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American Apparel's Dov Charney claims he is paving the way for principled profit in the shmata businessMontreal Mirror
August 8, 2003
Take one part brilliant entrepreneur, one part narcissist, add in a smattering of Attention Deficit Disorder and a dash of philanthropy and you get Dov Charney.
This 34-year-old Jewish kid from Westmount now lives in L.A. and is sticking it to the man by beating him at his own game. American Apparel, Charney's clothing company, is going against the trend of globalization in clothing manufacturing; he's making mad cash with unbranded T-shirts, all locally produced in his downtown L.A. factory.
His workers are paid U.S. minimum or more. They are offered free ESL classes and health and life insurance, they march together on May Day and, oh, the company has recently implemented a recycling program for all its pounds of scraps. But before you get out your Kleenex box, remember, this is no charity operation — Charney is out to produce the best damn T-shirt in the world, while raking in an honest American buck ($40-million U.S. in sales last year and our approaching 75 million for 2003).
You've probably worn one of their items (lines include: Classic Girl, Standard American and Classic Baby). If so, you know that the spiel is no lie; these cotton wares — tees, undies and more — fit exactly how you want them to. The cotton is softer, the cuts are form-flattering.
A quick look through the company's press package reveals, first, that this guy knows how to do his PR, and second, you don't get where Charney is without being a serious overachiever. Somewhere between the write-ups in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, MacLean's and the profile on PBS, I came across an article written in 1980 in the Canadian Jewish News. There is a picture of Charney; he has a bowl-cut and a devious smile. The heading reads: "11-Year-Old Schoolboy Edits His Own Newspaper."
It's endearing, if not a little scary.
A recent phone chat with Charney, who was in L.A., proved illuminating. Somewhere between the tangential tirades about American politics and sex (the trade, the influence, the importance) and trying to play me the video of his Zaida, as seen on the American Apparel Web site (www.americanapparel.net), so that I could hear his grandfather's voice ("Just a sec, these fucking movies never work."), Charney gives me the rundown on how he built up his own brand of the American dream.
Love at first sale:
"My friends [one of whom was Montreal-somebody James Di Salvio] were selling these great bootleg T-shirts in front of the Forum. I was going to prep school in the States at the time and the T-shirts there were a bit different, better for the silk-screening process. So I started buying T-shirts at K-mart and bringing them to Canada in garbage bags on the train."
"One time I got arrested right in front of the Forum. It was crazy because David Di Salvio's dad, Bob Di Salvio, was there waving his American Express card at the cops — trying to get me off the hook with his Amex. But they took me down to Station 10, which doesn't exist anymore, and after a couple of hours of me yelling, 'Monsieur, monsieur!' they let me out and gave me back my cash and my shirts. So what did I do? Headed straight for the Cock 'n Bull to try and unload the rest of them."
"I ended meeting this guy Bernie who found out what I was doing and he was like [putting on a raspy Brooklyn accent], 'Hey kid, can you get me some of these?' So I started buying and selling more and more T-shirts. Then some shit went down and I ended up putting Bernie out of business and I managed to lose like $100,000 in the process. I was barely 18. So that was the beginning and I guess because I lost money I felt compelled to keep hustling."
[Note: That would not be the last time that Charney would take a financial fall on the path to glory. He later settled in South Carolina, which at the time was the place to be in the T-shirt manufacturing industry. In '98, after the success of his stylized Classic Girl line — which was originally dismissed by the big boys like Haines and Fruit of the Loom — Charney decided to set up shop in L.A. and do his production there. That was the inception of the business model that Charney now refers to as a "hyper capitalist-socialist fusion."]
On why sweat shops are actually bad business
"Look, I spent months in Mexico and the Dominican with subcontractors. I could tell you where all the best fucking bars are in the Dominican. What I'm trying to say is that it doesn't work. My theory is, and I think I'm right — and I mean you guys had rioters in Montreal a few weeks ago [for the WTO] — is that going offshore is actually more expensive than these guys let on. What I'm going to prove, and I'm going to embarrass the entire fucking establishment, is that sweatshops are more expensive in the end than vertically integrated manufacturing in Canada or the U.S."
"You see, those prisons in China are inefficient and the opportunity cost of offshore production is huge, because you can't respond to market demands as quickly. You can take 100 men in China with abacuses or you can take one with a G4 PowerBook and there's no comparison.
"What I'm talking about is the exploitation of human potential instead of the exploitation of humanity. I'm saying you don't have to fuck the Third World up the ass, or the shareholders, or the consumers, or the Canadian and American workers, to do business."
On going brand-free:
"I can't wear any brand on my body — I just freak out. I mean, if I'm with a girl who's wearing a Christian Dior necklace, I can't even fuck her. And then there are those girls — like every girl I seem to find — who has one those Louis Vuitton bags. C'mon, it's fucking false tribalism."
"Look, I'm not that ethical, but you don't have to be the most ethical person to know that slavery was wrong. And a lot of the liberal, political shit that's been written about me is just horse-shit."
"But of course what I do is morally motivated too, because when you treat people well you're doing something right. The truth is that when I walk through my factory, we're all cheering together because we're all making money together. If everybody touched by your business process gets a boner, or a smile or feels good — whatever it is that turns their crank — you know you're doing something right. And you ain't going out of business.
"But if you're Enron, and everyone is getting fucked up the ass, you're doing something wrong. You're not a good entrepreneur, you're just a fucking Soprano parasite."
On being in your 30s:
"I recently read this study that said that criminals and geniuses do their best work in their 30s, but that it declines in quality if you get married."
"You see, when you're 15, you're just a fucking 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 fuckers out."
I've seen the future, baby, it is."
"We become the establishment, we become the benchmark, we become a worldwide supplier. But no matter where I open a factory — and I believe in international production, as long as it's proximate to where goods are being distributed — I'm going to pay U.S. minimum.
"Hey, do you think I can get a copy of this tape? I feel like I'm on a pretty good roll."
Made in Downtown LA—Vertically Integrated Manufacturing