When Jane's racy profile of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney ran last year, our reporter wasn't sure she wanted the experience to end. So now she picks up where it left off.
The first thing I notice when I pull into American Apparel's downtown L.A. headquarters is that I can't find any parking. Eighteen months ago, American Apparel had 1,500 employees and just five newly opened retail stores. The "sweatshop-free" company has now expanded to about 5,000 employees and by next February, it will run 100 stores worldwide. Upstairs, I wander into a bright industrial-sized room that's cluttered with new ad printouts, Macs and young, Adidas wearing employees. Alexandra Spunt, Dov Charney's content director, is sitting out on a fire escape smoking a cigarette.
When Alex is ready, she asks if it's okay to videotape our interview – she's paranoid about Dov's legal troubles. After my original profile on Dov, the company received a lot of media attention. And last May, three of his former employees filed lawsuits claiming they were subjected to "egregious" sexual comments and an "intolerable working environment." Subsequently, everyone from the New York Times and Business Week to random bloggers have dogpiled on the unfolding story, fixating on the prurient details. I tell Alex to go ahead and record.
"We're not settling, we're going to fight [the lawsuits]," Alex says. She brings up a mid-'90s Spin magazine sexual harrassment suit that was brought against its top boss, Bob Guccione Jr., by a former female employee. It resulted in other female staffers being put on the stand. "Now I could be put in a situation where I have to prove I didn't get to my position by sleeping with the boss," Alex says. Should she have advised Dov not to be so candid? "He's so manic and crazy, but it's real," she says. "Love it or hate it, I think it's worth the price of admission."
Yesenia Sandoval, a 23-year-old seamstress whom I spoke to last year, is brought into the room. She's accompanied by both a publicist and human resources manager Kristina Moreno to help with translation. Yesenia tells me she's neither read nor heard about my article. She says she's still happy with her job and the money she's making, but after I ask her about improvements in the working conditions, she hesitates. Kristina says, "It's okay, tell the truth," then asks me to turn my recorder off – it's makingYesenia uncomfortable. Forget about their video camera. After Yesenia goes back to work, I say I'm surprised she's never heard about the article.
"It's about survival. It's about making money," Kristina says.
"Gossip and sex stories – that's a luxury," Alex pipes in. "Don't be such a white girl."
It takes Dov two weeks to agree to an interview. We've actually kept in touch; usually so he can give me a heads-up that a reporter is going to contact me about the original story. I'm greeted at the gate of his home in nearby Echo Park by a beautiful brown-haired girl named Sophia.
"She's not a very good guard dog," says Dov, now 36, letting the half-pit bull, half-Lab into his two-bedroom abode.
Dov looks worn. He's grown his trademark muttonchops and handlebar mustache into a full beard, which makes his look more akin to man-in-hiding than the Eisenhower chic he once had going. "Time for the next thing," he explains. We spend the first few hours speaking off the record. Sunlight streams through the window, casting shadows across his face. The conversation is tense and erratic and, at times, he pauses, breathing deeply. I fear he's about to break down.
Finally, Dov, who was a 2004 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, is ready to talk. "I didn't want to be written about like this - masturbating," he says. "I was in this room for two days after the article came out. There have been days where I've done nothing but rationalize it so people don't get scared of me. They're not seeing me as human, they're seeing me as a demon." Dov says he's lost a few business opportunities" – like being rejected by a key landlord – and adds that his photo was papered on Sunset Boulevard with the phrase OBEY YOUR MASTURBATOR.
"The world sees my interaction with you as a lewd act," he says.
What do you think? In a Jane online poll, some said Dov's behavior – and the company's provocative advertising – has turned them off for good. ("We all but got rid of this brand of chauvinism, and it was hard work. Seeing it come back, it's not 'retro,' not in a cool way anyway.") Yet just as many have become new customers ("If chicks decide to make out with their boss, then that's their choice to make.") And a majority of readers – 41 percent – stated that while you're a little creeped out, you still shop at AA stores. "I guess it's kinda like buying a Volkswagen," says Taylor Daynes, 19. "You hate the founder of sorts, but try to ignore it for the sake of a cute T-shirt or Jetta." (FYI, Hitler commissioned the Beetle.)
I, too, have faced critics who question what kind of reporter I am, or why I didn't leave the room. I'd like to know what kind of reporter would walk out on a story like this. I'm also pissed that people keep misconstruing my story and using it to feed a flawed cliche where men are evil and omnipotent while women are mute victims lacking free will. Who was really exploited? We both were – American Apparel got press, I got one hell of a story. And that's it.
Around 1 a.m., Dov offers me a beer. Things are finally beginning to relax. I glance at sweet Sophia snoring in her bed. Then I look at the cold can of Tecate he's just placed in front of me and tell him I can't. It's time for me to end this. As I drive away, I roll down the windows and try to clear my mind.