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The Montreal Diaries
American Apparel founder Dov Charney talks about making a profit while spreading social justice -- and why designer labels just don't turn him on
Alberto Chehebar & Carlos Alfaro
November 2004

When Dov Charney walks the floor at the Magic Show, a clothing expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center, he is trailed by his faithful, like a prophet. Only this prophet is in a hurry. An assistant holding a hamburger extends her arm, keeping his snack within reach whenever her boss feels like taking a bite. Another woman follows with a tiny video camera, recording his every move. When the prophet arrives at the American Apparel booth where we wait for him, he doesn't do the obvious meet and greet. Instead he grabs a bottle of water, dumps it on his hands, rubs, and then dries them with a pair of socks -- much to the shock of the gentleman standing nearby who up until that moment had been drinking out of that bottle.

Dov asks us to give him 30 seconds and finishes his routine. He splashes his hands again, this time soaking the carpet. "He has no respect for rules," warns one of the assistants. "He reinvents them."

"We're ready," we're finally told by David Butler, Charney's British advisor. Butler and Charney take off for the center's cafeteria at top speed. We struggle to keep up, along with three girls Dov has recruited to demonstrate the American Apparel spirit.

"Napkin, Erika!" Charney demands. Erika scurries off to find one.

Brash and bold, Dov Charney talks faster than he thinks, and he thinks faster than any of his more-established competitors. To stand out in the overcrowded apparel market, the Montreal-born entrepreneur saw the potential for selling not just T-shirts but social justice. Charney appeals to consumers sick of seeing that the clothes they buy at the mall with their platinum credit cards are stitched by suffering women in the Third World who don't earn enough money to feed their families. American Apparel offers guilt-free shopping. It's a brilliant concept.

We first came across American Apparel in the company's print ads. The ads featured regular people wearing regular clothes. Later when we stopped in his SoHo shop on Spring Street, we found the same simplicity: The store's design was minimal and clean; the women who waited on us were pretty, but not too pretty. The T-shirts, sweat shirts, underwear, and other clothes they sold were made of plain cotton. There were no patterns, no logos, little color, and no printed slogans.

But the message of freedom, sex, and rebellion is clear in everything about American Apparel. Charney is after more than justice for immigrant workers; he wants to bring back the freedom of the Sixties and Seventies. He studies the sociology of community and hopes to help rein in the excessive regulation imposed on contemporary American society. You could say that's the American Apparel mission: to serve as a model for a free society that is both happy and profitable.

"I need a Coke!" Dov yells to one of his assistants, before launching into a list of new stores he plans to open. He spits out city names like a Thompson machine gun: Mexico City: 5, Guadalajara: 1, Monterrey: 1, Sao Paolo: 3, Rio: 1, Florida, 25.

Wait, does that mean he'll be coming to Miami to open a store soon?

"I want to go to Miami but I'm avoiding launch parties, because the parties only bring hype," he says. "I just want it to be like MUJI; everybody has to remain silent."

We don't interrupt to say we have no idea what MUJI means (later on we learn it's a hip, ultrasimple lifestyle store based in Japan). Anyway, Dov's still reeling off future store locations. When he comes to China, he promises American Apparel will pay the same salaries earned by staff in the United Status, no matter where the stores are located.

"I believe the future is going to be borderless," he reveals. "That being said, if my business is supported by cheap labor and takes advantage of world wide labor inequalities in order to survive, then it's really not sustainable in the long term."

He is getting fired up.

"American Apparel is post-current global regime," he continues. That means the company transcends the economic divide that allows the first world to exploit the third world, but not the reverse. "When he addressed the United Nations in 1985, Ronald Reagan said that America is supposed to stand for commercial freedom. He said this is not only efficient, but it's beneficial to society," he recalls. "The vision Ronald Reagan had that really ended the Cold War, was: 'Hey, if Eastern Europe is so damn good, then why don't you tear down the Berlin Wall?' Right? Well, maybe someone should throw that back to the States. 'What are you afraid of? Tear down the wall!'"

We stop worrying about what MUJI means. Dov is on a roll.

"Other countries say, 'Fuck these Americans,'" he says, complaining about the heightened travel restrictions put in place after 9/11. "[The rest of the world says]: 'They are not going to let us in, so we're not going to let them in.'"

What's your point?

"Bottom line: There shouldn't be restrictions on movement, because we now have an international class of young people in Argentina, London, Beijing, Montreal, L.A., Tokyo ."

There have always been young people.

"Yes, but now they are all chatting on the Internet."

What does that have to do with you?

"T-shirts have a universal appeal," Dov replies, as though the answer is obvious. The international youth class makes American Apparel's sales consistent across North America, Europe, and Japan. Thanks to heating and air conditioning, not even the seasons have any impact, he reports: "People always wear short sleeves at home. "Which is why Dov plans to open stores across Mexico and pay the wages as in Los Angeles or Montreal: Mexico City, Tijuana, and Guadalajara. Given the basic design of an American Apparel shop -- a white box measuring 300 meters square -- he can see 150 stores across Latin America. "Where ever people are not very affluent," he muses. "I'll open close-out stores."

But can you really compete in Latin America paying U.S. wages?

"I'm going to make so much fuck'n' money, it's going to be disgusting," he predicts. With his staff motivated by better pay, he promises: "I'm going to take down the Gap."Charney makes good on his threats. He opened his first retail outlets when he found retailers reluctant to carry his merchandise. "They didn't want to buy enough," Charney recalls. "So I said fuck it, I'll just do it myself." In November 2003, the first American Apparel stores opened in Montreal, Los Angeles, and at two locations in New York City. There are now thirty-one American Apparel stores across North America, with eleven more slated to open by this Christmas -- including one on South Beach and another in Paris. "I think I can open up one [store] a week next year," says Charney. "As soon as I open them, they become profitable. I made a leap of faith and still I'm netting more than the Gap. I'm netting more than any international retailer that I'm aware of."

Why is your model so successful?

"What do you mean, 'Why?'" the prophet snaps. "Why? Because I don't have any middle man. Because of new technology and information systems." Stores report on sales every day, even on weekends. The company responds fast. "I use modular manufacturing.

If we're missing a product in the stores, I can design it on Monday, cut it on Tuesday, saw it on Wednesday, and ship it on Thursday."

Okay, but what's your number-one priority: profit, social justice, or embarrassing the establishment?

"To create a new order," Charney says. "To force [the establishment] to adapt to my vision." Raised by an atheist mother, Dov believes we have to make our own heaven on earth. "I don't believe in God. I believe in ideas." The rhythm of his speech speeds up. What he wants to communicate is so intense, he can hardly wait for our questions.

We let him free associate: "Everybody has the ability to play God. That's what I think that Jesus probably was. He was probably an influential guy who brought a lot of love and prosperity around him. People loved him and he created a cult-like following. That's what I'm trying to do with my company, trying to make sure that everybody who is touched by the business process has a positive experience."

Does that mean you're headed into politics?

"No, business is the way," he insists. "In many ways Bill Gates has a larger influence on the ways of life of world citizens than the president of the United States. The operating system designed by his company organizes our lives. That's why the government tried to curb Microsoft."So I think we have a big opportunity to get big in the clothing business, to change the lives of people making clothes and the lives of people consuming clothes," he continues. "Because everyone is wearing clothes in this room. I mean, I'd like to get naked, but I don't think that we could all run around nude. Everybody wears knits. Even Osama Bin Laden is probably wearing a knit right now, wherever he is."

Okay, stop! Let's go back to how your philosophy sells knits .

"I think the philosophy is less important than the success of the philosophy, okay?" he clarifies. "I am able to get young women and young men to work at American Apparel, even if they have to work for less. They want to be part of something that's the next step."

Which is?

"We're trying to create an environment for young people to work in, where they don't have to be afraid," Dov continues. That means recognizing that employees might smoke marijuana, as they did after a staff meeting in Montreal, and helping anyone at the company with a substance abuse problem into recovery. That also means serving beer to Mexican employees as a sign of trust and respect for their culture. And it means allowing Latino workers in the factories to make calls on their cellphones during work if they need to.

"I said: 'I like to call my girlfriend, why can't they call their boyfriend or girlfriend?'" he explains. "You want to keep it as free as you can, without damaging the business."

That freedom pays off: Charney believes employees are less likely to steal or call in sick and more likely to point out problems and come up with innovative solutions.

"I have people that knock on my door and say, 'Look, we can make the packaging better,'" he relays. "It pays off in millions and millions of dollars, cuz they won't allow anything to harm the company."

Dov is so caught up in the company that he swears he will never sell "no matter the price." He wants to keep control over his social experiment, not cut and run. "I already earned enough money," he claims. "I make $60,000 a year."

We earn more than that, but it's not enough, we protest.

"But you don't live in L.A.," he says graciously. "It's very cheap to live in L.A."

Right. We've read you don't like to see women wearing designer clothes. If she wears, let's say, Christian Dior, she doesn't turn you on.

"That's the class issue for me," he explains. "If a woman can't be liberated from that tribalism, I could fuck the living shit out of her, but it would just be a fuck."

So what turns you on?

"Girls who understand design."

Can you tell that by just looking at someone?

"I can tell by the way they dress," he claims. "Even if they just have a towel wrapped around them, I can tell by the way they wrap the towel.

He points to the American Apparel catalog.

"Like this girl, I picked her out because I thought she really was an American girl. She's not model- looking. She's not thin. She's very healthy; she's got big legs. I think this is the next look."

We're interrupted by Dave Butler, the Brit, who gives us the divers "okay" sign to signal the end of the interview. Exhausted, the fawning young woman with the video camera lets it drop. A man in his thirties seated at the next table asks Charney to take a picture with him, even though he doesn't know exactly who this fast-talking man is.

As we make our way to the door, Dov fires off the machine gun again: "I want to make my website in English, French, Spanish, German and Japanese ."

He is still firing as we leave. And he won't stop. Who can say where he will end up? One thing for sure: He will shake the foundations of the clothing industry.