A Fond Remembrance (Seriously) of American Apparel's Dov Charney

Say What You Will About the Perv, The Man Had a Singular Fashion/Marketing/Branding Vision

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An image from American Apparel's website the day after Dov Charney was ousted.
An image from American Apparel's website the day after Dov Charney was ousted.

When a founder-CEO is forced out by his own board "for cause," as American Apparel's Dov Charney just was, you can expect a media pile-on.

Charney, of course, has been notorious for years. The subject of sexual harassment lawsuits, he was the sort of self-styled Hugh Hefner of the fashion industry and was both loathed and admired. When I tweeted the news of his ouster last night, one of the first responses was "About friggin time."

I'm sure in the weeks and months to come we'll be hearing plenty of rumors and possibly even some facts about the particular awfulness that suddenly triggered Charney's removal, but for now I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I'm going to miss the guy.


His board may have come to regard him as an insufferable liability, but the man had a singular, deeply influential fashion vision and stood for quality, ethical manufacturing. Beyond its chain of retail outlets and e-commerce arm, American Apparel had a massive wholesale t-shirt operation that enabled a whole cottage industry of screen-printers and micro-indie fashion; if you ordered a customized t-shirt on, say, Etsy, and American Apparel standard stock styles were an option, you knew it was going to fit right.

And let's not forget Charney's smartly contrarian approach to branding and marketing. American Apparel merchandise was, by design, logo-free. Charney's idea was that his clothing should be desirable in and of itself -- because it was comfortable, because it looked good, because it made you look good. He built a global brand (there are American Apparel stores in cities all around the world, from Amsterdam to Zurich) that was anti-brand.

"I can't wear any brand on my body -- I just freak out," he told the Montreal Mirror (he's a Montreal native) in 2003. Of course, being Dov Charney he couldn't help but drive his point home by swerving immediately into vulgarity: "I mean," he continued, "if I'm with a girl who's wearing a Christian Dior necklace, I can't even fuck her. And then there are those girls -- like every girl I seem to find -- who has one those Louis Vuitton bags. C'mon, it's fucking false tribalism."

His approach to advertising was consistently, enduringly compelling. Back in 2005 I praised American Apparel specifically for its DIY print ads, writing,

"Say what you will about American Apparel and its famously pervy founder, Dov Charney, who is the mastermind behind the ongoing campaign. His ads are not only hot (they show his sexy employees modeling the merch) and briskly reinforce the brand message (which is about well-constructed, no-frills, eminently wearable, sweatshop-free clothing), but are refreshingly not celebrity-obsessed. And the ads, which have become staples of indies like Vice (which makes AmAp sort of a newer version of Absolut Vodka -- a corporate Medici for provocative magazines), have a genuinely interesting narrative through-line (the new Viva Mexico ad, for instance, stars a guy named Eduardo who is helping to open AmAp's store in Mexico)."

By the way, after I wrote that, I got a gracious email from an American Apparel executive who wrote "Thanks for the recognition" and explained how not spending "a penny on stupid ad agencies or consultants or branding people" was a point of pride at the company.

"Oh, and it's not just Dov Charney who's pervy," she added. "We all are."

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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