Profiles in Mean: Dov Charney

Dov Charney, the disgraced founder of American Apparel, is arguably one of the most visible mean entrepreneurs of the past few decades. Charney was born in Montreal, Canada and raised by creative parents: his mother, Sylvia, was a painter and sculptor, and his father, Morris, an architect. Like Peter Arnell, Charney had to overcome an early obstacle: in his case, a learning disorder that he claims made him “functionally illiterate” until he was thirteen. He only learned to read and write with the tireless efforts of a junior high school teacher who spent two hours a day with him.

He moved to Connecticut to spend his senior year of high school at posh boarding school Choate, and there his entrepreneurial drive kicked into high gear. He began bringing thousands of Hanes and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts—purchased in the U.S. in bulk—over the boarder to Montreal via U-Haul truck where he sold them for a profit.

In 1987, Charney enrolled at Tufts University and during his freshman year there he teamed up with his first partner, Bob Smith. Though the latter came up with the moniker “American Apparel” for the company, the name is reflective of Charney’s obsession with American-made goods and values, a rejection of the Quebec nationalism he grew up surrounded by. Charney’s partnership with Smith wouldn’t last, however, becoming the first in a long series of failed business relationships for the driven but difficult Charney.

Charney dropped out of Tufts in 1990 and borrowed $10,000 from his father to focus on his business full-time, moving operations to South Carolina to start manufacturing clothing rather than importing it. By the mid-1990s, the twenty-something Charney had built American Apparel into a thriving company, catering to young urbanites drawn to the “Made in America” label and Charney’s outspokenness about the mistreatment of garment workers in developing nations. Charney had grandiose dreams from the get-go, once proclaiming “I want to be remembered as one of the great CEOs of our time and of my generation.”

But from the earliest years, Charney’s business life was a rocky ride. In 1996, American Apparel had to restructure and file for Chapter 11, after which he moved his business to Los Angeles and branched out into retails stores. His resilience and bold moves over the next few years earned him millions of dollars and plenty of accolades, even landing him Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year nod in 2004.

For a time, Charney seemed unstoppable. But like so many with such outsize business ambitions, the same risk-taking drive that made him successful, eventually led to his downfall.

Thanks to the multiple lawsuits that have piled up against him over the years, the jaw-dropping ways that Charney treated his staff and others is well-known. And it’s an ugly picture.

Like Arnell, Charney was prone to fits of rage that were way out of proportion to whatever sparked them. In one lawsuit, former store manager Michael Bumblis says that Charney grabbed his throat and began choking him during a store visit. The reason? Bumblis was improperly storing inventory on the store’s second floor.

Chaney also inspected one of the dressing areas in Bumblis’ store and, finding dirt and dust on the floor, he reportedly grabbed the dirt and “managed to push his dirt filled hand into [Bumblis’] face with such force as to cause his head and neck to snap backwards.”

Bumblis was fired from American Apparel and was not given a reason for his termination.

Charney’s impulsivity also frequently manifested itself in compulsive sexual behavior, which would be the centerpiece of many of the lawsuits against him. Former female employees described “sexually offensive conduct” by Charney and a sexually hostile work environment. One suit said that photos from vintage adult magazines were “posted in plain view in the American Apparel stores.” Another said that Charney regularly used disparaging terms such as “cunt”, “slut”, and “whore” in front of both male and female employees. He was widely reported to work in his underwear, and then there is the legendary story of Dov masturbating during an interview with a reporter from Jane magazine.

So why did people put up with it? A senior manager of Charney’s who I did numerous in-depth interviews with explained the double-edged sword of working for American Apparel and Charney. “He was disgusting. I avoided interacting with him in any way I could. His mercurial, loud, in-your-face behavior was intolerable.” Yet, she said “I loved the company and the people. I felt for years—from working at the store level all the way to senior management at headquarters—we were on an important mission. We were making a statement about how America could once again be fair to manufacturing employees, and immigrants in particular. Dov made me feel we were part of some movement, with so many outside the company wishing we would fail.”

In 2014, with American Apparel posting losses to the tune of $300 million and the company’s reputation suffering from their founder’s abominable conduct, Charney was fired from the company he created. Despite being ousted, Charney has as yet refused to cut emotional ties with American Apparel, holding a backyard rally with over 300 current employees of the company at his home just this March.

There’s no doubt that Charney has extraordinary drive and singular sense of purpose but for hubristic men like him, the line between golden boy and cautionary tale might be thinner than he ever imagined.