This past June, when Gawker.com became hell-bent on exposing the hiring practices at American Apparel's retail outlets-the allegations are that managers are told to favour young women of certain ethnicities, and must submit photographs of prospective staff for approval by head office-AA responded on its website with a denial and an invitation for anyone who wants to discuss the matter to get in touch. "You can reach our CEO directly at 213 923 7943 or at firstname.lastname@example.org."
I find the phone most effective. After all, as reported in Jane magazine's infamous 2004 piece about Charney-in which he talks about his business while indulging in "self pleasure"-his e-mail inbox held more than 21,000 messages at the time. Every 48 hours, he received a photo-enhanced entreaty from yet another young woman interested in working for the company, wrote journalist Claudine Ko. "He clicks on one that displays a photo of a twentysomething Asian girl wearing tight jeans, lying in bed. Her message reads, 'I'm 5'4", 106 pounds, bust size 32B-C. Plus, I'm professional, artistic...' "
As it turns out, I miss his first call, but we connect later that day in September, when he happens to be in Toronto, visiting his retail staff. That's where I am, I say. Why don't we meet in person?
"I'm not sure. I certainly think I can talk to you. Can you call back in an hour? We have this meeting at 9, but I'm pretty sure I'll be free in an hour," he says genially. An hour later, he says, "I'm just not sure I'm in the right headspace. Can I call you back-how late are you going to be up?" (It must be said at this point that I sense no lecherous intent in his tone.) "Ninety-per-cent sure, I'll call you by about 11. If not, tomorrow."
That night, there's no call, and nothing the following day.
The next time I get in touch, he answers in San Francisco. "Listen, let's talk on Sunday, or maybe Monday." And here I recognize something: the traits of a hummingbird who flits from one shiny distraction to the next. Most people in jobs a fraction the size of running America's largest domestic clothing maker scurry away from thorny calls and e-mails, but Charney-who can conceivably delegate anything he likes-is determined to control matters personally, despite his own attention span and time constraints. His devotion to the cause has been described by Allan Mayer, a director of American Apparel's board. "This is a guy who works seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," Mayer told Bloomberg Businessweek. "You don't build a $600-million-a-year vertically integrated manufacturing and retailing business on an edgy image and sexy ads alone."
"The last time," I tell Charney, "I waited until midnight for your call."
Slowing his pace, he apologizes; we speak at length, and talk again some days later. "I'm in Vancouver! It's my first time. I love this city." (He drove up the coast from Los Angeles and visited every American Apparel store on his way.) He is cordial and upbeat, and knows-has actually learned-when to employ caution and go off the record.
Chiefly, Charney wants to talk about the impact of an investigation by the United States Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement-known by the shiver-inducing acronym ICE-which forced the departure of more than 1,500 undocumented factory employees from American Apparel last year. Coming during a recession, this was brutal. "It broke our efficiencies and generated a situation where we were late delivering garments. It lost us an enormous amount of money. It cost us agility," Charney says. What does it cost to work through production delays, hire more than 1,000 replacement staff and train them in the swift mechanics of producing combed-cotton T-shirts, spandex leggings, neon bike shorts, and preppy trousers and hoodies? In apparel making, perhaps tens of millions.
The ICE storm dealt a blow to Charney's solar plexus, and to what he believes in. "We brought Canadian values to apparel making," he says, referring to the idea of providing a mainly immigrant workforce with above-average wages and benefits. Which Charney has done, concurrently with walking around the office in his underpants.
To garment workers, Charney is an advocate and ally. And every time he acts heroically, he posts the evidence on his website. It's not for self-aggrandizement, I believe, but out of a more layered motivation-he wants at once both to publicize the serious plight of illegal workers and to reveal American Apparel as an innovative enterprise. Charney's company began lobbying for immigration reform as early as 2003, long before it became an issue Barack Obama promised, amid weak support, to address.