My name is Dov Charney.
On Saturday, May 1st, over 60,000 people in Los Angeles and nearly one million people worldwide marched together in support of immigration reform. These are some of Dov's favorite photos
he took during the march - American Apparel's 11th year participating.
Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada
I was born at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. My dad, sister, and half sister were born there as well, and three of my four grandparents have died there. My father's name is Morris Charney
. He is an architect. In 1961, my dad was assisting a fellow student, by the name of Moshe Safdie
, on his final project before graduation. The project was entitled Habitat 67
, which later became part of the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, EXPO '67. Although my uncle felt my dad was an immature suitor for my mother, he and my mother dated and got married anyway. My mother's name is Sylvia. She is an artist. In many ways I am a product of Habitat.
My father went to graduate school at Harvard and studied Urban Design. My mother came along. Both of them claim they were influenced by the social and cultural environment of Cambridge, Mass., in the mid-'60s. For a variety of reasons, they returned to Montreal after my father completed his studies. I was conceived in Cambridge, but born in Montreal on January 31, 1969. I am very much a product of North America.
Montreal Skyline with a view of Mont-Royal
Montreal was an amazing city to grow up in. It is very multicultural. On one level, it is a British city with connections to England that date back to pre-revolutionary times. In another way, it is a city founded by the King of France. There is this duality of two cultures, French and English, that interplay, but it is also a city intimately connected to the United States in a profound way. George Washington and Ben Franklin all lived in Montreal for a time of their lives. Specifically there is a New York connection to Montreal that dates back to the 1600s. Montreal is also a town with a proud Jewish community with deep connections to New York. The first synagogue
in Montreal was built with New York money.
Dov's grandmother, Fannie Charney
Being Jewish has had many effects on me, though I hated going to Hebrew school. My mother made it clear to me when I was a child that she is an atheist. She is of the mindset that there are two threats in this world: "religion and nationalism." I think my father is an atheist too, but he is less talkative about it. My mother's family
did not suffer during the Holocaust because they were Middle Eastern Jews. Both of her parents were Sephardic Jews, with Syrian origins, specifically to the merchant city of Haleb, a famous city known for over thousands of years for commerce. They also had textile backgrounds, so textiles are a part of my mother's family heritage.
But my father's family was deeply affected by the Holocaust. Both of his parents had over a dozen siblings combined that were killed by the Nazis. My grandmother, whom I called Boby, used to harbor Jewish refugees from Europe during the Second World War. There were approximately a dozen people that had come to live in the family basement during the war. My father's family was more involved in construction. My grandfather
, whom I called Zaida, came to Canada in 1929 and immediately started working as a painter for 10 cents per hour. Later he became a builder and ran a painting company with 30 or more employees. My grandmother worked as a sewer in a factory when she got to Canada. Both my father's parents were European Jews.
Dov's 6th grade class photo from
Dov Charney's yearbook page,
St. George's, 1986
Elementary: From grades 1-6, I went to an alternative art school called F.A.C.E.S. (Fine Arts Core Education School). The school was fantastic. Jim Stiller was a teacher that had a profound influence on me. It was from him that I shaped a lot of my thoughts about discrimination and why it has a negative force on humanity. There was also a student by the name of Irfan Ali
. The only problem with F.A.C.E.S. was that I had severe learning disabilities, and I was not learning how to read or write. But I still started a newspaper when I was 11 to fill the void. The "Yiddish hustle" was something I learned early.
St. George's High School: From Grade 7-11, I went to a school by the name of St. George's High School
. I was an editor of the school paper, student council president and a yearbook photographer. Many of the teachers and students had a permanent effect on my persona. Rodney Walker was an English teacher that worked with me closely for a year — 2 hours per day — to help me to finally learn how to read and write. I was functionally illiterate until the age of 13. Hyacinth Young, a Jamaican-born Canadian, who now lives in L.A., exposed me to some alternative thinking about race and politics. Ms. Young was also the head of the debating program, which was also important to me. And then there was Gilbert Plaw, a brilliant teacher that used to have us read the New York Times Magazine
as part of his English curriculum. There were many others.
Clipping from Canadian Jewish News,
June 5, 1980 0.31MB PDF
Dov's childhood newspaper
Choate Rosemary Hall, Grade 12: Although I had graduated in grade 11, I went to school for an additional year in Choate Rosemary Hall
, a Connecticut-based boarding school. At Choate, my two favorite classes were American History and Ethics. Living in Connecticut was interesting. It was while I was at Choate that I started importing T-shirts to Montreal. By some luck, the Amtrak train between Grand Central in New York and Grand Central Station in Montreal, stopped in this small town called Wallingford, Conn., at 1:00 am on its way to Montreal each night. It was on that train that I began to bring bulk quantities of T-shirts to Montreal. It was also at Choate that I reinforced my sense that American school T-shirts were iconic, unique and in most ways better than the T-shirts we had access to in Canada.
It was my belief, at that very moment that T-shirts were, without a doubt, an American heritage product. If Montreal bagels were better than their New York counterpart, American T-shirts were better than those made in Canada. While at Choate, I sometimes wrote for the school paper. I wrote on article about sexual freedom and the First Amendment. In my final months at Choate, I also worked as a journalist for the Meriden Record Journal. I wrote about ten articles. One of them was about T-shirts.
Mobira Cityman 900 Mobile Phone,
AMC 1976 Hornet
Tufts University: The best thing about Tufts
was that I was able to run American Apparel out of my dorm room. I remember when NYNEX had to install extra lines in my dorm, and the phone workers were perplexed as to what I was doing. As far a I know, I was the first student at Tufts to have a cellular phone, which cost me approximately $3,000 CAD at the time. I never went to any parties while at school, and focused most of my free time towards the urban environment in Cambridge and Boston. I was a total loner. It was at Tufts that I got my first car for $350, an American Motors 1976 Green Hornet
. I loved being an American Studies major, since the inter-disciplinary aspect of the major complemented my severe ADD. One class that I can remember that I enjoyed was entitled "Quebec, Canada, and the United States."
It was during my freshman year at Tufts, that my T-shirt company took on the trade name "American Apparel," but I didn't actually come up with the name.
I briefly entered into a partnership with Bob Smith, owner of Kellsport Industries
one of the authorized Hanes wholesale dealers, and the name "American Apparel" was actually his idea. He thought I was a little difficult to deal with and months later, he told me he loved me, but things were not going to work out. I returned the $16,000 he invested to the enterprise several months later, and continued using the trade name.
I also met my freshman roommate, Eric Ribner, at Tufts. We started a small t-shirt operation. I convinced Eric to put up $2,000 and we started selling t-shirts with the Tuft's logo on them. In six weeks, we made $4,000. He ended up going to Columbia Business School and taking a variety of Wall Street jobs. We kept in touch over the years, and oddly, I ended up on Wall Street too.
As many people already know, I never graduated from Tufts. I still have nightmares about having to finish my undergraduate degree. I remember trying to return for my last year. I was in the student center eating dinner on the 4th day of my return. I remember getting into my car and driving to South Carolina that night. I looked at Boston in the rearview mirror, and realized I was not going to return.
Memo to Dov's boss at his part time job, age 12
In the beginning I imported Hanes T-shirts to Canada. Just to make things clear, I was a grey marketer of Hanes T-shirts before I started making my own T-shirt. I would buy the shirts in the USA, sometimes from Kmart during cyclical sales, when they would sell the goods at cost, and then bring them into Canada and undercut the Canadian distribution channel. I was also buying irregulars of the Hanes Beefy-T and selling them to tie dyers and garment dyers in Canada.
1990 marked the beginning of my manufacturing career. It was in 1989, during my second year of school at Tufts, that I met a textile engineer by the name of Klaus Wustrow. It was then that I started making my own T-shirts. My first batch of T-shirts was the result of buying 10,000 lbs of yarn from Stickley Yarn Sales (Jack Stickley) of North Carolina, for $1.20 per lb. The goods were knitted at a commission knitter for $0.25 per lb, (I can't remember which knitter). Then the goods were then finished at a dye house, in North Carolina, possibly Tex-Fi Blends for $0.50 per lb.
The first few thousand T-shirts were cut and sewn in the city of Ninty-Six
, South Carolina (population under 2,000), by a guy named Joel Harris, who had 20 sewing ladies working for him. The necks were too big. I believe we were paying Joel $6.50 per dozen to sew the garments. Joel worked out of a barn in front of a farm. There was no air conditioning. The women sewing the garments had a full view of a farm field in front of them as they sewed the garments. I said to myself, looking across a farm field, "I love America!" The label was then the American HEAVY label. My uncle Israel Charney designed the label with me.
Living in South Carolina during my 20's.
Living in South Carolina was a lot better than people assume it was. I really learned a lot about Southern culture and the passion of Dixie. I love the phrase, "American by birth, and Southern by the grace of God." I never experienced any anti-semitism. Instead, I found older Christian men in the apparel business eager to pass on the trade to me. It was men like Olin Hardy (Debco manufacturing), Sap Cannon, (Andrews Knitting), Billy and Van Moree (B&B sportswear), and Steve Gwaltney (Carolina Knits). For example, Billy helped me develop the first women's T-shirt in 1995,
Dov Charney and colleagues at American
Heavy Apparel, South Carolina, 1990
which was a major turning point in my career. On a trip to Los Angeles, I paid someone $25 to design the logo in the computer room of the Kinko's on Sunset Boulevard.
Steve taught me how to knit my first rolls of combed cotton rib fabric, a fabric which I think transformed the American T-shirt industry. Today, T-shirt makers like Hanes and other mills have a similar fabric in their wholesale lines, and the industry has him to thank for helping me develop that inspirational fabric. Without a doubt, it was in South Carolina that I became a T-shirt expert, and I think today I am one of the most well-educated T-shirt men in the country. I attribute that to the great men I worked with in South Carolina.
Outside of the industry, one thing I loved about the South was the Waffle House. It was always open and it was a fantastic place to go on Christmas Eve. I also liked the BBQ pork in the Carolinas. Each city had its own version. Most of all, I had appreciation for the fact that the South was maturing rapidly in the 1990s. I liked the special efforts to help renew the downtown cores of Charleston, SC and Columbia, S.C. I loved the authenticity of the people in South Carolina; I was always made to feel at home. I feel having lived in the Carolinas, I have a deeper understanding of the Southern component of America's identity.
On July 4, 1997, I moved to Los Angeles and never went back to South Carolina. By October I was sewing in Los Angeles for my company that was still based back in SC. My first office was at the corner of Olympic and Alameda right down the street from where American Apparel is headquartered now, overlooking the TV Cafe.
Effect of Quebec Nationalism on my personal sensibilities.
I love French Canadian culture. I love the language and French Canadian slang. I love the food. French Fries in Montreal are better than French Fries in the USA. I love how French Canadians are so rugged and authentic. But there are elements of French Canadian nationalism which I will always remember as having damaged Quebec, and more importantly diminished the strength of Montreal.
The allure of the USA and New York City.
Gray's Papaya, West Side, New York City
I was always fascinated with examining the differences between Canada and the USA. The experience of being a young Canadian, and crossing the US-Canadian border was always interesting. When I was a young teen, my mother used to say I was obsessed with the border. In the USA, supermarkets were different, the money was different, people's accents were different, and some fast food and snacks were different. While there were these minor differences, growing up in Montreal, we were able to tune in US television without cable, so we were very aware of what was going on in the States. My friends and I would develop obsessions with any candy product that was not available in the Canadian market. I remember driving to New York State with the mother of a friend, approximately 40 miles from Montreal, just to buy Fruit Roll-Ups.
I can remember being a young boy and having my mother pick me up from school. Sometimes, we would drive on Friday evenings directly to New York City. I loved the commercial spirit of the city. I liked how stores were open on Sundays whereas stores were closed in Montreal. I loved how you could feel the energy of commerce in New York. I loved retailers like 47th Street Photo and Canal Jeans. I liked the international spirit of New York. Montreal was multicultural, but Quebec nationalism suppressed some of the free spirit one sensed in the streets of New York. By the time I was 17 years old, it was clear I was headed for the USA. But there was no question, I was always going to be a Montrealer and I still consider myself a Montrealer today.
Montreal bagels and smoked meat.
Fresh bagels at St-Viateur Bagel Shop,
Montrealers always claim that Montreal bagels are better than New York bagels; that Montreal smoked meat is better than New York pastrami. Montrealers are intoxicated by the fact that a particularity of Montreal food products are better; they truly believe this is a distinguishing cultural factor. In 2001, I wrote an ad entitled "A letter from Los Angeles
" which I ran in Montreal. It drew the connection between the passion Montrealers have for their products, to the culture of being the best that we were striving for at American Apparel. One of the sentences in the ad, went like this "Like Nortel makes the best telephones in the world, (we use them in California), like Saint-Viateur makes the best bagels (I have 10 frozen dozens in my fridge), like the Orange Julep makes the best summertime beverage (le Gibeau Orange
- I miss it all the time), like Cafe Italia makes the best coffee (sorry, I could not bring it on the plane), like Schwartz makes the best Smoked Meat (I have a brisket in the freezer, too), we are passionate about making the best T-shirts."
The Korean American connection.
One of the earliest American Apparel ads
highlighted this connection in a fun way.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, most of the sewing contractors, fabric knitters, and fabric dyers were Korean. I remember going to the Korean American Garment Association Christmas party and being one of the few non-Koreans in a hotel ball room of over 200 people. The Korean garment community was vigorously supportive of my work, even before I entered into a partnership with Sam Lim and Sam Kim. Many suppliers extended me credit even after I bounced so many checks on them and continuously failed to pay them on time. The California-based apparel industry was more fashion driven than its South Carolina-based counterpart. Whereas apparel operators in South Carolina preferred longer production runs, the Korean contractors in LA would work with shorter fashion runs. In many ways, American Apparel has become a synthesis of these two themes.
Made in USA and protectionism.
American Apparel proudly displays
A lot of the people that supported "Made in USA" clothing production support protectionism. But I am not a protectionist. I really believe that Free Trade is positive. With a little innovation, anyone can win, especially in fashion. Simple, less expensively made garments can often be more valuable than more baroque and expensively made products. What is critical for American producers of clothing at this point, is that we are able to get goods in and out of countries efficiently, which is a huge obstacle in the industry. We also need to be able to import textiles free of tariffs when we don't make the textiles here, so we are globally competitive. I can't tell you how much of my time over the last two years has been spent trying to figure out how to get our Made in USA T-shirts into Mexico, in spite of NAFTA. And the fact that we need to pay duty to bring our clothes into Europe seems foolish,
Dov Charney with Quality Control
not to mention the fact that we are paying extra duty on bathing suits, sweatshirts, and some other products, because the US is in a tariff war with Europe. I feel that that NAFTA was a step in the right direction, but my true vision would have been more in line with a true free trade area. I think that North America should have a common currency, and that there should be a border-less environment, especially between Canada and the United States. I feel like the Free Trade environment in Europe, with respect to the EU, is a more advanced model than what we have here in the USA. I think in the long run, the world will be borderless. Free trade is a good thing, but there has to not only be a free flow of goods and services, but also a free flow of people.
American Apparel Today:
Dov Charney on the cover of Pig, an Italian
I am an intuitive designer. I put it on and I see if it's tight or not. I love the touch of fabric. I've seen photographs of Yves Saint Laurent in a fitting and I thought, "That's how we do it!" I try on all my underwear designs before they go into production. I am very pleased by the rapid expansion of American Apparel this year and the continued momentum our business is enjoying worldwide. I have welcomed a large number of new employees into the family this year, and am happy that in doing so they are able to earn a decent livelihood for themselves and their families. American Apparel now employs 10,000 people across the world and about 4,500 in our home of downtown Los Angeles. This year we're on track to export more clothes internationally than we have ever before, meaning we're sending Made in USA clothes to China, Europe, Australia and South America. I am particularly proud that so many of our long-standing manufacturing employees have become shareholders in American Apparel which means they now have a direct stake in American Apparel's financial success.
BUTT Magazine Decision
In 2008, a woman in Canada got upset
about my decision to stock BUTT Magazine in the company's stores worldwide. Here is an e-mail I sent to my mother Sylvia in February of 2007, long before the controversy happened.
BUTT is an important art magazine that I support. No question, that it is going to offend people and it is my feeling that that is the nature of provocative art. At times, to make progress, you end up offending people. And people were offended by many things I have done over the years. But I did what I felt was right, especially from an art and creative point of view.
We are going somewhere with what we are doing, and no one is required to buy it. Many people have told me how much they appreciate our carrying the magazine. It has sold out in some stores.
Also, because some moralistic anti-gay forces opposed our carrying it within our company, I am committed to having it. I wanted our company to be open enough to accommodate this kind of magazine, and if I don't set the precedent now, it could become too late to get that done later.
We are also facing customs obstacles in Asia which I am committed to overcoming, on civil libertarian grounds.
Sexual freedom, art, and photography are important to me and I am standing firm on my support for BUTT.
A Statement from Dov Charney about the Woody Allen Case (5/18/09)
Today the lawsuit filed against American Apparel by Woody Allen will settle whereby he will receive a 5 million dollar payment. The vast majority of this payment will be paid by our insurance carrier who is responsible for the decision to settle this case and has controlled the defense of this case since its inception. Naturally there is some relief of not having to go through a trial but I also harbor a sense of remorse and sadness for not arguing an important issue regarding the First Amendment, particularly the ability of an individual or corporation to invoke the likeness of a public figure in a satiric and social statement.
For the record, I personally think we had a good case. As one of my lawyers, Adam Levin explained, "Common sense dictates that the billboard at issue here is 'not a simple advertisement.' As a matter of law, no commercial transaction is proposed: no merchandise is shown or described, and no price is quoted. Instead, the billboard contains an image of an Orthodox Jew in a black top hat - none of which can be purchased at American Apparel. And the writing on the poster is not the copy of a commercial advertisement, but Yiddish words identifying Allen as "The High Rabbi." Finally, even if the billboard is found to have the dual purpose of a commercial transaction and an expressive medium, First Amendment protection still attaches because the two elements are 'inextricably intertwined.' The decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Hoffman v. Capital Cities/ABC
...makes [it] abundantly clear that the speech at issue in this case is protected by the First Amendment. Any other conclusion inevitably would chill critical social and political commentary and debate."
In recent weeks, I have been unable to comment freely about the billboards as all of my communications had to be approved by the insurance company. At this point, since the case is settled, I am free to say what have to say.
Below is a statement that I had been working on explaining my position on this case before it was settled and I am publishing now because I want people to know what my motivations and true feelings were.
Read the statement here.
To All Employees: A Message About Immigration from Dov
I wanted to share this article published in the New York Times today
about American Apparel and immigration enforcement. As you know, American Apparel has found itself in the center of a shift in immigration policies from the Bush to Obama administrations. Although the current administration has moved away from I.C.E. Raids, the nearly 2,000 hardworking American Apparel employees affected can tell you the new policies are anything but fair. Because of a broken system, we were forced to let go of many factory workers - people who have been part of our family for nearly 10 years - and the country seems further from addressing this issue than ever.
Click to hear audio from article
I want everyone to read this article because immigration remains a critical matter at the core of this company. For those of you who are at the store level, these are the people who are working long hours to make the garments you wear and sell. For those of you at the factory, these are the people you see and share hellos with on a daily basis. It's important that we continue to follow this debate, speak out sincerely, and correct misguided and uninformed viewpoints when necessary.
For those of you who are interested in learning more, please read:
My farewell letter
to American Apparel employees
My photo essay
of a recent immigration march
The materials and links are available on LegalizeLA.net
After Dov sent out this email, The New York Times published an editorial essentially agreeing with him. It too noted the disconnect between Obama's promises to develop a humane, hopeful immigration policy and the reality of targeting hardworking, tax paying garment workers. We're pleased that such an respected newspaper would champion our cause.
Read The New York Times editorial
A Farewell Letter
In September 2009, I wrote the following letter to nearly 1,600 employees who were let go from
the company due to immigration issues - some of whom had worked for American Apparel for nearly
a decade. It was a difficult and heartbreaking moment, one that I think highlights how broken
our immigration system truly is. You can read it below in either English or Spanish and I also
hope you will look at
my photo essay
from a recent immigration march put on by the same workers.
Read My Farewell Letter to American Apparel workers