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T.W.A., not the failed airline, but T-shirts with attitude, the unspoken credo of the manufacturing revolutionaries at American Apparel.
October 1, 2003
Vivian Host

"Who wants to wear a baggy, extra-large t-shirt into a party?," asks Dov Charney, rhetorically, "How many people are going, 'Loser! He's not getting any pussy tonight?' Fashion is sex, you fucking animals!"

Charney, founder of the wildly popular American Apparel company, has built his enterprise on the theory that young, sexy people want soft, form-fitting clothes. And he's not afraid to tell you so. Charney is what you get when you replace the balding, 40-something Hanes executive with a t-shirt-obsessed hipster — he's a wild-eyed, wild-haired, screaming-prone madman who oversees every detail at his factory in the heart of downtown LA, from garment cuts to the phones and drawings that line the walls.

Charney started the business at age 16, when the entrepreneurial Quebec native went to boarding school in the US and became taken by the look and feel of American t-shirts. This turned out to be more than a passing fancy — Charney ended up living in the Carolinas for eight years, learning every aspect of the t-shirt manufacturing business, from equipment to marketing.

When it came time to start American Apparel, Charney resolved to do things differently, eschewing outsourcing for a vertically integrated factory where everything except the garment dyeing is done on site. The two block-long pink factory is an industrial hive where cotton thread spins on gigantic turbines, the design department turns out samples as fast as they can think up an idea, and row upon row of workers churn out one t-shirt every minute and a half. Charney — surrounded by black and white press shots of 60's Pan Am stewardesses and photos of Jamaican dancehall girls — presides over it all.

"My costs are cheaper than a prison in China, because I control the quality inside my building," he rattles on the phone line. "If the factory is in China, how they hell are you going to control the quality? And when things are close to you, you're less likely to be exploited than when they're far away. You don't steal from workers you have to face all the time."

Charney has revolutionized the t-shirt business, using real people instead of models in ads, abolishing sweatshop conditions for workers and integrating organic cotton into the manufacturing process. But at the end of the day, his success has been predicated on marketing the t-shirts that people want to wear religiously. "Clothes were tighter in the late '60s and early '70s," he says. "America was younger, and that's about to come back. And when the cultural/political/industrial/sexual evolution happens, [American Apparel] is going to explode. It's about the style of our time, and we want to be the uniform."