The Biggest Takeaways From the New American Apparel Docuseries

In Quibi's "Big Rad Wolf," Dov Charney and some of his former employees detail the rise and fall of the fashion brand.
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Now that Quibi is in the process of shutting down, there happens to be a new program that may actually be worth checking out. 

"Big Rad Wolf" is a docuseries in which Dov Charney and a group of his former employees, as well as journalists, detail the rise and fall of American Apparel. In the Vice Studios production, we see everything from Charney's dad and friends describing his childhood hustles to discussions of the "open secret" of his sexual relationships with employees to what went wrong in his failed attempts at winning the company back after being fired, all the way up to his latest controversy: 300 garment workers at his new-ish company, Los Angeles Apparel, contracted Covid-19 in 2020, four of whom died over the summer.

In addition to chronicling what happened with American Apparel, the nine episodes paint a nuanced picture of Charney. He's one of the first CEOs who was ever "cancelled" — before the term even existed in the way we use it today — and it forces the viewer to weigh all the bad stuff he did against all the undeniably good stuff, like paying factory workers fairly (when there are very much still sweatshops in L.A.), advocating for immigration reform and building a company to which consumers had a strong emotional connection.

"Big Rad Wolf" ties everything together and answers some questions, but also leaves the viewer with several others: Is Charney all bad? Is anyone? Does he deserve a second chance with Los Angeles Apparel? Why do we care? 

As you probably know if you clicked on this article (or if you read any blog at all in the 2000s), American Apparel is just an entertaining subject to consume content about. My favorite quote from "Big Rad Wolf," via former employee Maceo Keeling, sums it up pretty astutely: "Everybody in this room has to ask themselves why — why it's important to talk about this guy who did atrocious things, because he also did some really cool things... Why anyone wants to watch a documentary about Dov Charney, you need to ask yourself what train wreck you're interested in looking at."

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I knew a lot of what is in "Big Bad Wolf" as someone who's covered American Apparel quite a bit for this website (and been a fan and customer since high school). Still, there were still a few small revelations even for an avid follower of the company. Read on for the most interesting takeaways.

Charney's care for garment workers goes back to his "bubbie"

At one point, a former employee describes the moment she realized her boss was "a person." The Obama administration was cracking down on the exploitation of undocumented immigrant workers in the U.S., which led to an I-9 audit of American Apparel after its IPO. After ICE forced Charney to fire 1,500 undocumented workers — even though they were treated and paid fairly — the employee found him sitting alone in the dark in his office, crying. (The only time Charney gets emotional in the documentary is when he talks about this.) The stress of losing workers that had come to rely on him for a fair wage and decent working conditions consumed him and motivated the company's pro-immigration-reform mission. 

Charney may brush off his inappropriate relationships with employees with a casual "so what," but the responsibility he feels towards the factory workers and their wellbeing is palpable throughout the series, as is their loyalty to him. It turns out that doesn't come from nowhere: Charney comes from a long line of textile workers in Canada. In episode five, he explains how his "bubbie" (a Yiddish term for grandmother) who was a sewer, told him to always pay his workers fairly, and how that influenced American Apparel's sweatshop-free ethos.

When Charney was ousted from the company, several American Apparel workers famously protested outside the factory and beat up a piñata created in new CEO Paula Schneider's likeness. In the company's post-Dov, post-bankruptcy relaunch, which saw the brand manufacturing outside of the U.S. for the first time, most of those workers were let go. Charney was quick to give them jobs at his new company, which some of them helped him get off the ground. (Garment workers invested $100,000 in Los Angeles Apparel and share ownership in the business.)

The immigration issue was largely responsible for the company's downward momentum

It wasn't just losing those 1,500 workers — it was that it happened at the worst possible time for the growing company. It had just gone public. It was opening about a store per week. It was beginning to lose its cultural relevance. It had twenty-somethings with limited experience in important leadership positions, while Charney was trying to micromanage everything. It disrupted momentum and workflows, leading to disastrous supply-chain issues. The 2011 sexual harassment lawsuits, including that teen sex slave allegation, which were all dismissed or settled out of court, followed soon after, and the company's stock price began to plummet.

Charney wasn't just a creep and alleged assaulter — he was angry

The "toxic and abusive" environment at American Apparel, as one former employee put it, was evidently not limited to Charney's behavior towards female employees: Former employees also shared that he would regularly yell and scream at people to get them to perform. (There's plenty of video evidence of him being enraged in the office, much of which looked like it had been shot secretly with a smart phone.) Specific anecdotes include him pretending to strangle or slap people, pretending to jerk off on someone (in front of others) and punching a hole through a desk out of frustration. 

Because Charney was at the top (until the board was assembled) and because employees were required to sign release of claims and arbitration agreements, there was no one to go to about his misbehavior. One former employee honestly sounded like he was talking about a cult as he described Charney's leadership style as "indoctrination" and how, as the mistreatment became normalized, they just accepted it; another described how she used Charney's anger issues to her advantage by getting him to fire her so she could collect severance pay.

Charney still won't acknowledge that his unprofessional behavior was a problem

Charney's present-day reaction to those claims of anger and verbal abuse? "It's hard to get people to conform to the mission sometimes." He also says: "I admire unhinged behavior in management." 

Throughout the series, Charney often references Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and even Kanye West as leaders to whom he looks up or relates. In the first episode, there's an old clip of him admitting to relationships with female employees, in which he says things like "The heart wants what it wants!" He clearly knows better than to say things like that now — still, he simply shrugs all of that off, chalking up any inappropriate behavior to him being naive and it being a different time without social media or takedown culture. He says wasn't famous enough then for anyone to care. "Today they'd come arrest you and be like, 'pervert!!'" he exclaims regarding his past behavior, literally laughing.

As for the specific sexual assault allegations, they aren't really addressed directly, probably for legal reasons, aside from former employees confirming that the environment at the company and Charney's position of power were such that those things felt possible.

A few new insights re: how Charney lost the company

Charney still contends that he was "robbed" of his company.

Per the doc's sources, CFO John Luttrell, who'd been brought on to help the company through the financial decline triggered by the immigration issues, led the opening of a new distribution center where "nothing worked," costing the company more money. Charney then began living in that warehouse and, per former employees' accounts, growing increasingly angry and paranoid while trying to fix it. 

As business continued to suffer at American Apparel, a document Luttrell printed out at the office — which ended up in Charney's hands — revealed a brief outline of what he planned to tell the board of directors: that Charney was incapable of managing a $700 million company and should be let go and replaced with an interim CEO while the company be put up for sale.

One point that was made was that the American Apparel board overlooked the sexual harassment allegations against Charney until they impacted stock prices; then, perhaps, they wanted him out and were able to use those accusations to their advantage to justify his ousting. The directors in question wouldn't speak on the record because of ongoing litigation.

According to Charney, the directors effectively threatened to assassinate his character if he didn't leave the company peacefully — which, of course, he didn't. What followed were a slew of reports in the media that Charney was being investigated for unspecified sexual misconduct; a video of him dancing naked at work "appeared" the same day his firing was announced. 

"They were out to kill me in the media," alleges Charney.

The drama continued when he teamed up with Standard General, by whom Charney says he was manipulated and double-crossed. He says that together, they'd agreed to hire Paula Schneider as a "fake CEO" and "puppet" while Charney would really run things himself. Instead, Schneider and Standard General teamed up against him.

Charney goes so far as to say the hedge fund liked Schneider because she was "predictable" and could be controlled. He compares Schneider and himself to Barack Obama and Donald Trump, respectively, because the latter is "unpredictable." (Yes, he compared himself to Donald Trump, saying also that there are people in America who "adore unpredictable.")

As we know, after American Apparel went bankrupt in 2015, Gildan acquired it, closed it downand then digitally relaunched the company. It still appears to be in business, selling some of the exact same basics Charney is at Los Angeles Apparel, but manufacturing them overseas. 

Charney says his biggest mistake, in this whole saga, was handing over all his wealth to Standard General.

Dov Charney still owes Standard General over $20 million and is accruing $9,000 per day in interest

The deal Charney entered into with Standard General, wherein the hedge fund would put up $20 million to increase Charney's stake in American Apparel, turned out to be a pretty bad deal: He still owes the company over $20 million and is accruing an additional $9,000 in interest a day (!), the doc reports. Happy Halloween, because this haunts me.

"Big Rad Wolf" is available now on Quibi. The finale airs Tuesday, Oct. 27.

Homepage Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

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