Born Hustler: American Apparel’s Dov Charney Is Born

“America doesn’t need another faceless, institutional apparel company,” says American Apparel founder Dov Charney. “They need an apparel company that gets it and does it right.”

When Charney was in prep school, he began bootlegging garbage bags of K-Mart t-shirts from the U.S. back to his native Canada. Today, Charney heads American Apparel, the brand-free, sweatshop-free, made-in-America clothing chain he founded in 1997 that is taking the world by storm. Charney was named Ernst & Young’s 2004 Entrepreneur of the Year and one of Details magazine’s 50 most powerful people under 42. American Apparel is now the largest t-shirt manufacturer in the U.S., but Charney’s mission goes beyond creating cool clothes.

Charney was born on January 31, 1969 in Montreal, Canada to Jewish Canadian parents. A self-described “hyperactive” kid, Charney says, “I think I was just born overcharged…I was such a crazy kid in elementary school I was almost kicked out.”

In an attempt to control his behaviour, Charney’s parents sent him away to Wallingford, Connecticut, where he attended the prestigious prep school Choate Rosemary Hall. But Charney’s focus was on anything but school. Instead, he wanted to get in on what he saw as a money-making venture. “My friends were selling these great bootleg t-shirts in front of the Forum,” he says. “I was going to prep school in the States at the time and the t-shirts there were a bit different, better for the silk-screening process. So I started buying t-shirts at K-mart and bringing them to Canada in garbage bags on the train.”

Charney’s new business was flourishing, that is until he was arrested in front of his school. “They took me down to Station 10, which doesn’t exist anymore, and after a couple of hours of me yelling, ‘Monsieur, monsieur!’ they let me out and gave me back my cash and my shirts,” recalls Charney. “So what did I do? Headed straight for the Cock ‘n Bull to try and unload the rest of them.”

It was in that local pub that Charney met a Brooklyn native by the name of Bernie. Bernie placed a large order for t-shirts with Charney, who began to ramp up his business. The deal went sour, however, with Bernie going out of business and Charney losing almost $100,000. “I was barely 18,” he recalls. “So that was the beginning and I guess because I lost money I felt compelled to keep hustling.”

Charney dropped out of Tufts University in his senior year and moved to Columbia, South Carolina to begin anew. In 1989, thanks to a $10,000 loan from his father, he created another t-shirt company. But as his competition began to outsource their operations and imported clothes started to flood the market at cheaper prices, Charney found himself out of business. He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1996.

But Charney was not ready to give up on his dreams just yet. He hired Marty Bailey, an industry veteran who had worked with the likes of Fruit of the Loom, and through a standard Chapter 11 reorganization tried to bring his company back to life.

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