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Last Stand at American Apparel Add to ...

If you look on AmericanApparel.net, there's a section called "Legalize LA," which has become the name of an activist group underwritten by American Apparel. (The company also advocates for same-sex rights under "Legalize Gay.") Charney is shown in online videos speaking passionately about the issue, albeit sometimes in an incongruous setting. (In one clip, he is seated on a latte-coloured sofa inside his hillside Silver Lake house; a bulbous purple lamp at his elbow resembles a bouquet made of female breasts. There are vintage fondue sets on the Scandinavian-style shelving behind him.) "The politicians have not completed the difficult task of designing laws to absorb the demand for new workers," he says, "because it's politically difficult to explain. If we work together with the best, the brightest and the most motivated people…it's what keeps this country alive. You take the immigrant out of that equation, you kill America's soul."

From his youth, Charney has been as outspoken as he is eccentric, the stuff of Mordecai Richler and John Irving. An entrepreneur before he hit puberty, he was profiled at age 11 by The Canadian Jewish News for publishing his own newspaper, What's Up. He ran off 500 copies per issue and sold them for 20 cents each around Westmount. He also appeared in a bizarre 1983 documentary called A 20th Century Chocolate Cake, sounding like a young Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties, complaining about having to hide money from the counsellors at his "communist" summer camp.

The family businesses were art and design. Charney's father, Morris, studied architecture at McGill at the same time a future icon, Moshe Safdie, was there working on his master's project: Habitat 67. Morris later married Safdie's artist sister, Sylvia. Dov is their only son; he has a sister, a half-sister and a step-sister.

Charney's childhood friend, musician James Di Salvio, tells me: "We became friends on the school bus one day. Dov sold me his Yashica FX-3 camera. I can't remember how much I paid, but I recall it was a good deal."

Of their well-to-do private high school, St. George's, Charney writes on his blog, "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 [who]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."

Then there was making money. Pals like Di Salvio and Rasmus (Raz) Schionning (who, until recently, was American Apparel's director of Web services) would sell homemade T-shirts outside the Forum after a rock concert. At the time, says Di Salvio, "there were guys bootlegging this cheap-looking Bryan Adams and Rush stuff. We came up with neon colours, got creative with it, did our own puffying. After a while, Dov would pop by and start selling shirts. It was a nice lifestyle for all of us. We made a few grand a week."

In 1987, Charney was arrested for selling on the street without a permit. Morris Charney appeared on his son's behalf at a hearing and paid a small fine. At the time, Dov was away at boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where he was spending a year before university. While at Choate, Dov realized there was a market back home for Hanes and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, which he hauled to his hometown in bulk. "It was my belief," he has blogged, "that T-shirts were…an American heritage product. If Montreal bagels were better than their New York counterpart, American T-shirts were better than those made in Canada."

Later, at Tufts, an Ivy League university near Boston, Charney had an extra phone line installed in his dorm room and began fleshing out his business. He partnered with an authorized Hanes dealer named Bob Smith, who came up with the name American Apparel. According to Charney, "[Bob]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." But Charney did draw on a $10,000 loan from his father, and began making his own 18-single jersey shirts in 1990, the year he dropped out of Tufts to go head-to-head against the Hanes Beefy T. He relocated to South Carolina, of all places, where the shirts were produced and then sold to other companies that would screen their logos and designs on to them. But by 1996, with Charney over his head in debt, the first incarnation of American Apparel filed for Chapter 11.

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