No, this isn’t another superlative-laden faux-business piece re-affirming Dov Charney’s status as Hipster Magnate Ad Infinitum.
But I do plan to extol the successes of the polarizing American Apparel founder and his monochromatic empire—not for his V-necked influence on the Grizzly Bear crowd, but for his ability to craft a business that uses risk to its advantage as well as any in recent memory.
In building a clothing company remarkable for running risqué billboard spots, trumpeting Made-in-the-U.S.A. vertical integration, and eschewing the use of logos, Charney cast himself as head maverick—the hyperactive face of the operation. As American Apparel blossomed into a 260-store international megachain, Charney did not distance himself from any facet of the business; he still shoots many of the sexually-charged ads himself—a fact that has bolstered critics who say he exploits impressionable young women (Charney infamously the target of a slew of sexual harassment suits). Meanwhile, Charney hitched the brand to equally incendiary politically progressive slogans, advocating gay marriage legalization and immigration reform—the latter in 10-foot boldface on the side of his downtown Los Angeles factory.
Business executives generally see such outspoken political advocacy as toxic.
During his playing days, Michael Jordan—a man whose zeal for promotion rivals that of Charney—famously refused to endorse an African-American Democrat trying to unseat legendary civil rights opponent Jesse Helms in Jordan’s adopted home state of North Carolina, reportedly telling a friend that “Republicans buy shoes, too.” For all the criticism he’s since endured for failing to convert his lofty platform into political soapbox, Jordan’s fear of lost profit was not without reason—company high-ups who publicly air their political leanings risk inciting customer backlash. Just last month, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journaleditorial against “ObamaCare” inspired the upscale grocery’s left-leaning customers to revolt en masse; a Boycott Whole Foods Facebook page registered more than 14,000 members in a week’s time.