How the Head of American Apparel Got His Start: Smuggling Tees into Canada on Amtrak

A probing interview with Dov Charney.
Dov Charney Full.jpg

The polymath Reihan Salam, a friend, has recently hosted an engaging series of interviews for Vice Magazine, including a conversation with Stoya, the reflective pornographic actress and writer, and more recently, a sit-down with Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel. The conversation is focused on the sweatshop tragedy in Bangladesh, killing more than 400 people. Do clothing factories benefit Bangladesh by reducing poverty, or are dangerous working conditions a net loss for that country's poor? The two men debate that question at length.

But before they do, Charney tells the surprising story of how he got his start in the clothing business:

DOV CHARNEY: I had a love for basic white t-shirts. Hanes underwear t-shirts. They were cotton. And the t-shirts available in Canada were poly-cotton. I started to bring in a few at a time. And I brought them so that my friends could resell them in front of the Montreal forum, because they were bootleg t-shirts. I was wholesaling the shirts.

REIHAN SALAM: So you were a high school student in the United States and you were just sort of buying them up.

DOV CHARNEY: I was buying 50 or 100 at a time, reselling them to my friends. Smuggling them into Canada and trying to make a dollar apiece. I also worked with my friends to sell them, so I was an employee of two of my friends. I was a street vendor. We'd get $50 each and we would sell the t-shirts.

REIHAN SALAM: How old were you when you started doing this?

DOV CHARNEY: Oh, I think I was 15.

REIHAN SALAM: Wait, how were you getting back and forth across the border? Did you have an older friend driving you?

DOV CHARNEY: Amtrak. There used to be two trains a day that would leave New York. Now there's only one. There was the night train and the day train. 

REIHAN SALAM: How were you getting your studies done while you were doing this?

DOV CHARNEY: Studies, ha. Studies were secondary to business. Basically I was importing the t-shirts, reselling them, and then a few other people said, "Hey, can you get me some?" And the business snowballed. It was a wholesale t-shirt business. There was a printer by the name of Bernie May... He was a Harley Davidson dealer, and he said, "Hey, can you get me 1,000 of those." Another guy said, "Can you get me 5,000?" And all of a sudden I had a business where I was doing maybe $100,000 a year. There was a time when American Apparel did, I don't know, the first year was $12,000, the next year was $100,000. Eventually we had a $100,000 month.

REIHAN SALAM: So you were doing this as a high schooler. You were making major amounts of money.

DOV CHARNEY: Well, I wouldn't say that.

REIHAN SALAM: Because you were spending a lot too in the course of doing it?

DOV CHARNEY: Well, you know, my books and records weren't the best. I think I was losing money when I thought i was making money. Every year or two, there was a shoe box of receipts and I would, like, toss it out the window on the highway. You know, start again!

Despite the poor quality of early record keeping, the business just kept growing, and eventually Charney began to make his own shirts. The interview is engaging throughout. Here it is:

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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