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Mister T

American Apparel’s Dov Charney sees how far his knit empire will stretch.


From the Classic Girl line: "The real seduction if a subliminal thing," Charney says.  

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Dov Charney—in town from L.A.—is slapping quickly up Broadway in his dime-store flip-flops, talking about debt financing. “Debt can be secured by receivables, real estate, equity,” he says as he crosses Great Jones Street. His sunglasses are seventies-Jewish-grandfather, and the mustache is actually two sideburns that connect above his upper lip. “Then there’s unsecured debt, which is more like junk bonds.” Suddenly, he veers off to the curb, where a kid behind a card table is selling tank tops with handprints and ladies with big Afros on the front. The kid has barely started his pitch—“We’re two guys in Brooklyn, making our own T-shirts”—when Charney interrupts. Fingering the fine-gauge ribbed cotton, he says, “These are American Apparel T-shirts.” And the kid continues to try to sell to him: “Yeah, and we silk-screen them . . . ”

Charney sticks out his hand. “I’m Dov. I own the company. How are you doing? You’re using the 3308. Have you tried the racer back?” The kid is stunned, as if Derek Jeter had struck up a conversation about his baseball-card collection. Charney keeps talking. “This is how I started, selling shirts on the street. This is cool. If you have any ideas, you can tell me. It’s Dov, no e, Dov. It means ‘bear’ in Hebrew. Dov, like the soap but without the e, at American Apparel dot net.” The kid sputters a “Thanks, man,” they exchange an interlocking thumb shake, and then Charney is off again, headed up to his flagship store at 712 Broadway. Really, it’s a harbinger of things to come.

“Everybody needs a T-shirt. Osama bin Laden, if he’s alive,” says Charney, “is wearing a knit.”

American Apparel is expanding—rapidly and conspicuously—into this city’s punishing retail market. You’ve seen the white storefronts, light boxes in the signs, and TVs facing out to entertain the street. The shops are popping up like Starbucks (153 locations in Manhattan), or at the very least Sephora (eight). In less than ten months, four American Apparels have sprouted in Manhattan: on Broadway, in the old Antique Boutique space; on Sixth Avenue near Waverly; at the corner of Houston and Orchard, a block from Katz’s deli; and the newest, at Spring and Greene, half a block north of Helmut Lang and a few doors east of Chanel, in a landmark building with a monthly rent of $40,000. In a few weeks, one will open in Williamsburg. Plans are under way for another Brooklyn store, on Court Street, and Charney is in negotiations for spaces at 23rd and First, Fifth Avenue across from the main library, and what’s now the Ligne Roset store at 64th and Third.

Through wholesale channels, American Apparel already does a lot of business in New York. The Strand bookstore puts its logo on the Classic Girl Mélange Jersey S/S Gym. Columbia University prints on American Apparel; so does the NYPD. Whole Foods uses the short-sleeve crewneck made of organic cotton. It’s fair to say that American Apparel has seriously penetrated the wholesale market once monopolized by Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and Champion—in effect, coming through the service entrance of the clothing business. Now Charney’s knocking on the front door: retail. Against some odds, he’s established a kind of hybrid chain that somehow manages to retain its unique street credibility while swelling to global proportions—whose items like Baby Rib Sleeveless Crews and Brazilian Bikini Panties add up to an average of $6,000 in sales per store on a typical weekday. (The Broadway flagship often rakes in $18,000 on Saturdays.)

American Apparel spits out a million pieces a week at its 800,000-square-foot, seven-floor garment factory in downtown L.A. Sales have doubled every year for the past four, with a projected gross of $150 million for 2004. You’ve probably seen the “sweatshop free” claim: At last count, the company had 2,250 employees, and there was a waiting list 1,000 names long for the factory jobs that pay well above minimum wage, as much as $15 an hour.

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