While Dov Charney was running American Apparel, he didn’t shy away from unconventionality. And for many entrepreneurs, breaking convention is an essential part of growing an innovative company. But pushing boundaries is one thing. Completely ignoring them is another.
In this episode, we explore the nebulous lines between Charney’s professional and personal relationships. We ask the women of American Apparel what it was like to work for the former CEO and how, in a company where the boundaries aren’t clear, they could determine what was—and wasn’t—appropriate in the workplace.
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 by the band hotmoms.gov.
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LISA: From Gimlet Media, this is Startup. I’m Lisa Chow.
And if you’ve been listening to the show, you know we’ve been following the highly controversial founder and ex-CEO of American Apparel—Dov Charney. I’ve been reporting on Dov for months, and I got to know his idiosyncrasies pretty quickly. Like how he shares his mansion with a bunch of kids in their 20s, but basically never socializes. And how he works constantly but won’t keep a calendar, and gets by on endless cups of Nescafe.
Dov is unconventional in lots of little ways. And then there are bigger ways. Like this story he told one of our producers, Kaitlin Roberts, a few months back:
DOV: Okay, one time, I had an employee, like, punch me in the nose to a bleed. Seriously. He’s just like, BOOM! And I was bleeding all over my face, you know. And I said, I’m not gonna fire a guy for punching me in the face. No way. I’m born in 1969, you know? A guy takes a swing at me. This politically correct crap, you know what I mean? I’m a man. He had a reason. No, he ain’t going anywhere.
KAITLIN: What did you do after that guy punched you in the face?
DOV: Said we’re going back to work on Monday. That’s it. We’re gonna figure it out we move forward that’s the man that I was taught to be. Or you could be a woman, same thing. A little different, whatever. And if that happened today, if someone decided to take a swing at me, you know I mean it’s okay. I can handle it. That’s what it is to be a boss sometimes is to take those punches, and you to feel that. I’m not condoning violence or anything, you know? I mean it wasn’t so fun to get punched in the face. But that… but yeah, you punch the boss in the face so you automatically get fired? No.
KAITLIN: Yeah, I don’t quite understand that. Like, where’s the line?
DOV: Well, I mean… if it was maybe, if he’d cut my arm off or something like. [Laughs] I don’t care about that stuff.
LISA: I can’t imagine any other CEO saying, I’m not going to fire that guy who just punched me in the face. But Dov values passion. And in Dov’s world, if an employee is passionate about his or her work, so passionate that they’ll punch the boss in the face, maybe they shouldn’t be fired.
That’s Dov logic. And even though stories like this sound pretty crazy, people believed in Dov’s vision. They told me they were drawn in by his charisma, his energy. Dov managed to bend the rules of the world around him, and he got others to buy into ideas that in any other workplace would seem unimaginable.
One of the most striking ways Dov defied normal workplace rules was in his relationships with women. And Dov’s relationships with women were full of contradictions. He surrounded himself with women, promoting them to the highest levels of power at American Apparel, while also sleeping with many of them.
Dov’s relationships with women altered the way the public viewed him and American Apparel. And many people say they created lasting challenges that could also affect his new venture.
Today on the show, we talk to people who were in those relationships, and others both inside and outside the company who were affected by them.
And just a quick warning, there’s some swearing in this episode and some sexual content.
LUKE: Is this an apartment block?
LISA: I don’t know.
LISA: A couple months ago, producer Luke Malone and I flew to St. Louis to meet a woman named Trudy Fogarty-Hayden.
TRUDY: Hey! How’s it going?
LISA: Hi, I’m Lisa.
TRUDY: I’m Trudy. Nice to meet you.
LUKE: Hey, I’m Luke.
TRUDY: Nice to meet you, Luke.
LISA: Trudy lives with her husband and three young kids in a stately brick apartment building on a tree-lined street.
LISA: Wow this is a beautiful building
TRUDY: Thank you.
LISA: It looks historic, is it?
TRUDY: Yeah, it’s over 100 years old, so…
LISA: We walk upstairs to her apartment.
TRUDY: Come on in.
LISA: Trudy’s a photo stylist and her home feels old fashioned. There are floral prints, mirrors with ornate frames painted gold. It’s very clean.
TRUDY: I was thinking we could sit at the table.
LISA: Trudy’s life is a lot different than what it was eight years ago, when she was living in California.
TRUDY: You know, I had a young son at that time and had recently split up with my son’s dad and I was just, like, so determined to stand by my decision to have my son and be able to support him and be the best mom.
LISA: Trudy was 18-years-old, supporting her 1-year-old son. She had a job as a sales clerk at the American Apparel closeout store where slightly damaged clothes would sell for cheap. That’s where she met Dov.
TRUDY: He came in one of those nights and was super excited had just landed from Montreal, and he had a ton of energy and kind of like childlike and was kind of like goofy. And definitely not what I pictured as a CEO of a company.
LISA: Dov wanted to make some changes to the store. So Trudy and Dov started working together. Dov gave her more responsibility, and pretty soon, she was managing several stores in the Pacific Northwest.
TRUDY: I think he really believed in me and put in the time and the energy to teach me a lot about business, about retail, about manufacturing. I feel like me along with a lot of other young people—especially young women—like he totally empowered us and supported us in a way that I just don’t think happens very often.
LISA: How would you describe your relationship with Dov, at the time that you were at American Apparel?
TRUDY: First off, as my boss and as like a mentor. Secondly as a really good friend. And then for a period of time I did have like a more intimate relationship with him.
LISA: When Trudy and Dov got involved, Trudy was a 19 year-old sales clerk. Dov was a 40-year-old CEO. And the relationship developed the way a lot of relationships do. Dov called and texted her more often. They flirted. They were also spending a lot of time together on the road, traveling from store to store. And then one day, they slept together.
TRUDY: What did I think after the fact? I was kind of wondering, like, uh, is this going to continue? Is this just kind of like a one time thing? Or, you know. There are a lot of rumors that circulated about Dov being with a lot of girls or whatever so I thought aww like shoot was I just another one of those girls or whatever, but like you know he called me the next day, and called me the next day and um realized that he wasn’t interested in just a one time experience.
LISA: Was there ever a moment where you’re like, you know maybe I shouldn’t be in a relationship with Dov—like a sexual relationship with Dov—because you know Dov’s my boss… did you feel conflicted?
TRUDY: Yeah, I definitely was, you know… at first I was like this is just bizarre and I didn’t really picture myself doing that and, uh… I’m not ashamed of that but I’m super cautious about it because, you know I worked really hard for what I had at American Apparel. And it’s really easy for someone to be able to dismiss that a Dov Girl or whatever.
LISA: A Dov Girl. It’s a phrase I’ve heard many times from former American Apparel employees. And people defined it differently. Some used it to describe a female employee in a sexual relationship with Dov. Others said a “Dov girl” was a muse, a person who inspired Dov’s creativity but wasn’t necessarily sleeping with him. People told me that a Dov Girl got a lot of benefits. Dov would shower them with gifts or give them big projects. But I also heard that Dov would criticize these “Dov Girls” just as much as he would some guy in the accounting department.
Either way, many former employees told me it was well-known that when Dov ran American Apparel, he was in sexual relationships with several employees at the same time.
And many of these women worked together. When Trudy modeled for American Apparel, she was photographed by one of Dov’s longtime girlfriends. Sometimes Trudy worked at Dov’s house, and she’d run into women living there, who were also in relationships with Dov.
I’ve spent hours talking with some of these women. They’re friendly, thoughtful, warm… But the situation they were in was outside anything I had ever experienced in my 10 years reporting on business. I had a hard time understanding how it all felt so normal to them.
LISA: What was the conversation between, like, you and his other partners? I mean did you ever talk about him? Because you bo— you all kind of knew him in this different way, you know?
TRUDY: Yeah, you know, I was like really good friends with one of the girls for a long time. And we kind of talked about it, and kind of joked about it and… I think that we were like aware that this was kind of strange but also pretty normal in like our daily life. It’s almost strange to like recount it now. Especially when I haven’t in so long, because now it sounds more strange to me than it did then. Now I am like, “Okay that is kind of weird” but [laughs]. But yeah, so it’s harder to explain it in terms when you were like, “Well it’s how I felt then.” You know, it’s hard to articulate that.
LISA: Like was there ever a conversation when you did become intimate where it was like “Okay, here is the deal. This is how it works”? Or…or…or…or, do you know what I mean? Like… because if you are going in with like the expectation of like, “Oh, I am going to marry this person or, you know, I am going to be his one and only love.” I mean it’s like you are going to feel burned afterwards.
TRUDY: It was super clear from the beginning. Like there was no question of, it’s just going to be me. You know, like we are all young girls and having our fun as well, so…how I envision my life is always to…to be…to end up in monogamous relationship and, I’m married now, but at that…at that time in my life it was just…it was just…it was an experience, and it was casual and fun in that sense.
LISA: But not everyone took their relationship with Dov so lightly.
AMY: There was not a time that I felt more passionately in love with someone. That’s really the truth of it.
LISA: This is Amy Talebizadeh, who worked as a product developer at American Apparel. Unlike Trudy, Amy didn’t consider her relationship with Dov just casual and fun. She was 23 years old when she started working at the company. She took a part time job as a sales clerk to help pay back her student loans.
AMY: I actually met Dov in a store. And I watched him from afar. I read every article online. And I was like what are you doing.. You cannot like a person, like, you cannot like the CEO. You work here. Like it was just…
LISA: Did you talk to your friends about your crush? I mean it sounds like you had a crush.
AMY: Oh man, I had such a crush. I couldn’t… I felt like no one could understand me. No one. They’d be like Amy this is… Did you Google his name and look at his images? Like, come on! I felt like everyone would try to talk me out of it. But there was an attraction and I had to pursue it. You know, I remember being so excited and happy to be with him.
LISA: Here, my producer Luke Malone breaks in.
LUKE: Are you getting like teary?
AMY: I’m trying not to. It’s just so… Yeah I haven’t, like, disclosed any of this information ,so it can be a bit much. It’s like a mixture of like happiness, and I can’t believe I’m finally saying this and, like, putting it out there. It’s a mixture of really coming to terms with like a moment in my life and being okay about it. You know, it was a lot for me to want to come out and say in my 20s, like yeah you’re so unsure and you’re so worried about what other people think. But it’s like okay. I don’t care. I really don’t care because it was something that I genuinely wanted. And you can judge it all you want but it’s my life.
LISA: Amy said she dated Dov for a year. She introduced him to her parents. She thought of him as her boyfriend. In some ways, what she described seemed like a normal relationship, they’d go out to eat, see movies. In other ways, their relationship seemed anything but normal. Amy said when she was dating Dov, she lived in his house with several other women in their 20s. She didn’t say whether these other women were also sleeping with Dov… but she says, it was a really competitive environment.
AMY: I felt like it was being in a house with a bunch of alpha females. Like all of us very dominating presence. All wanting our, like, this is who I am! I’m important! We’re all important and in our own way. At times we could step on each other’s territory, or whatever you want to call it. Um, I could have been more friendly, but, uh, you know it’s also competitive.
LISA: And how many of these young, competitive alpha females were there?
AMY: Alpha females, oh God. Um, there was at least four in the house. And then there might be like, one that might get flown in, stay for the week, get flown out. You know and then you’re hearing about their reputations before, like, getting to know them. Oh my God. A bunch of alpha females in their 20s who think they’re all so great.
LISA: Many people we talked to told us that all those relationships could lead to conflict. I’ve heard stories about physical fights, employees pitted against each other, and someone who, in a fit of rage, tried to drive her car into Dov’s house. This car thing, it happened twice, with two different women.
It wasn’t just the women in relationships with Dov who were affected by the drama. Marsha Brady was one of the creative directors at American Apparel. She’s Dov’s age, and she said that when Dov and his girlfriends got into arguments, she was sometimes called in to mediate.
Marsha: He would call me and say, oh God, this girl and she left and she’s yelling at me and I’m scared and I’m worried, like, what if she this and that and can you call her and I’m like, aw Jesus Christ. Here we go again.
LISA: Another employee I talked to—a guy named Ryan Holiday—who worked at American Apparel when he I talked with another former employee named Ryan Holiday. Ryan was in his 20s when he started working at American Apparel, and he said Dov’s relationships stalled company projects.
RYAN: You know, you could work for months on some advertising campaign. And it could be hours from going live. And then—or it could be live—and then you could get an email from someone, with the CEO and your boss CC’d on it, saying that they hate it. And all of a sudden it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job. What really matters is what an uninformed, 20-year-old, desperate for someone’s approval and to carve out a role for themselves inside the company… all that really matters is what they think of your work and how you manage to get along with that person.
LISA: So did this happen to you?
RYAN: Dozens of times. Hundreds of times. Not from hundreds of people. But I would say that was probably one of the most common problems. Does that give you a picture?
LISA: Did you ever confront Dov?
RYAN: Well there’s a power differential, right? Like, a twenty-three year old working at a company is not in a position to challenge the CEO, owner, and chairman of that company on their personal behavior, you know? There really weren’t that many people in a position who could say something.
LISA: Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s just like, ugh, it’s so tricky. It’s like, even when you say that, like a twenty-three year old, you’re not in a position to challenge the CEO, I mean I’m just thinking about like, you know women who were nineteen and twenty—
LISA: —that you know Dov is showing interest in sexually—
RYAN: Right, yeah, and that’s sort of, that’s what I mean. The same environment that they’re in, is the same environment that all employees are in.
LISA: Dov’s behavior also got him into legal trouble.
In 2005, four women sued Dov for sexual harassment. In one of the suits, a former employee said Dov once called her into his office with a co-worker and gave them both vibrators, saying, quote, “It’s great during sex.” In another suit an employee said Dov showed up to a sales meeting wearing nothing but a sock on his penis. He said he was modeling a new product.
Dov has denied he ever sexually harassed anyone, and he’s declined to comment on these lawsuits—three women settled. The fourth asked a judge to dismiss her case.
Dov’s sexuality was on display at American Apparel. Several people said he made sexual gestures in the office. Another employee who worked in the web department said he saw numerous photos on the company server of different American Apparel models giving Dov oral sex. Dov also refused to comment on these claims.
The work environment at American Apparel was so sexualized that Dov’s employees couldn’t always judge what was and wasn’t appropriate. Tacee Webb, the employee who helped Dov launch the retail business, told us this story. She was in Portland and one day, she saw this local blog where American Apparel would sometimes run ads.
TACEE: And there was a photo of Dov. Completely exposed. Like full frontal. The picture had been up for a long time. And like, believe or not, believe it or not, no one knew if that was, like, okay with him or not. It wasn’t okay with me. But because it got to the level where nothing’s shocking… like, nothing was shocking, everything goes… a lot of people just thought it wouldn’t be a big deal that it was up there. So I called I called and I said, there’s a photo of you on a blog and your penis is out. And he said, “What? Oh no! What? Are you kidding me? How did that get up there? Oh my God? Take it down! Call them up! Take it down! This is awful!” Right? It was like upside-down world. The only person that knew the rules anymore was Dov.
LISA: We got a taste of that ourselves. One day, my producer Kaitlin Roberts and I were out with Dov recording while he took photos around the city. We got back to his house sometime that afternoon. TAPE: Door opening, walking through the house I think we’re here alone. And went up to Dov’s bedroom, where he holds a lot of meetings. The walls are covered in notes scribbled on scraps of paper. He writes business projections in dry erase marker on his mirrors. And he has a desk where that day, he was uploading photos to Facebook. Pictures of neighborhood signs, a donut stand, an elementary school mural.
DOV: So I’ll show you how I do it. So okay, so I’ll like take one of the photos…
LISA: He points to a photo of one of his garment workers.
DOV: This is my favorite sewer. Like, her look? I love her look. She’s always looking good.
LISA: We looked through some more photos. Then, Dov stood up from his desk.
DOV: I think I’m going to lie down for a bit, if that’s okay. You guys could lie down beside me if you want. But you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. Or you guys could relax. Do whatever you want.
LISA: We’ll be downstairs.
LISA: So, was that offer a joke? Or was Dov being serious? In Dov’s world where the lines are so blurry, it’s hard to tell. Joking or not, I don’t think any business book would tell you that showing up to meetings half-naked and sleeping with lots of employees is good management strategy.
But on this issue, Dov is adamant: his sleeping with employees, it’s not a big deal.
DOV: I think it’s normal. I think it’s private. I think society is too judgmental about it. And it it’s either gonna be don’t ask, don’t tell, or it’s gonna happen overtly. It’s almost unavoidable because what the heart wants, the heart wants.
LISA: Do you think it was the right decision for the company? For American Apparel?
DOV: What was the right decision?
LISA: For you to be involved intimately with employees?
DOV: Well first of all, you’re making this supposition, maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t. Maybe it was 10 years ago. It’s really private. And that’s what I would tell your listeners, that nobody should be asking you… or, you shouldn’t be required to talk about your personal life with anyone. And don’t bother, don’t feel the need to defend it. It’s your privacy and it’s important. I think the way that I lived and the way my employees lived was natural and normal and a reflection of the workplaces that exist in Los Angeles today.
LISA: So you just said normal and natural and I’m just wondering, would you, would you have called it conventional?
DOV: Yes. It is conventional. It is conventional.
LISA: From the outside, this behavior sounds anything but conventional. A 40-something year old CEO of a company that was worth nearly a billion dollars sleeping with several of his much younger employees. But the surprising thing is when you speak to people on the inside of American Apparel, they say it didn’t seem that unusual. They point to all of the ways Dov’s unconventional management style was good for the company. They talk about Dov’s commitment to sweatshop-free, Made In America. And they say, at almost every senior level, there were women in charge. The head of wholesale. The head of retail. The two heads of creative. All women.
Teena Pugliese started her career at American Apparel. Her first job was in accounting, then she went on to design jewelry. Later, she shot videos. She’s now working at Dov’s new company.
Teena says she was never in a relationship with Dov, but she had friends who were.
TEENA: I just think that people are grown-ups. that’s how I feel And if you know that is probably not a good idea to get involved with your boss, because it’s probably not, and you choose to do it anyway, like you’re choosing to do that. Like I… it’s not my business, if you want to be a part of that chaos go for it.
LISA: Many people rationalize Dov’s sexual relationships with employees. But, Teena does have someone challenging her. Her boyfriend Caleb. He’d been puttering around their apartment as Teena talked to one of our producers. But at a certain point, he came to the doorway and asked if he could join the conversation.
CALEB: Um, I don’t know if my opinion is relevant at all, but some part of this story is hard for me, it’s hard that she goes to a place where the boss dates his employees and actively says sexual shit to them all day—yeah! It’s really hard on me. It makes me sick to my stomach, and it causes tension in our relationship.
TEENA: Yeah, it’s been really hard. Babe…
CALEB: I love you, I hope you didn’t mind me injecting that. I feel like it’s a major part of the story.
TEENA: No, it’s ok! You fee… come here. I don’t see it. It’s hard. It has been hard, because he doesn’t understand that Dov doesn’t hit on me. I am, I am, I am an exception to the rule.
CALEB: Right. I just really don’t like that there’s a rule. I don’t like that you’re the exception. I don’t like that it’s unusual that you’re the one person who doesn’t have some kind of romantic entanglement because I feel like, what that leaves, is, essentially non-sexual romantic entanglement. It seems to work fine inside the office, but for people outside of the office thinking about it, it’s a source of some pretty great tension.
TEENA: And what’s interesting is you’re hypersexual. You’re a hypersexual man.
CALEB: Yeah, but I don’t date anyone who has ever worked for me, in any capacity, even on a volunteer basis. I think that’s a line in the sand.
TEENA: We’ve fought about this because we worked together, that’s how we met. We were in a play together, we were acting together in a show.
CALEB: But you weren’t working for me. There was no political architecture where I was above you. If you’re somebody’s boss and you say, will you please have sex with me and there are twenty other people.
TEENA: Again this is you making assumptions that he is the initiator in all these things.
CALEB: Well he’s certainly the point of it. People want to have sex with him so they can get ahead in the company.
TEENA: And that’s another thing—don’t you think that some people are want to have sex with them because they are attracted to him and they want to be with him in a romantic physical manner? It’s not about power, Caleb. We’re not all… women don’t think like that. Women don’t think as much like that as men.
TEENA: Yeah! I don’t think… at least for me I think that if I sleep with someone, they’re going to disrespect me more. I think that’s giving away my power I think that’s giving away your power when you do shit like that. I think you have such a negative vision of Dov, just like everyone in the fucking world. And I keep telling you this, you don’t work with him like I do. You are not there everyday like I am. You don’t see it and yet you’re throwing these ideas out like he’s some sexual deviant that’s running around jerking off on everything.
CALEB: I’m sorry—
TEENA: But he’s not he’s building a company.
CALEB: We don’t disagree about any facts in this story.
TEENA: Yes, we do!
CALEB: No we don’t. He’s building a company, he has had sex with dozens of employees, you go to work there. We agree. There’s no thing that I’m assuming that isn’t a part of your narrative. We’re looking at the same set of facts and I am having a strong negative emotional reaction. You’re telling me it’s unfounded because I don’t see the specifics of the situation but frankly for me it’s enough to see the aerial view. It’s enough to know that he’s had sex with dozens of employees. I’m very much not okay with that. And it seems to me like you are ok with that. Are you?
TEENA: I’m kind of ok with it. But I’m, I’m only okay with it because I’m… I think we talked about this, like, everyone has their right to choose what they want to do. We’re grown ups. People are choosing to do this and, Dov has some sort of magical, like, charming quality about him, that like, people are drawn to him. If you think they’re something wrong with it don’t get involved with it.
CALEB: But I would maybe before I bow out, I would like to point out that It doesn’t need to be personally pressuring to be structurally pressuring. There is such a thing as institutional pressure, even if Dov is not being creepy and personally forcing women to have sex with him, he has set up an architecture in his life which applies inherent pressure to people who are a part of it. It seems like an abuse of power to me. It seems like inherently an abuse of power. Like it couldn’t not be, even if there are situations where people are totally willing and don’t feel abused at all, they’re gonna be people around the edges of that, even if they’re as far away as me, who feel abused by the situation. Or disrespected. I vote no on supervisors having sex with multiple employees.
LISA: There were people at American Apparel who shared Caleb’s view. But they couldn’t say anything. The power dynamics that Dov had created in the company were so imbalanced, few people could really stand up to Dov without risking their relationship with him. But we met one woman who challenged Dov throughout her career at American Apparel We’ll talk to her after the break.
LISA: Welcome back to StartUp.
Tacee Webb—the woman who helped Dov build the retail side of American Apparel—joined the company in 2003. At the time, American Apparel wasn’t a household name, but it was seeing a lot of success, growing rapidly. And Dov, he was young, he was rich, and he was surrounding himself with beautiful women. Tacee knew Dov was sleeping around, but she thought it was just a phase.
TACEE: He was the guy that couldn’t get a date in high school, and he was this kind of lonely, very, very nerdy, socially awkward guy with thick glasses who wanted to be a cool, American, hip guy with lots of girlfriends. It was like a fantasy for him. An American t-shirt was like an American dream to Dov.
LISA: But over time, Tacee began to see that Dov’s behavior was a threat to the company. She told producer Luke Malone that she felt compelled to say something.
TACEE: I remember one time I said to him, “Dov, you banged a thousand girls. I don’t know how many girls were in your high school. But like slow down. You know it’s like. We gotta. We gotta set some boundaries here.” I hope that’s not too crass, but those were the conversations. The very real conversations that I had with him as his friend, and as his employee and as someone who wanted to protect the reputation of the company.
LUKE: And what would he say in response?
TACEE: We argued. He would say we were getting in a brother sister quarrel. Dov doesn’t feel he ever did anything wrong. Because he has a real disconnect about what is ethically and morally right and wrong in the workplace.
LISA: Tacee kept hoping Dov would change. Then one day, she went to an art show with a couple of other women from American Apparel.
TACEE: We walk in, and it’s like a packed show. And I see that one of the pieces is
pornography. A line drawing in magenta. And there’s a man having sex with two women. And it says American Apparel. Like a large art piece, over maybe three or four feet, in front of everyone. At an art show. And we all walk in, all of, like, the leading women of American Apparel. So I bought the painting. And everyone was shocked that I bought the painting. But I bought it because I wanted it off the wall. And I was ashamed of it. I waited until the end of the show and took it to Dov’s house. Like we were all in that moment like, is Dov going to freak out and hate it? And, like, be embarrassed of it and sue the guy? Or like denounce it and say how awful it is? Or like, what’s gonna happen? And we were all kind of afraid like Tacee just take it back to Portland or whatever, destroy it or what have you. Instead I put it on the head of his bed, so when he walked into his bedroom that night it that was the first thing he saw. And to me it was kind of like. Ok, here’s where we’re at. Whatcha gonna do? And he loved it. He loved it. He absolutely loved it. That was kind of a turning point. One of those moments where I could see that they’re gonna turn. Everybody’s going to turn on Dov.
LISA: Tacee started to see American Apparel’s image suffer. There was a mean-spirited cartoon in a local paper where Tacee was trying to open a store. A skit on Saturday Night Live about the sexual harassment charges. Sometimes the criticism got personal. Once Tacee was in a store where she saw a calendar mocking the women of American Apparel. Each page of the calendar was made to look like an American Apparel ad. The fake models each had a bio with some dark story about what it was like to work at the company.
TACEE: I looked through the calendar and realized that most of those stories were based on real people at American Apparel. And I believe one of them was based on me. And so, I think there was enough, kind of, stories out there about people at American Apparel and how… what their role was, their involvement was. And it was mocking… a calendar mocking the women of American Apparel. And so, I feel like I went from being this like, person who was helping steer this revolutionary brand. “We’re the Daughters of the Ban the Bra Generation,” and just feeling like so bold that we could do no wrong, and we were these like powerful young women in fashion and we were going to change things. And then just really feeling like not only were we being demeaned by our employer, potentially, but that that was becoming ingrained in pop culture. And that hurt. That really hurt.
LISA: The public became more critical of American Apparel. And Tacee saw how that hurt the business. When she tried to open a retail store in Los Gatos, California, the town protested.
TACEE: There was town hall meeting where they showed pictures of women scantily clad and one man yelled, “They’re raping women at the factory!” And I was… I had to defend Dov. My friend, my employer, the brand I loved and believed in and it was extremely hard on me. Like, very hard on me. At a certain point, after many meetings like this, um, where I felt like we were getting run out of town, we couldn’t even open a store at certain locations, they wouldn’t give us a lease, because of images that were hung at American Apparel and because of the stories that were starting to come out? And, uh, that was the point where it became really dark.
LISA: At the time, there were no public claims of rape against Dov, but to Tacee it was clear… Dov’s behavior was starting to put the business at risk. Many other people we spoke to shared her opinion. But when we asked Dov if his behavior hurt the business, his answer was unequivocal.
DOV: No. It’s an insulting question because there’s no evidence that it did. It’s a silly question. This is a company that generated 5 billion dollars in sales. Okay? How could… how could’ve my personal life affect it… affect in an adverse way, the company? It’s not even in the realm of possibilities.
LISA: Many people disagreed. Tacee told producer Luke Malone, that she felt like someone needed to tell Dov, in no uncertain terms, stop having sex with your employees.
TACEE: I was very aware that I was older than most of the women that kind of
experiencing these challenges with Dov. And I felt kind of obliged to be that voice for younger women, you know? Like, I always felt like I’m a tough-as-nails girls that’s been on the block. I’m Dov’s age and I kind of came in being a business owner and feeling very much like his equal. That he hopefully had enough respect for me, as somebody that was established in the apparel industry, to listen to me. I felt like I needed to be that voice um for people who maybe didn’t have a backup plan, who couldn’t say something, who feared that they would lose their jobs for saying something.
LUKE: And how did that conversation go? Where did you have that conversation?
TACEE: He was at the passport office. And, I don’t remember… I think he called me. And the conversation just increasingly escalated. And he was, like, very distracted initially. And he was like, “It’s my last day to get my passport and Tacee I can’t deal with this right now.” And I just said that we’ll you’re going to have to deal with it. I think you know there have been yet another suit filed and he was still kind of acting like it was going to go away and it wasn’t going to get any bigger. And it was like, a big pretty much shouting match. And I really wanted it to come from this heartfelt place, where it’s like, I don’t want to be a threat to you. I want you to make sure everyone is going to keep their jobs. Make sure that the mission of the company continues. Build this company. I told Dov in no uncertain terms that if his personal choices and his behaviors continued, that he would lose American Apparel. That American Apparel would be lost without him and his leadership. And all the jobs would be lost, mine, his and everybody else’s and it’s exactly what happened.
LISA: Tacee left the company. She didn’t like what American Apparel had become. It was 2010, several years before Dov was fired. In those years, more women came forward saying Dov had sexually harassed them. And the allegations were more severe. We’ll talk about them on the next episode of Startup.
LISA: 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, Alexandra Johnes, and Caitlin Kenney.
Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Rachel Strom and PJ Vogt.
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Correction: The episode has been updated to read: “Dov has denied he ever sexually harassed anyone, and he’s declined to comment on these lawsuits—three women settled. The fourth asked a judge to dismiss her case.” An earlier version misstated that all cases from 2005 were settled out of court.