“Doing stores was just the next step,” says Charney, a tiny person whose hips would possibly fit into a Classic Girl Flat Bottom Panty small. He’s sitting with his knees up on a brown crushed-velvet chair, mid-seventies vintage, in the small two-bedroom walkup he recently rented on Orchard Street. “New York is a great place to test retail. If you make it in New York, you might make it in London and Hong Kong. New Yorkers are the first to pay for quality, and they can afford it. They consume and dispose and consume and dispose. Everybody needs a T-shirt. If there’s 8 million people in New York, everyone’s wearing a knit—a sock, an underwear. Osama bin Laden, if he’s alive, is wearing a knit right now.” Charney aims for what he calls “first-mover advantage.” He opens in mostly residential neighborhoods, where real estate is cheap and foot traffic high. And the more shops, the better. While a corporate behemoth like Banana Republic tries to hide its size and prefers that its customers hang onto the boutique illusion, American Apparel trumpets its intent to dominate the world—like it’s a good thing. “We hope to be the Microsoft of the shmatte business,” Charney says. “Coming soon,” reads the ad copy in clean Helvetica typeface, “London, Berlin, Toronto, Portland and many more.” There will be at least 25 American Apparel shops worldwide by the end of the year. “As long as FedEx can get the shirts there,” Charney figures, “we can open a store there.” He has fantasies of starting factories in London, China, and the African country of Gabon, all the while paying U.S. wages to local employees.
There is some irony in a guy from Montreal naming his T-shirt company American Apparel. But then again, this country suits the 35-year-old CEO. He is, above all, he says, “a hustler. In New York, you can hustle night and day. Montreal is a French town with British elements. The British culture looks down on the hustler. But New York’s a city where the hustler has some respect.” Charney reckons that “the youth,” his target customers, are on the verge of a social, sexual, political, and industrial revolution. Whatever they’re up to on a larger scale, they do seem to return time and again to American Apparel’s graphic, spare but sexy spaces to fill up recycled plastic shopping bags. “The T-shirt has always been an icon of freedom,” says Charney in his funny little voice, which seems to be playing on the turntable a little too fast. “And we have the best T-shirts. ‘Sweatshop free’ is a nice story with a violin, but also, hey, we’re good at what we do. We’re Ford in Detroit. I’m constantly studying and trying on garments: Is it too wide? Is the sleeve too long? How is this cuff? No one knows why Levis 501s are so perfect. The patina on the buttons or the curl of the stitch? The real seduction is this subliminal thing. As we say in Yiddish, it’s fucking perfect.”
Lots of the women Charney encounters end up working for him, and not all of them in bikini tops.
Armed with a Konica Minolta digital camera, a Nextel phone that looks like a walkie-talkie, and a few individually wrapped Tucks in the breast pocket of his yellow Fine Jersey Leisure Shirt, Charney turns back out onto Orchard Street. He’s soon distracted by a girl in a short skirt. “Money, money, money,” he says as she passes by his narrow shoulder. “Did you get a look at her? She was stacked.”
Charney has a reputation for picking up girls wherever he goes. One recent ad featured a girl he’d found at Dean & DeLuca. Lots of the women Charney encounters end up working for him, and not all of them in string-bikini tops. He estimates that 60 percent of the high-ranking staffers at American Apparel are female. (“Without women in my company,” says Charney, “we’d be fucked.”) But the boss is less a dirty old man than he is a throwback to a time of (another) sexual revolution, the seventies. And he wears his passions on his sleeve—the shirt he’ll strip off as soon as look at you, exposing the wee hips and pelvic bone above his low-riding trousers. As Charney figures it, “People are attracted to the energy. I’m the electric socket and they want to plug in.” Heh-heh-heh.
Dov Charney was born in Montreal in January 1969. His father is a Harvard-educated architect; his mother’s a noted painter. His best friend, the architect Jordan Parnass, who now designs Charney’s stores, says, “Dov’s been a hustler since the day he was born.” When Charney was 5, he was working the street corner with a lemonade stand. At 8, he started his own newspaper, soliciting ads and studying the workings of the printing press. By the time he got to Choate, the elite boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, he was buying American T-shirts—Champion crewnecks made in Rochester, Hanes Beefy T’s out of South Carolina—to sell when he went home to Montreal on breaks. While he was a freshman pursuing American studies at Tufts, he persuaded his roommate Eric Ribner to put up $2,000 to start a little operation: screen-printing the school logo on T-shirts and selling them on campus. In six weeks, they’d collected $4,000. “He knew the screen printer and knew how to do it,” says Ribner, now the managing director of a hedge fund in New York.