The Self Made Man: Dov Charney
Say what you want about Dov Charney – that he’s shallow, that he’s a pig, that his personal life is like a reenactment of the fall of Rome – but you can’t call him dull. Nor can you call him unsuccessful; his company, American Apparel, combines good, old-fashioned American (or Canadian, as the case may be) entrepreneurship with a daring business model in which employees are treated like human beings. And sexually harassed, but that’s another article.
Anyway, back to Dov. He was born in Montreal, but fell in love with the United States as a teenager, possibly because he was sick to death of the Quebecois by then. Indeed, he was so desperate to live here that he went to boarding school in Connecticut, which is where his business instincts began to ripen. Charney started importing Hanes and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts to his Canadian friends, and kept that business going after he enrolled at Tufts University – in fact, he dropped out of Tufts to start a t-shirt manufacturing business of his own in South Carolina. After that failed, he relocated to Los Angeles and tried again, and gave us all American Apparel.
Charney is something of an outlier in the garment/retail industries, in that he resists outsourcing and gives his factory workers benefits that a lot of white-collar jobs don’t have. AA factory employees get between $13–18 USD/hr, full-family healthcare, free international phone calls during work hours, free parking, paid time off, company-subsidized lunches, free English as an additional language classes, and on-site massage therapy. I wouldn’t entirely trust that last item, given Charney’s reputation, but the rest of that sounds awesome. Considering that so many companies use the economy as an excuse to demand that new hires devote their lives to the job for nothing in return, Charney should be lauded for rising above that particular corporate instinct.
Which is why it’s confusing that Charney took this progressive company that resists the bloodthirstiness most people associate with modern American business leadership (outsourcing, downsizing, cost-cutting to the detriment of employees) and gave it the most unflattering public face imaginable. Maybe it’s because Charney is a workaholic who sleeps in his office and can’t separate his professional and personal lives, but his demands that every office and retail employee be “hot” (according to his own standards), his porny, badly-designed advertisements that occasionally have teenage models, and his leering, suspicious interest in “sexual honesty” in the workplace almost cancel out the good things about his company. You’d think he’d know that his overall business model would be a threat to every shortsighted, greedhead CEO out there, and that he therefore shouldn’t offer them ways to discredit him and his company on a silver platter like that.
So yeah, Dov’s a weird, dichotomous person to be sure. But he’s also, at the heart of it all, someone who had an idea and took a gamble on it, and didn’t give up on it after a Chapter 11 bankruptcy that would have killed most people’s entrepreneurial spirits right then and there. And despite his personal flaws, his company rewards hard work and loyalty with more-than-fair wages and benefits. Compare that to, say, Donald Trump, who is both an asshole and a terrible businessman, both morally and otherwise.
And just in case you think I’m exaggerating about Dov Charney’s various indiscretions, I’ll end with a link to this article by Jane writer Claudine Ko.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.