Meet Your New Boss
Thousands of pretty young women are obsessed with American Apparel’s T-shirts. Some even make out with its idol-like founder. Claudine Ko tries to keep him out of her pants.
He says I seduced him when I told him I liked dirty stories. We were standing on a corner in New York's Lower East Side after a long day of trudging from one of his retail stores to another. At first, between incessant interruptions from his cell phone, he talked manically about progressive labor issues, manifest destiny, sexism, feminism; the mercantile lives of his grandparents and selling home-bottled "spring" water in Hellmann's jars as a child in Montreal. Then he told me a story about humping a model from the nudie mag Perfect 10. And that is how I ended up in a 10th-floor suite of the trendy Maritime Hotel around 11 p.m. with Dov Charney, the 35-year-old senior partner and founder of American Apparel, and one of his female employees. I asked him how he relaxed.
Oral sex, he says, settling into a chair behind a cloud of smoke. "I love it...I am a bit of a dirty guy, but people like that right now."
Explaining exactly how the rest of the night unraveled is somewhat difficult. Let's just say, the female employee helped him "put on a show" for me. I watched, trying to be objective, detached -- sorta like a...war reporter?
If you aren't familiar with American Apparel and Dov's mutton chopped, handlebar-mustached face, you will be soon enough. With a new push from wholesale-only to retail, Dov wants his $150 million clothing company to become the Starbucks of T-shirts. In fact, go into your closet and check your labels. Chances are you own at least a couple of their logo-free, formfitting Classic Girl tees, customized by your favorite brand or indie designer. Or maybe you've noticed their provocative, kiddie-porn-like ads in Vice and other alternative rags. A typical ad shows a girl wearing #8315 red boy briefs, photographed from her upper thighs to her bare midriff, sitting back on a laundry machine, and reads in big block letters: SUNDAY AFTERNOON. WASHING MACHINE. CALIFORNIA. Down a bit, in smaller print, is the trademark SWEATSHOP FREE T-SHIRTS, MADE IN LA.
Originally, I'd wanted to write about the lives of garment workers. Then I saw one of the American Apparel ads beckoning, "Come see what we're doing." So I thought I'd drop by their factory and find out whether a clothing manufacturer really could be profitable without the standard appalling employment abuses. What I discovered was not only a company trying to fix the system, but what Dov calls an "industrial revolution."
"I think sex motivates everything," he says, peering at me from behind his boxy '70s frames. In fact, he essentially invented girly-cut printable tees after an Argentinean ex-girlfriend told him she couldn't stand wearing those big, American Hard Rock ones popularized in the '80s. "It motivates my work, too. You don't want something that's sexually driven, like panties, but then have them made in a horrible sweatshop. Like, I know my workers have a good time. They drink beer, they have relationships, they have girlfriends." Plus, he adds, "It's fun to make money and pay people well."
Posted on flyers and his Web site -- and screening on TV monitors in his vivid, meticulously designed retail stores -- is a barrage of propagandistic words promoting the company and Dov's new way of doing business. With his own face prominently featured, the air of idolatry is heavy.
"I don't believe in God. I'm a pure Jewish hustler," the Choate grad and Tufts University dropout says, pacing the office of one of his Manhattan stores. "To me, there's no other way but to be a capitalist. I don't like the phrase"sweetshop-free" anymore because it's crybaby; it's 'Buy from us because we're trying harder to treat the people better.' What it is to me is another level of efficiency...make sure you pay wages that are internationally acceptable and that your business model doesn't rely upon these cute labor inequalities that are really vestiges of the past."
When I check out the headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, the environment really does seem pleasant. The giant production floors in the seven-story industrial warehouse are sunlight-filled spaces with clean stacks of brightly colored tees, massage therapists to assuage employees' muscle pains and pods of intent garment makers who have optional health-care packages, subsidized transportation and free English-as-a second-language classes. During breaks, workers socialize and laugh--I spy a couple snuggling in a stairwell. And on Fridays, they pile into a sample sale to buy their own goods at $1 to $2 apiece, which is less than the $3 manufacturing cost of their basic shirt--not to mention the $16 retail.
"It's very different here," says Yesenia Sandoval, 22, a seamstress. She came from Mexico five years ago, worked at another factory, then got a job here last fall. "This company is much better than the other one. I was receiving minimum wage [$6.75 per hour]. Here we earn $12 to $15. I don't think any company is going to be better than this."
The more women I talk to, the more I wonder if they've all been seduced by Dov's odd charisma. "There's no tribe," Dov insists. "It's a misconception to say it's a cult. It's about being free. It's about telling the boss, 'F--k you.'"
Merrily Lupo, a designer, has worked with him for over five years and says it's more like a family business with 1,500 employees. "You can ask him to borrow money and he'll usually do it," she says. "If American Apparel is a cult, then democracy is a cult. It's a project. It's just an art project."
Despite a lingering cold, Dov invites me to hang out again a week after our first meeting. He and Iris Alonzo, his five-foot-eleven, Maggie Gyllenhaal-esque assistant and content advisor ("I'm kind of his bitch," she explains), are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, checking out more retail space. He says his ultimate market can be found in hip neighborhoods like this one, the Lower East Side and Echo Park in L. A. "It's great to be near a bookstore -- near intelligence," says Dov, the son of an architect dad and artist mom. "It gives it a noninstitutional, community feel." Throughout the evening, he lathers us with lecture upon lecture about a burgeoning international youth culture, questioning authority, and Camille Paglia. At dinner, Dov jokes in a childish tone, which he often uses, that I'm his "date." When the watiress comes, I find myself automatically ordering for both of us, like I'm his mom or something. At midnight, when Iris leaves to hang out with a friend, Dov gets distinctly quiet. "Keep me in your pocket. Call me if you need anything," she says, giving him back his cell phone. So Dov and I take a car back to the modest two-bedroom apartment he rented to avoid being stuck in the hotel for the rest of his time here on business. Out on the sidewalk, he fiddles with the keys before realizing we're at the wrong door, explaining that this is the first time he's actually opened it. Iris usually does it for him.
Upstairs, we sit across from each other at a coffee table that's littered with vintage '70s lamps, Sudafed, a roll of toilet paper and his laptop. Soon enough, he loosens his Pierre Cardin belt.
"Are you going to do it again?" I ask.
"Can I?" he says, adjusting himself in his chair.
And thus begins another compulsive episode of what Dov likes to call self pleasure, during which we casually carry on our interview, discussing things like business models, hiring practices and the stupidity of focus groups.
"Masturbation in front of women is underrated," Dov explains to me later over the phone. "It's much easier on the woman. She gets to watch, it's a sensual experience that doesn't involve a man violating a woman, yet once the man has his release, it's over and you can talk to the guy." And, Iris adds on another day, "I think it's really healthy to have an orgasm four times a day. It's got to be great for business." In his apartment that night, when he finishes, he promptly turns back to reading the rest of his e-mail. His in-box holds 21,547 messages. He clicks on one that displays a photo of a twentysomething Asian girl wearing tight jeans, lying in bed. Her message reads, "I'm 5'4", 106 pounds, bust size 32B-C. Plus, I'm professional, artistic..." Dov says he gets an email like this every 48 hours from women wanting to work for him.
Overall, his company is almost fifty-fifty gender-wise and women fill a lot of the higher positions. Of course, he also has tons of attractive, diverse models -- many of whom are girls he's recruited on the street. "[Some] might say that this girl with the big tits is the right girl, but if I took a picture of you right now? You're it, you're the Classic Girl. You look beautiful. You're relaxed, you're confident; your hair looks great, you're taking notes. Your [butt] looks good."
We come across photos of Spring Hernandez, whom he met at a hotel rooftop party in L.A. a couple of years ago. "After three or so drinks, he asked to take some pictures," Spring, 25, told me during my L.A. trip. "He had a bag of clothes and he's like, ˜I just want to take one picture.'" One turned into who-knows-how many until security finally asked Dov to leave. A couple of days later, Spring was surprised to find that the photos were already on his Web site. "I was mad -- we'd just had this great conversation about ethics and there was my picture," she said. "He didn't tell me. I called him and he made everything okay after half-an-hour of kissing my butt." She now runs his Echo Park store and is featured in a #4310 white/pink baby rib bikini bra sensually pulling at her long, dark hair on a giant billboard over Sunset Boulevard. The picture is from that day they first met.
Dov scrolls through more shots of random women, models and employees. "Look at this cute girl," he says of one who works in the Montreal office. "I wanted her so bad."
"It never causes drama?" I ask.
"Damn right it does. You gotta be very carefu -- certain girls can handle it, certain can't." He clicks on a different folder. "Here's a picture of my grandmother's place. Look how cool her furniture is. She's right on point."
"She as horny as you are?"
"No," he says as we both crack up. "Are you?"
All in all, Dov has had serious relationships with only three of his employees -- all cute, clean-faced young women. First, there was Nikki Yang, whom he hired way back in 1996, when, he says, "there were no girls," they were operating from South Carolina and "were dying at all times." She is now the custom-order manager and married Marco Victorino from I.T. last March. Then there was Merrily, who he says is the only girl he thought he could marry. After a dramatic, secret long-term affair, she found someone else and broke up with him. He was so devastated, he couldn't come to the office for weeks, and when he finally returned, would openly weep in the hallways. Still, he was adamant about keeping Merrily with the company. "I'm proud that it happens and we're able to deal with it," he says. "I'm not saying I want to screw all the girls at work -- I'm not a f--kin' madman. But if I fall in love at work, it's going to be beautiful and sexual."
And currently, there is Thida Sheldon, who lives in London, where American Apparel is opening a store, along with ones already or about to open in Montreal, L.A, New York, Frankfurt and Berlin. She was taking a break from school when she was asked to model for the company at a clothing trade show. The night they met, he had an assistant invite her to his hotel room. "I thought it was weird," Thida, 22 says in her British accent, "but I love weird. I'm not like other girls. People were like, 'Be careful, he's a walking erection.' I wanted to know what a 'walking erection' is. So I went to his room and he just starts talking about his company, lying on his bed, like an emperor, really at ease." Deja vu.
"Eisenhower chic, that's the look I'm going for," Dov says, describing his personal style. Though on some days -- like the morning he invited me to go flea-market shopping and opened his apartment door wearing #1301 pink jersey P.E shorts, a lemon-yellow terry top, flip-flops and a QUEBEC bucket hat -- he looks more like a '70s roller-derby candy girl gone fishin'. A few days later, he's in a pair of beige vintage Levi's Sta-Prest slacks -- strangely, I own the exact same pants -- and the terry shirt again while we cruise the stroller- and nanny-trafficked sidewalks of New York's Upper West Side with a real estate broker. "All these older business people, for the most part, are playing Wizard of Oz," he says. "We don't really know who Bill Gates is; we don't know what turns Bush's crank. Is he into bestiality or what? Because it can't just be the guy's playing to God." We check out the retail spots of a Banana Republic and a Baby Gap before stepping into another clothing store. A line of cardboard boxes sloppily stuffed with sale items greets us near the entrance. "What is this, a closeout garage sale?" Dov says. "A bigger story is why a company like this isn't making it. Not if I [ get] off. Of course I do. What's new?"
Alexandra Spunt, 24, met Dov when she interviewed him for a Canadian paper. At the end, he said, "You sound cool. Maybe we could work together." Within a month, she'd quit her job, moved to L.A. and started working as his assistant even spending a short period platonically living with him while looking for her own place. Alex now helps Dov with advertising content, hiring, photography, you name it. Inside the factory's art department, we look at an ad where there's a series of photos of Thida in a red bikini-and-brief set. In the final shot, she's plucking her bikini line. "It makes it funny," Alex explains. "We get mixed criticism. Women saying they love that we don't use real models. Or 'You're socially conscious, but exploiting women.' I disagree. It's a fine line. Of course, the women are sexualized in the images, but I don't think anything's wrong with that. It's not just about being socially conscious, it's about being a profitable company." In another ad, Thida and an equally nubile girl are lounging on beach chairs, stripped down to #8301 hot shorts and nothing else. The slogan reads: CAREFREE, COMFORTABLE, COTTON. YOU CAN FEEL HOW GOOD IT LOOKS.
"I love that ad because it's my girlfriend," Dov says. "Thida was comfortable with it, and I wanted to make sure it was kosher with a woman I trust." So he consulted one of his art department employees.
"She was like, 'Can I be in it, too?'" Thida says. "We ended up both going naked on the porch in front of everyone. It was fun, man, it was crazy."
When I recount tales about Dov to friends, I often find myself on the defensive. In a time when the FCC and conservative corporate powers are arbitrarily censoring basic civil liberties, Dov's candor is refreshing. And these women who work with him get it. "You can thank me and Iris and Alex," Dov says of his enlightened company vision. "We all have our f–king d--k in it. It's not just one c--k." Ahem.
"We're the kind of girls that would buy from this company: 24- or 25-year-olds who know what's up," Alex says. "That's why he holds onto us the way he does. We're his demographic. Dov's not sexist. He wants nothing to do with PC backlash. He rejects early-90s feminism. Sure, he might come across as offensive, but truthfully, he really respects women who work here. And he would never hurt anybody....He's never [masturbated] in front of me." I'm a bit surprised to hear that Dov has pretty much told everyone outside his mother about beating off for the reporter. Even Thida knows, though she also isn't really bothered by it. "Maybe if he wasn't where he is now, he'd be one of those perverts on the subway," she says. "But this is his empire, and when you're with him, he welcomes you into his life. That's why I let him do these things. And so long as the girls are okay and have fun, it's great. Go for it, man."
After a month of watching Dov wheel and deal multimillion-dollar real estate, explain the minutiae of two-needle and blind hems, patronize full-service massage parlors before skipping over to an evening of fine kosher dining, and "pleasure" himself eight or so times, I start to wonder when this Twilight Zone marathon is going to be over. We've just left a porn shop near Times Square, where he's planning to open another store, and I'm thinking it's time to go home. I briefly hesitate as he hails a cab heading downtown, knowing the inevitable rituals of his night are still to, uh, come. Then, as I step into the depths of the backseat, I realize I don't want this trip to end just yet.
To read my October 2005 followup story, please click here.