A documentary series has revealed how American Apparel helped fuel its founder’s bad boy mythology in order to bolster interest in the clothing company online.
In the nine-part Big Rad Wolf, a former employee reveals she would leave approved fake comments under salacious articles about Dov Charney on celebrity media blogs such as Gawker and Jezebel, in order to manufacture his reputation as predatory.
“We would create fake personas,” said Michelle Lemay, who worked in the marketing department. “I would comment, ‘I can’t believe that guy Dov Charney is at it again raping models’.”
Charney was ousted from American Apparel in 2014 after an internal investigation into alleged misconduct. He has previously denied allegations of harassment. However, for many years he had faced allegations about his conduct with female employees.
Of the fake comments, Lemay said: “It was about attention. It was also because we were advertising on these blogs and we wanted people to click on our ads.”
In the documentary, which is one of the final shows on the axed mobile streaming platform Quibi, the writer Jon Ronson says: “What a fucked up, pre-#MeToo world, where they thought it would be good for business to portray Dov as a sex pest.”
The sex positive style of Charney’s bestselling American Apparel clothes defined the countercultural style of the 2000s. Leggings, crop tops, bodysuits, high-waisted jeans, T-shirts with deep V-necks and disco pants became wardrobe staples of the hipsters of east London and Brooklyn.
Alongside hugely sexualised advertising campaigns, it was a look that was later copied by Urban Outfitters and Topshop. The company was also one of the first fashion brands to campaign for sweatshop-free manufacturing as well as the rights of undocumented workers.
But as innovative as Charney was for the time, Big Rad Wolf reveals how deep his abuses of power went. According to Lemay, consensual worker-boss relationships were an “open secret” and resulted in free cars, bonuses and more – after which the concept of consent became a more grey area.
“What happens when I say no? It’s extremely difficult to say no,” recalled Lemay.
The documentary also features former employees recalling his volcanic eruptions of rage, which included shouting and miming actions of physical and sexual abuse. “The general narrative and my lived experience was that it was just as creative and innovative as it was toxic and abusive,” recalled Maceo Keeling, a former director, point of purchase.