The perp behind the curtain: The long-awaited fall of American Apparel’s Dov Charney

Dov Charney
Photography by Johannes Kroemer/Getty Images
Dov Charney
Photography by Johannes Kroemer/Getty Images

Oh, the stories I’ve heard about working at American Apparel. The “casting calls” instead of interviews; conference calls from Dov that felt figuratively endless, store visits from Dov that were literal handfuls; the employee discount that was almost always five-fingered; the mirrored table in the staff room that would have made Tony Montana proud. It’s the stories about American Apparel that have always been American Apparel’s most valued currency. The stories proved American Apparel was cool, hot, fun, funny, subversive, edgy, sexy, and if you had a problem with American Apparel then you were none of those things.

A very brief overview: The now 45-year-old Dov Charney founded American Apparel in 1991, a company with a slow burn masquerading as an overnight success. It took twelve years for Charney to move the company from wholesaling in Montreal to a vertically integrated retail empire, and by 2005 the company had produced over $200 million in revenue. Charney quickly became just as noticeable as the stores that were popping up everywhere, famous enough to have Fred Armisen play him on Saturday Night Live.

The stories about Dov Charney’s peculiar proclivities became rumours, and then the rumours became gossip, and then the gossip became fact, an inseparable truth from any other story on American Apparel. As the company grew and grew throughout the first decade of the millennium, Charney became legend, and not necessarily the bad, notorious kind; fawning profiles, like this 2000 one by Malcolm Gladwell, seemed charmed by a man so honestly leading his business by his boners. Business was booming despite—and maybe because of—these stories, so why fix what wasn’t broken?

Last week, however, the other V-neck T-shirt dropped; Charney was served with termination papers by the board of directors and the chief financial officer, John Luttrell, was named interim CEO. Charney was immediately suspended, but his contract requires a thirty-day grace period before the termination becomes final. In The Guardian, Jenna Sauers has an excellent account of all the formal legal complaints against Charney, as well as his well-documented issues with the Security Exchange Commissions and the company’s creditors.

Charney is fighting the termination, in both real courtrooms and the courtrooms of public opinion. His lawyers have filed an arbitration petition, alleging that the termination is baseless and a breach of contract. A “Save Dov” Instagram account was created almost immediately following the termination, apparently from former and current American Apparel employees, and in an interview with the Financial Times he called the claims listed in his termination letter “grotesque.” “I may not be married, or have grey hair, or embody the conventional characteristics of an executive board,” Charney says. “But whether I fit that template or not, I know I have been turning this company around, and am on the right track.”

This aggrieved persecution narrative is particularly offensive considering the long, long history of substantial complaints against Charney, both sexual and financial. Apparently, Charney’s reputation was so awful that the company’s employee liability insurance had risen from $350,000 to $1,000,000—an unreasonable amount for any business, never mind a business that has always held workers’ rights and safety as one of its key tenents. The idea that American Apparel could proudly boast of their Los Angeles factories, with decently paid and well benefitted employees, at the same time that Charney’s behaviour was resulting in “numerous lawsuits” and “the loss of critical, qualified Company employees as a result of your misconduct,” as the board’s termination letter to Charney read, must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

But the bitterest pill of all is cold, hard cash, and the board wasn’t prepared to continue swallowing Charney’s…antics. It’s so predictable, so banal, that it’s almost easy to forget that Charney could have been fired at any time. Part of his story, his legacy, was that Charney could not be separated from the brand; sexual harassments and routine abuses were just par for the course with this board, up until it began to affect their bottom line. Charney’s termination was announced on Wednesday. American Apparel’s stock rose 20% on Thursday. If this were fiction, I’d say this development was too easy, too expected, but sometimes reality has just as much of a sense of humour as fiction does.

Officially, Charney was fired for three reasons: breach of fiduciary duty, violation of company policy, and misuse of corporate assets. One source told The Globe and Mail that the board of directors had just become aware of some facts, including that Charney had attempted to “discredit a number of women who had charged him with sexual harassment,” but an anonymous source told Buzzfeed’s Sapna Maheshwari that the allegations against Charney aren’t new; the board has known about them for years and acted purely out of financial interests. Perhaps the board only just purchased a working calculator? In any case, they wanted this chapter to end because they knew they could never begin a new chapter if Charney was their main character.

Charney was always, always using pseudo-political ideas to justify a sexuality that was exploitative, not expressive. He was only interesting in expressing his sexuality, at the expense of others’. He imagined himself to be a connoisseur of cotton and women. Under his leadership, American Apparel’s marketing was no different than the many brands that conflate purchasing with power, that your shampoo will help your self-esteem, that your shoes will save your soul.

In this case, the message was that shopping at American Apparel was akin to celebrating (overwhelmingly white, young, thin, heteronormative) sexuality. But the sex Charney was selling wasn’t sexual. It was profitable. Capitalism being the ultimate aphrodisiac, Charney was cleverly conflating the eroticism of money and power and then repackaging it as a social justice-infused mass-market fashion brand that just wanted to put ethically-made clothes on the backs of said masses.

There have always been advertisers preying on human insecurity, but the advertisers who specifically play on the idea of feminist empowerment as something you can prove by your purchases are a special brand of evil. Charney was that evil. His rhetoric was just another attempt to distract from the real issue: Charney liked the washed-out amateur-style photos of barely-legal employees, Charney liked the double entendres and oversexed advertisements, Charney believed they were integral to the companies’ success. And as long as the company was making money no one was willing to challenge his magical thinking.

American Apparel and Dov Charney, when they were one and the same, were a cautionary tale about certain realities of the fashion industry. Being forced to choose between sexually exploitative labour practices and just the regular exploitative labour practices, the ones that lead to atrocities in Bangladesh for example – are these our only options? It’s a myth that the retail industry propagates, that you get one or the other, that the business of fashion is a business founded on lesser evils.

It was almost exactly ten years ago that Claudine Ko wrote her now-famous profile of Charney for Jane Magazine, the one where he masturbated in front of her several times, claiming she was trying to seduce him. In that profile Charney says that paying his employees well was a way of saying, “Fuck you” to The Man, that mythical beast that even the people who benefit the most from The Patriarchy are always invoking. But Charney was never as interested in saying “fuck you” as he was in saying “fuck me”—literally, figuratively, however you want to phrase it. Charney was happy to fuck his company, again and again, in the interest of his own pleasures, if that’s what they were and not the compulsions they sometimes appeared to be.

It’s too simple to say that fashion runs on bodies, or perhaps too literal. Fashion depends on the bodies who design, make, and sell clothes, the people who serve the interests of CEOs and other versions of The Man, the people who sign the cheques versus the people who cash them every two weeks. When someone like Charney is dictating the terms of the story, those bodies become, well, bodies – disposable, displaceable, barely human entities that he has systematically denied in order to personally and professionally profit.

In Ko’s profile, Charney complained that no one really knew the people behind the brands that were huge at that time, such as Bill Gates. “All these older business people, for the most part, are playing Wizard of Oz,” he said, an interesting analogy—a hero’s journey that ends when our heroine finds out that the man behind the curtain was only ever just a man and not a god.

Dov Charney is just a man, and the length of time it took for his company to declare him no longer a god forces us to ask the question: what kind of stories are we willing to tolerate in the service of the great men who tell them? His presumed hero’s journey will, hopefully, end here. Fingers crossed no one brings this character back for a sequel. 

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