Charney dropped out of Tufts after his junior year and moved to Columbia, South Carolina, which at the time was a thriving center for garment manufacturing. There he picked up jobs to learn every aspect of the trade—from making yarn to sewing hems. He also met Julie, an exotic dancer, “and bam, that was it.” As a team, they designed what is now style No. 4300. Alas, Julie went back to exotic dancing, and Charney lost his shirt, as it were, when garment manufacturing began to move offshore. He headed west to Los Angeles. Eventually, Charney launched American Apparel. His stated mission: to challenge the corporate Establishment and to prove that efficiency can be achieved without hurting the environment or exploiting an immigrant workforce (or, as he also puts it, “fucking the slaves”).
His politics are complicated: He doesn’t align himself with either U.S. political party. And for a guy who frequently uses Eisenhower as an adjective, he can’t even vote in this country. (He arrived on a nafta visa and now has a green card.) “If we had George Bush right here and we asked him,” says Charney, “he’d say he wants to push through measures to help American society maintain this continuous stream of immigration. The privilege of immigration is what makes New York so amazing.
“Do you know what it’s like to have guys my age who are new to the United States? They say, ‘I’m swimming with Dov,’ and I’m proud to have them with me. We’re making money together. Getting cars together, you know? And that’s what keeps America alive, keeps it from being aristocratic and complacent.” Charney takes a “low six-figure” compensation for himself (less than the average CEO makes in quarterly dividends), and in many ways, he flies by the seat of his preternaturally small pants. Retail expansion is determined solely by the success of wholesale: An American Apparel store costs anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 to open, which comes out of the wholesale coffers. “We’ve stolen the money from our core business,” says Charney. “And that is a beautiful thing.” His formula for fusing capitalism and socialism has won him invitations to speak at Harvard Business School, the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and the United Nations. And of course, it sells a hell of a lot of T-shirts.
Dan and Gabe recognize Charney. How many cool kids would recognize the CEO of the Gap?
Today Charney is hanging out on Ludlow Street with Luca Pizzaroni, the Italian artistic adviser and photographer he’s hired full-time. After a lot of hand-slapping and shoulder-to-shoulder embraces, Pizzaroni lights a cigarette and reports that he’s bought a cache of found photos. They’re the kind you see under glass, gallery-style, in cases in the American Apparel stores, alongside the courtesy phone you can use to call anywhere in the States (but not Canada). “I love these,” says Charney, poring over snapshots of suburban prom nights from the eighties. “I love these so much I’m getting a boner.”
Just then, a pair of young guys appear on the block with bulging bags from American Apparel. Dan and Gabe are brothers; Gabe has a pierced lower lip and a vintage COKE IS THE REAL THING T-shirt on. They recognize Charney from 50 paces away and quicken their steps to approach him. (How many cool kids would recognize the CEO of the Gap?) Charney takes out his Konica Minolta and makes Gabe say his 718 phone number out loud so it’s recorded. “We’re opening in Williamsburg soon,” he says. “You got any ideas, it’s Dov, no e, like the soap without the e, at American Apparel dot net.”
No one who meets Charney ever forgets him. By the time the boys look back, there he is, straddling a cheap bike on a small city street, ranting again. “The fucking Levi’s jean jacket.” He claps. “If you didn’t have a Levi’s jean jacket, you were a weirdo. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make icon products.”
It’s hard not to be persuaded when he identifies—“Ding!”—the seventeenth woman in a Classic Girl T-shirt on the streets of New York in one afternoon. As Marty Bailey, American Apparel’s vice-president of operations (after fifteen years at Fruit of the Loom), says, “I may still question Dov from time to time, but I don’t doubt him.”