The following year, Charney moved to Los Angeles. He was inspired by the "fucking freaks" and watching Easy Rider, or so he once said. Renewing American Apparel, he enlisted two veterans of the garment community, Sam Lim and Sam Kim-their early ads talked about "two Koreans and a Jew making T-shirts"-and perfected the cut and fabrication of his iconic Classic Girl T. The new AA took shape in a factory under two ramps of the 10 Freeway near downtown. And Charney immediately revealed what a talent he had for marketing and positioning the brand.
In the ensuing boom years, American Apparel expanded its wholesale business, and the headquarters began growing into a two-building, one-million-square-foot premises befitting an ambitious, vertically integrated concern. The 2003 move into retail was inevitable, he says.
But because everything is complicated in Charney's world, the boom years were also trouble years. When critics said his ad campaigns were "inspired by amateur '70s porn," Charney seemed pleased by the comparison. The handlebar mustache and boxy glasses he sported at the time seemed the outward expression of an inner skeeziness. He openly said he had relationships with several of his female employees. "I'm not saying I want to screw all the girls at work," he said in Jane, "but if I fall in love at work it's going to be beautiful and sexual." In 2006, he gave a deposition in a harassment lawsuit brought forward by former wholesale salesperson Mary Nelson, during which Charney admitted to using the c-word to refer to women, and also to walking around without trousers at the office. "There were months I was in my underwear all the time," Charney said. "It became very common."
When Nelson's lawyer asked him, "Did you ever, at work, refer to women as 'sluts'?" Charney's response was, "In private conversations, where such language was generally welcome."
"Do you view 'slut' as a derogatory term?"
"You know, there are some of us that love sluts. You know, it's not necessarily...it could also be an endearing term."
It's unclear how many sexual-harassment suits or almost-suits existed, but between three and five is the common estimate. In any case, none of the allegations has been proven in court. (Later on, none other than Woody Allen sued American Apparel too, because Charney had used his image without permission on a billboard. Allen eventually won a $5-million settlement.)
In 2007, the company had used a shell entity called Endeavor Acquisition Corp. to go public, with Charney as its majority shareholder and gleefully unrepentant ringmaster. The next year, in the middle of new harassment allegations, Charney was parodied by Fred Armisen during a Saturday Night Live segment. The comedian, with glued-on facial hair, wore American Apparel's signature knee socks and a pair of Kelly green Y-fronts as he spread his legs on top of the Weekend Update desk.
That's the absolute mountaintop for a certain type of fame in America. But a more substantial form of notoriety was just around the corner.
Dov Charney's tempus horribilis began with a pile of paperwork. In early 2008, American Apparel turned over approximately 7,000 employment documents called I-9 forms to the federal government as part of what company lawyer Peter Schey calls "a routine order." AA had always complied with the law in keeping the forms, Schey adds, which are required for all new hires: They list employees' pertinent information along with details on their legal documentation, such as a social security number. According to Schey, "it took the government 18 months to check these documents against databases to see if all the information matched up. The government then advised that approximately 1,500 current employees either fell into the category of 'no matches' or there was a discrepancy in their information." There were findings of "technical violations," such as delays in document completion, and American Apparel was slapped on the wrist with a $35,000 fine.
In the short term, far bigger consequences fell on the singled-out workers. This is when Dov the Good took action. Charney saw to it that during the re-verification process, AA consulted the employees and pointed them to resources for free legal help, so that they could either clarify the "discrepancies" or seek a way to protect themselves from retribution. In the end, some employees left of their own accord. The vast majority could not prove their documents were their own, and ICE instructed American Apparel to terminate them.
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