counselor awards banquet thought that Neaman, the Mr. Rogers of the industry, gave a speech that shocked, I can only hope as I write this that everyone at this year's event — to quote Bette Davis — fastened their seatbelts for a bumpy night.
The Industry's Bad Boy
As brilliant as he is batty, Charney looks like a young Donald Fagan, Steely Dan's genius/wacko who was also considered a kook in his heyday. He has a penchant for surrounding himself with are-they-or-aren't-they-of-age girls and getting naked on odd occasions. And in case you missed it — though we don't know how you could — two classic Dov stunts this year included young models wearing American Apparel's panties, and nothing else, played continuously on the monitors in his booth at the ASI Show in Vegas this past March, and his models sashaying down the runway in PPAI's Apparel Fashion Show sporting thongs, of all things.
The gasping, finger wagging and "well, I nevers" were abundant, of course, but to his credit Charney never hid behind anything as absurd as a "wardrobe malfunction" excuse. Simply put, he doesn't care that you may have been offended. People noticed his clothes and remembered his company; in short, he did what he does best - he got your attention.
Charney's father is a famous architect, his mother is a well-known artist and his uncle is internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the man who designed the much-lauded National Gallery in Canada. Clearly, Charney has inherited their creative influences and finely honed aesthetic instincts. His family also challenged him to speak up and voice his opinions, something he does in abundance. In fact, Charney started his own newspaper because he wanted a platform to make sure his views were heard. He was 11 at the time.
"Dov is literally a genius," Jin Kang, American Apparel's director of sales and marketing, once told me. "And with that goes a lot of typical genius mannerisms that include, but are not limited to: megalomania, egocentrism, innovative and unconventional ideas. He does not understand the words 'no' or 'impossible.'"
Kang, who has been with Charney almost since the beginning of American Apparel, is one of the few people who can keep him in check when he's in hyper, crazy mode — his "handler," if you will. This, however, isn't an easy task. "It's tantamount to trying to make a wild boar lie down and play dead," she says.
As big as his ego and mouth are, they dwarf his determination and drive to do things differently in the industry. "I never ever looked at the business model that was in place for most companies when I came into the industry and said, 'Well, that's the way I'm going to do it,'" Charney says. "I knew there had to be a more efficient, exciting way."
And from the get-go, he's taken a page out of Sinatra's book and has done it his way. In seven short years he's grown his workforce from 50 to nearly 2,000 and proven that it's possible to run a profitable wearables company without manufacturing or outsourcing anything offshore. He's doubled his sales every year for the last five, twice won an ASI Spirit Award for "Fastest Growing Supplier" and is one of the newest suppliers to join The Counselor's elite Top 40 for the first time this year.
You have to give Charney credit: He put his money where his big mouth is and figured out a way to make "American Made" profitable and streamline his business to make it one of the most efficient organizations in the industry.
And he's doing it in such a way that the press and the power elite can't get enough of him. Hillary Clinton, former first lady and current junior senator from New York, personally picked American Apparel to do her campaign T-shirts, because of the socially responsible way Charney runs his company.
Redefining The American Dream
Make no mistake, though: Charney is resolute in his position that the company is not about "Made in USA" in so much as they're about American values. "I believe in the American Dream and want to do more for our customers and employees," he says passionately, like a preacher at a revival meeting. "We are pro-workers rights — whether in L.A. or anywhere in the world. We manufacture in the U.S. not because we're crazy flag fanatics but because it's the most vibrant T-shirt market in the world and therefore the most efficient place to manufacture our T=shirts."
He maintains that a global divide exists between the haves and have-nots and too often, the apparel industry has participated in the suppression of the poor. the challenge for companies like American Apparel, Charney says, is to establish new ways of doing business that are efficient and profitable without exploiting workers. "As American Apparel's equity and strength grow, we'll continually improve our product as well as the lives of our workers," he promises. "Innovation and social responsibility are the new American dream."
And to the companies who say they're being smart and saving scads of money by sourcing offshore, Charney has this retort: "That's b---s--t and they're idiots."
In a time when U.S. companies have begun outsourcing not only manufacturing, but customer service jobs overseas because of cheaper labor, Charney's having none of it. He looked at the business model and saw that other, larger companies have missed — there is a way to keep jobs in the U.S. and make a profit.
The most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistic show that more than 30,000 American textile jobs have been lost to overseas outsourcing in the last two years alone. In the role he may have been born to play since he was a kid hawking T-shirts on the streets of Montreal, Charney is determined to be the rebel with the cause who turns that tide.
"I can cut cloth on Monday, sew Tuesday through Thursday and ship on Friday," he says. 'If I used offshore labor it would be cheaper, sure, but it would take me 90 days."
And then there's the issue that sends him into an absolute tantrum. In direct proportion to his love of the opposite sex is his hatred of apparel sweatshops. "Understand: I think hot young girls are sexy," he says emphatically. "Hot young girls slaving over looms for 12 hours a day in Indonesia to make $1, however, are not."
So how does Charney run a profitable apparel company in the U.S. when it's so much cheaper to manufacture overseas and import? He's made the ocmpany's clients and consumers activists-by-proxy. He makes it well known on the company's website and in their press materials that he pays for benefits he offers his employees by charging more than other companies for their products.But here's the thing - consumers are okay with it. "To know that I'm helping factory workers in the U.S. make a decent living, I have no problem paying a few dollars more for a really well-made sexy little tank top," says Amy Sue Smith, a Manhattan-based yoga instructor who frequents American Apparel's retail shop on Broadway.
Progressive & Profitable
American Apparel's ever-expanding L.A.-based factory houses floors of looms and cutting machines, all churning out the fashion forward, retail influenced hip, hoot apparel that has turned even the fussiest fashionista's head. Charney's success in this industry has allowed him to open multiple retail stores in L.A., New York, Montreal and Frankfurt, Germany, with more ready to go in Toronto, Miami, Berlin and London within the next few months. Impressively, the readers of the Montreal Mirror named his store as one of the top five "Best New Clothing Stores" this year.
And through it all, in the midst of the Tourette's-like rants and raves, Charney has taken care of his employees, many of whom are immigrants, in a way that would make Mother Theresa — if Mother Theresa cursed like a sailor on leave and had a penchant for porn — proud. At almost $13 an hour, he pays his workforce nearly twice the state minimum wage of $6.75. He's also recently established a policy of letting workers kick in $8 per week for paid vacation days and health benefits.
He offers English as Second Language classes, immigration support, a visiting healthcare bus equipped with licensed medical professionals to give shots and diagnose illness, computer classes, an on-staff masseuse, subsidized lunches, a phone bank for employees to make calls home and bicycles for employees who don't have cars and choose not to use public transportation. There's also an art gallery on the premises where Charney has regular shows supporting local artists, and art (albeit Charney's left-of-center taste in art — i.e. a velvet painting of Linda Evans) throughout the building. It's no wonder why there's a waiting list 2,000 strong to work at American Apparel.
Considering how his employees embrace him, it's interesting that a union organization of questionable ethics and reputation came in and tried to unionize American apparel. Charney said it didn't matter to him either way — he'd support whatever his employees wanted. Indeed, the employees listened to what the union organizers had to say and decided they didn't want a union. That would have been the end of it, if the union organization hadn't begun relentlessly showing up at employees' homes. To say that this is the kind of thing Charney does not take kindly to is putting it mildly. "It pisses me off when people try to f--k with my employees," he rants.
For his part, Charney says the industry is in need of a revolution, and he's just the Che to do it." Take a look around at what companies like American Apparel and others have done," he says. "It is possible to be successful and to be an ethically responsible company who does well by your employees and your community."
And though he is admittedly surprised that an industry as staid and steeped in tradition as promotional products would choose someone like him to laud with an award, ("I'm a maniac, man!" No! Really?...) he's thrilled by the honor and touched by the significance. "Look, this is a fabulous industry and if I can bring something to the table to make it even better, well then that's just the f--king coolest thing ever."
The Media Darling
If there are three areas that are Charney's fortes it would be marketing and self-promotion, better business through social consciousness and spotting fashion trends before they're even trends. By the time the mainstream press christened pashmina shawls the "must have" accessory of the spring season a few years back, Charney was using one for his little dog Hedcayce to sleep on." Wanna know what's coming next," Charney asks excitedly, and I can almost see his wiry body hopping up and down. "The extra-large-only movement."
What??? This form the man who sells baby tank tops scant enough that only prepubescent females with no spongy girl parts can wear them? The same man who once told me that his clothes aren't for "old, fat people"? "Remember the 'oversized shirt with the belt around the waist' look? It's coming back," he tells me. "I can smell it!"
There's no doubt he gets more press than Paris Hilton, and has recently appeared in such venues as U.S. News & World Report, the Assicated Press, the Sunday Times of London, Paper ( as one of the New York City-based hipper-than-thou 'zine's "Most Beautiful People"), CNN and Fashion TV. And, in an episode that could have made Janet Jackson's Super Bowl exercise in questionable taste seem like a day at grandma's, Charney was invited to speak at a U.N. conference on "Sustainable Consumption: Marketing and Communications" in Paris a few months back. Mercifully, for all the delegates not used to hearing the f-word being used as a verb, noun and an adjective, Charney couldn't make it and sent Cynthia Semon, the PR guru who is responsible for his ever-growing portfolio of press clippings.
Semon believes that the reason the media is so hungry to lap up Charney's every word, despite the fact that he's a world class kook, is because he's turned "business as usual" on its ear. "He has such a unique business model that it's alien to this market," she says. " The press always wants to talk to him about his work ethic, the company's products and their 'make it in America' aspect, the social conscience of the company and Dov's capitalist/socialist fusion, as he calls it."
Charney agrees, and expounds on one of his favorite topics. "Capitalism is a great economy if you can bring a socialistic benefit, but you can't do one without the other. That's what the establishment doesn't understand."
To be clear, Charney defines the "establishment" as, in no particular order: right wing Republicans, pseudo open-minded liberals, unions, hippies, The Gap, anyone over 50 and young girls who wear Gucci. Or "high-priced logo whores," as he so diplomatically calls them. Trust me: no one is left unscathed from the twisted mind and loud mouth that is Charney.
I have no idea, Semon tells me, how many celebs and dignitaries want to have sit-downs to pick Charney's brain, and mentions Jesse Jackson's recent visit to American Apparel's factory. "Dov is one of the most charismatic characters I've ever come across," she says, and goes so far to compare him to Kennedy — yes, the former president. "He personifies the characteristics of the most incredible, electrifying figures in history. He's a beacon to the industry as well as to young people. He's what Kennedy was to the '60s, offering hope with his frankness and vision. Whether you like what he says or not, you walk away respecting him. He's real and it's refreshing. Too bad he's Canadian or he could run for office. ." Good God.
Kang, who was with Charney during the early, silly days when PPAI was kicking American Apparel off the show floor for being too scandalous, is gratified to see Charney get some recognition from an industry that has, at times, scorned and shunned him.
"The industry needed a new evolution and Dov was the inspirational, crazy and insane, tough as nails, always-believe-in-yourself-and-make-it-happen visionary to give credence to the concept that yes, you can create an empire dedicated to the people and the product," she maintains. "He has pushed, challenged and been honest in his vision to inspire people to do things differently. He has worked hard, persevered and evolved in an industry that was in desperate need of an 'Oprah makeover.'"
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