Dov Charney is trying to rebuild a multi-million dollar apparel company from the ground up. But he can’t do it alone. In this episode, we’ll hear from the people who have signed on to work with Charney, the people who have remained loyal to him since the early days of American Apparel, and those who have been inspired to join him in his new venture.
The commitment Charney receives from his workers feels like a double-edged sword—the more they devote their time and energy to his new company, the more they depend on its success. This time around, the pressure to succeed feels much, much higher.
Andrew Dunn and Martin Peralta mixed the episode.
Our theme song was written and performed by Mark Phillips.
Our updated theme was remixed by Bobby Lord.
The special ad music, Microliters, was written and performed by Build Buildings.
Our logo was designed by Elias Stein.
Additional music from the band hotmoms.gov.
To learn more about Undone and the other shows Gimlet is launching this fall, go to gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com/fallseason.
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LISA: Hello. From Gimlet Media, I’m Lisa Chow, and this is StartUp. This season, over the following 6 episodes, we’re focusing on a fascinating and highly controversial founder, the former CEO of American Apparel. Dov Charney.
NOA: If he got ran over by a bus. And had no legs, he’d show up to work the next day with a phone still on his ear. You know, in a wheelchair.
LISA: What happened between you and Dov that compelled you to sue him?
WOMAN: That’s something that I cannot not comment on, today or any day.
LISA: And why…why exactly can’t you comment on it?
WOMAN: I’m not at liberty to…I’ve been silenced.
TRUDY: He, like, totally believed in me and I just am so grateful. Because I feel like me along with a lot of other young people, especially young women, like he totally empowered us to believe that we could do this. I just felt really, really grateful for the experience.
RYAN: He has thousands of employees. They could quit at any time, but they don’t. They cheer when he walks down the halls. His products are massively popular. They’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars. And he knows he’s not doing the things that — the exploitative things that third world that many people in fashion are doing, right? So all of these are positive traits.
WOMAN: You preach that you care about your workers. You preach that you go sweatshop free. That child labor is shameful. But have you looked into what you’ve done to many of us girls?
DOV: Okay, let’s figure out where we’re going to make money right now. Okay, so things have evolved since you guys were around, I’m having more of a vision…
DOV:…as to what’s going to get done. And things are getting more competitive, and more serious. Okay.
LISA: I’m sitting in the car with Dov, and his moods, they can be extremely unpredictable. Sometimes, he’s cracking jokes and talking passionately about manufacturing in Los Angeles. But then, he can be sulky and dismiss my questions.
LISA: When you say more competitive what do you…
DOV: Well I’m not going to define everything for you right now, but it’s like — you know, you’re like a journalist, you’re trying to break it down, right? But it’s not broken down; it’s still foggy. But in the fog I see an island. Okay?
LISA: Sometimes Dov swears. And there will be a little bit of that in this episode.
Lots of people have told me Dov has an extreme personality — a personality that inspires extreme reactions in people, both positive and negative. Over the course of reporting this story, we’ve talked to more than 150 people, and many of them are very loyal to Dov. The love they feel for him is intense and palpable.
Then there are others who have told us about disturbing and shocking experiences they had working with Dov. These stories will be part of our series in later episodes.
The one thing that people agree on is that Dov is charismatic. He’s good at convincing people that they’re doing something important. Because he’s so good at convincing himself:
DOV: You have to bullshit yourself a little bit, because when everybody believes — when everybody believes your bullshit and you start believing your bullshit too. It can actually, like, just manifest itself that it just — it happens. Because you believe it’s going to happen. And everybody’s so convinced it’s going to happen that shit starts to happen that never would have happened had you been more realistic about life!
LISA: On today’s episode, we’ll meet some of the people who have joined Dov in believing his bullshit. People who are helping Dov build his new company. We’ll see exactly how Dov inspires loyalty and confidence in people; and how that loyalty can take over your life.
It’s a Saturday afternoon. We’re in a large, fluorescent-lit factory with a cement floor. Dov managed to convince the guy who owns this building to give him some temporary space. In the back corner, fifteen or so people are working at sewing machines, and standing and inspecting stacks of charcoal gray t-shirts.
DOV: So, this here is our first official day of sewing. These are my sewers here. I’ve worked with all these people for over 10 years. Guys! Woo!
LISA: It’s been a month since our last visit and Dov has gotten a production line up and running, making small orders of t-shirts and other kinds of apparel for screen printers and boutiques.
The workers — men and women, mostly middle-aged — are moving quickly at their machines. One person finishes the neck of the t-shirt, hands it over to someone else, who works on the sleeve, another sews the hem.
There’s laughter, snatches of conversation. The mood seems genuinely happy.
All the workers here at the new company worked for Dov at American Apparel. One worker gives Dov a high five. Dov claps another guy on the shoulder. Dov doesn’t speak much Spanish and most of the workers speak very little English.
MARIA: Mi nombre es Maria—
LISA: Maria is a slight woman in her late 50s. She has a warm smile and curly hair she pulls back in a braid. We talked to her during her break.
Maria, like a lot of the workers at Dov’s new company, is loyal to him because of her time at American Apparel. Before she worked at American Apparel, Maria says, she was working long hours, for low wages, and barely had time to see her daughter.
MARIA: [in Spanish] She was hanging out with bad kids in school, getting involved in gangs, involved in drugs, all of that.
LISA: Maria tells us her daughter was hanging out with a bad crowd in school, getting involved in gangs and drugs.
But when Maria got her job at American Apparel, her pay went up and her hours went down.
MARIA: [in Spanish] When I started at American Apparel, my life changed. I started being able to leave work early, I could spend more time with my daughter. And this really helped, she stopped going down this bad path. That’s why I’m profoundly thankful to God, to Dov, and the company. Dov is a great person. That’s what motivated me to follow him. Most people, CEOs like him, don’t love workers like he does. He’s unique.
LISA: The first time I heard a story like this, Dov was in the factory. And I wondered if people were just talking up their boss. But over the last several months, we’ve had lots of conversations with workers outside the factory, and their admiration for Dov feels very sincere.
Many of these workers came from difficult situations. Civil war in Guatemala. Rural poverty in Mexico. One woman from El Salvador spent two months traveling by bus, boat, and foot, to make it to the U.S.
Sabino, another worker, came to the U.S. in the 1980s. He says Dov helped him get the papers he needed to live in the U.S. legally.
SABINO: [in Spanish] Before I started working for Dov Charney, I lived in a tiny apartment. It was a studio. When I started to work at the company, it helped me a lot. Now I have a driver’s license. I have a car. I have a bank account. And we’ve been able to buy this house. If I wasn’t there, earning what I earned with American Apparel, I would have been renting a small apartment. It would have been difficult.
LISA: I can see why workers like Maria and Sabino feel so indebted to Dov. He was paying them well above the industry average. People were able to send their kids to college, and do basic things like go out to eat with their families. When American Apparel went public, Dov gave them all shares in the company.
Most clothing companies were outsourcing their manufacturing to factories overseas, to places like China and Bangladesh where labor and materials were cheaper. But when you ask Dov why he was determined to make clothes in America, he doesn’t respond with any sort of nationalistic pride. After all, he is Canadian.
DOV: It’s not about “Made in USA”. “Made in USA” is a dumbed down version of what it really is about. It’s about making things yourself. And in this case, I live in this market, it’s a very great it’s a great market. I want to make locally, so I can micromanage the creation of a product.
LISA: So if you were living though in—
DOV: If I was living in—
LISA: Bangladesh or—
DOV: If I was living in Mexico City, it would be “Made in Mexico City.” It’s not a nationalist play at all. I don’t, I mean, I don’t even believe in America, I’m a much bigger thinker. I believe in Manifest Destiny, which is an American theme, but the purpose of the United States was to bring America to everyone, that the first amendment applied to people of all places. This idea of building walls, that’s, that’s not American to me.
LISA: Dov can talk about this stuff for hours. And the immigrant workers making clothes at American Apparel, they appreciated that Dov seemed to genuinely care about their rights. They’d cheer when he walked through the factory. Share sweets and snacks with him when he visited the lunchroom.
In 2014, when Dov was fired from American Apparel, many workers came to his defense — protesting every Wednesday outside the factory.
VIDEO: [chanting] …we are the general brotherhood of workers of American Apparel… 3000 workers…
LISA: After Dov was fired, hundreds of garment workers were laid off or had their hours cut.
This is a video of one of the protests. It’s a little chaotic. A swarm of people are gathered outside the American Apparel factory. People are carrying signs that say “Dov wouldn’t let this happen to us,” and wearing t-shirts that say “I heart Dov” and “Save Our Company.”
One worker named Fabelio lost his job at American Apparel last year, after the protest. For months, he struggled to find work that paid anything close to what he was making at American Apparel. Earlier this year, he finally took a lower-paying job making hats.
He said the job was okay… until he found out who he was making them for.
FABELIO: [in Spanish] In the job that I’m in right now, we’re working for the Donald Trump campaign. We’re making him thousands and thousands and thousands of hats. The majority of workers there don’t support Donald Trump. But as we say, as long as we’ve got work, and he doesn’t win the presidency, we’re happy. This job ends in November. So, right now, from here on til then, we have to finish a hundred thousand new hats for Donald Trump.
LISA: Factory workers like Fabelio aren’t the only former employees counting on Dov.
He has a whole team of people working around the clock at the corporate headquarters of his new company: his house. We’ll go there after the break.
LISA: Hi, we’re visiting Dov Charney. Thanks.
LISA: Dov lives in a gated community. His house is a 20-room mansion at the top of a hill in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The security gate opens and our car churns up the steep driveway. There’s a long flight of steps leading up to the front door.
On the porch, a sculpture, maybe 2 feet tall, of a giant middle finger.
Inside there’s a foyer with a wide staircase made of natural stone. Large windows look out on the downtown skyline and the Santa Monica Mountains. Piles of t-shirts are stacked everywhere, on tables and windowsills.
Dov bought this house 10 years ago for more than 4 million dollars. It’s his most valuable asset, and from what I can tell, he’s using every square inch of it to support the new company.
Every time we visited, the door was always unlocked, with a constant stream of people coming and going, making use of almost every room in the house. On any given day, Dov might meet with a sewing machine mechanic, then a swimsuit designer, then a photographer. He holds meetings in his kitchen, his dining room and his bedroom. That’s not unusual for Dov.
DOV: Check out this fit. So this is the new look.
KIM: Yes, I love it.
LISA: Today, he’s meeting with two former employees, James and Kim, getting their feedback on some new designs.
DOV: Oh, here’s a new fleece. Try that on! Try it!
LISA: James is a graphic designer and Kim owns a vintage clothing store. The two worked together at American Apparel and recently got engaged.
Dov tosses James a sweatshirt.
DOV: This is the new fleece that I think kills. Well, you tried that black one on, what did you think?
JAMES: It was okay. I don’t know if I liked the floppiness of it, you know?
DOV: Okay, so you’d maybe tighten it.
LISA: Most people who visit the house are former employees, either working with Dov on projects for the new company, or just coming by to see how he’s doing.
But people don’t just work at Dov’s house. A lot of people live there too. Some stay a few days, others have lived in the house for years. When we were there, a woman and her young son were living in one room. An elderly garment worker who fell down the stairs was staying in another room, so people could look after her.
To make some extra money, Dov’s renting his basement on Airbnb. For 108 dollars a night you can stay in Dov Charney’s house and see it for yourself.
Most people living in the house are young — 20s and 30s — like TJ, a broad-shouldered kid from Texas.
LISA: How is it living in the house?
TJ: It’s amazing, but it gets a little hectic sometimes, because you’ve got people from all different parts of the world in there. You got somebody in there from Argentina, you got somebody from China, you got somebody from Canada. You got people from everywhere.
LISA: and was there just like this room available?
TJ: There was.
LISA: TJ moved to Los Angeles specifically to work for Dov. He does a range of tasks for the new company.
TJ: I do the social media marketing. Help with that for the new company. And I’m also the cleaning lady at the same time.
LISA: And how did you meet Dov?
TJ: I met through a —
LISA: TJ had just graduated from college. He was living in San Antonio, working as an uber and lyft driver. One night, he picked up a passenger. A guy named Chris. They were talking about TJ’s aspirations. And Chris said, you should talk to my friend Dov. TJ had seen Dov interviewed on TV, and was inspired by his stance on immigration.
So, TJ and Dov talked on the phone, and Dov invited him to stay at the house. TJ loaded up his car with a suitcase and his 2 cats and drove to Los Angeles. He was excited. But not everyone in his family was supportive.
TJ: My grandma, even though she’s in her 70s, she’s still really up and going. And so she went onto Google and of course searched everything that had to do with Dov Charney. And that’s the worst thing that could ever happen because she saw all the bad articles about him, and so she was definitely against it.
LISA: If you google Dov Charney, you’ll find a lot of negative stories… there are reports of Dov conducting meetings in his underwear… giving employees vibrators as gifts….and allegations of sexual harassment and assault… allegations that Dov has denied.
So. That’s the kind of stuff that TJ’s grandma saw.
TJ: She’s like, TJ this isn’t a good idea. You’re getting yourself into the wrong situation, the wrong business. He’s going to to control you, this and that. But I was like you know, Grandma, like I said, Dov’s a different person. You got to see him to actually realize who he is. You can’t trust everything that you saw on the internet. And so, I’m an adult, I wanna make my own decisions and if I make mistakes, guess what, I can learn from them. I think honestly I came out here really more for the experience. I mean he’s one of the big dogs in the apparel industry.
LISA: When I pressed people in the house on the sexual harassment claims against Dov, many said the same thing as TJ: You can’t believe everything you read. Dov’s different when you meet him.
After a few weeks living here, the one thing TJ can say for sure is that Dov works all the time.
TJ: I never see him sleep, you know? As soon as I wake up in the morning, he’s on the phone, you know, at 5:30 in the morning. I’m like how do you do that? You stay up until 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s just crazy. And he doesn’t take any days off. He works Monday through Sunday, every single day. And so that’s what he expects from everyone else, too is to go go go type of environment.
LISA: It’s like, you’re in this beautiful house, but there’s just no separation of work and life.
TJ: Oh, yeah, exactly. You can’t relax in the house. Even though there are couches everywhere, there’s like tables, you can’t relax. You’re constantly working or sleeping. That’s it. Work, sleep, and eat, that’s it.
LISA: And you’re not getting paid?
TJ: No, currently not. We’re coming in helping with the company. And then whenever the company actually launches, we’ll go to an actual paid role. So. Yeah.
LISA: So you’re just kind of banking on that?
TJ: Yeah, that’s what I’m banking on, for sure. I know what he did with American Apparel, he can do the same thing if not better with this company. He’s very loyal to people he works with, so I can bank on that for sure.
LISA: It seems crazy, the former CEO of a 10,000 person public company, opening his house to random strangers. It’s also weird, given Dov’s reputation, how many random people agree to live here. But, it’s always been this way.
Amy, a former American Apparel product developer, lived in Dov’s house for two years, starting in 2010. When she first went over to check it out, she saw that her new roommates would be Dov—and a bunch of women in their 20s.
AMY: I remember thinking, living there. I don’t know. Have you ever seen the movie Girl, Interrupted? When Winona Ryder goes down the hallway and she looks in every room and there’s a different crazy girl in their own way. And she’s like, wow, I’m about to live here! Great, let’s do this! Sign me up!
LISA: The women were other American Apparel employees and, like TJ, Amy was worried what her family would think. So much so, that when she first moved in she didn’t even tell them it was Dov’s house. They thought she was living with a friend.
AMY: Like, what parent in their right mind would understand that scenario. I feel like not many would.
LISA: Did it ever feel weird to you?
AMY: To be there?
LISA: Yeah, just to be living in the CEO’s house.
AMY: Um, it did feel weird. Because I was like this is his home. But once you’re there and fully living there, you realize it’s not his home. It’s the company’s home. He lets you live there. The fridge is yours, the garage is yours, he, he — it’s everyone’s space. It’s a shared space.
LISA: It’s not what a normal CEO would do. It’s what friends or family would do. And somehow, you get the sense that’s how Dov feels about a lot of the people working with him, living with him. They’re like family.
Dov has lots of people depending on him. There are all those vendors — the labelmakers and the knitters and the dyers — who are counting on Dov to start a company that will revitalize their own businesses. There are the employees, who are living in the house. And then, of course, the hundreds of garment workers, people like Fabelio, making the Trump hats, waiting for Dov to offer them a job.
And there may be many more. Just this past Monday, thousands of employees at American Apparel learned that they may all be let go, as early as January.
DOV: There’s a lot of expectation, which opens a lot of doors. But I also, I’m under severe pressure to perform. I’m not saying I’m not a controversial figure. I’m not saying there are not people who have disdain for me or I’m the punching bag for their point of view, I got it. I don’t care. But there’s also people that have respect for me. So that’s the difference. I’m somebody. And that is a burden as much as it is a benefit, because it’s scary. When people say, “Whatever you need, I’ll do it for you.”
LISA: Why is that scary?
DOV: It’s scary ‘cause I don’t want to let them down. People believe I’m gonna be making this comeback. I better, I better make this comeback. I have to deliver.
LISA: Dov demands the same level of commitment from the people around him. Like family, he gives a lot but he expects a lot, too.
Remember TJ, that kid from Texas, working for Dov for free? He told us that one weekend, he decided to take a break from the grind and go on a fishing trip to the Catalina Islands. When Dov found out, he got upset. Dov told TJ ,we really needed you this weekend. We’ve got work to do; we can’t have fun right now.
TJ apologized. But in the end, he decided that kind of lifestyle —all work, all the time — it was just too much for him. So, he packed up his car, and his cats, and went back to Texas. To his real family, who he missed a lot.
After the break, we’ll be back with scenes from the next episode of StartUp.
LISA: Next week on StartUp, we take a look at one of Dov’s many controversies. The American Apparel ads.
TEENA: He saw the world from a very sexual, powerful place for a while. At least that’s what I saw in his pictures. His pictures spoke volumes and it was just like the fact that the girls’ I don’t know, the girl’s mouth was open a certain way, I don’t know how to explain it.
LISA: That’s next time on StartUp.
StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. Our show is produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Molly Messick, and Simone Polanen. Our senior producer is Kaitlin Roberts. We are edited by Alex Blumberg, Peter Clowney, Alexandra Johnes, and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Leonor Jurado, Ruxandra Guidi, Rachel Strom, and Wendy Dorr.
Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. The new version of the theme song by the very skilled Bobby Lord. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Original music by the band, Hot Moms Dot Gov, which includes The Reverend John DeLore, Jordan Scannella, Sam Merrick, Isamu McGregor, and Curtis Brewer. Music direction by Matthew Boll.
Martin Peralta and Andrew Dunn mixed the episode.
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Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.
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