American Apparel's Ousted CEO Is Still Here—and Making COVID Face Masks?

Dov Charney's new retail company is one of several pivoting toward producing personal protective gear under unclear government guidelines.
At left, workers at Los Angeles Apparel's workroom making masks; at right, a call from founder Dov Charney for government officials to reach out to him
Images via Los Angeles Apparel

Dov Charney is easy to get ahold of. He spends most of his waking hours in his manufacturing facility in South Central Los Angeles, where he keeps a humble room furnished with a twin-sized bed that adjoins the factory floor. And, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given his divisive reputation, his phone number is readily available. He even keeps on his read receipts; when I texted him last week, he responded almost instantaneously.


Not easy to get ahold of, he says, is the government.

“The government is disorganized,” Charney said last week while pacing the Los Angeles Apparel factory floor. “The problem with the government is they can’t spend the money without the FDA approval, whatever. There’s so much stuff.”

Los Angeles Apparel, a facsimile of his firstborn American Apparel, opened in 2014, originally as a wholesale distributor before launching an online shop that sells au courant edits of all the old classics: The tees are made of a heavier cotton and hang looser, the colorways are more muted. Amongst the first to model the new line was the U.S. Army, which purchases tees in bulk from LA Apparel under a subcontract. During our conversation-slash-FaceTime factory tour, Charney pointed out several flats of “mushroom” colored tees, plastic wrapped and ready to be shipped out.

Charney thusly has at his disposal one of the larger sewn-products facilities in the G20, a skilled workforce of 400 to 450, and experience churning out big orders. He also has a mother, and is concerned about her catching COVID-19. “If my parents are in a room with their friends, I want those masks on their friends and on my mother,” he said. With surgical masks in short supply, he made her one, or at least a crude approximation.

On March 13, Los Angeles Apparel began offering three-packs of cotton facemasks for $30 via its website. Beginning with a pattern Charney found on a DIY blog, they tested multiple prototypes before landing on the final product: a plain-looking but arguably fashionable mask made from heavy french terry and wire that can contour easily to any face. There is ruching around the nose and chin; Charney claims each mask costs more to produce than a sweatshirt. They only come in one colorway—black—but they intend to grow the palette.


Charney is very clearly proud of what he’s made. Over FaceTime, he gets almost uncomfortably close so that I can take in the neat, tight fit. He then exhales deeply so that the mask balloons outwards, demonstrating their breathability—and perhaps most importantly, for an “animated” talker like Charney, their absorbency.

“Listen, if you are with someone who is sick and they are wearing masks and you are wearing a mask, that’s a way of social separation,” he explains. “Saliva is a carrier. Aerosol from the mouth is a carrier, and aerosol into the nose and the mouth is a receiver.”

Other pros to the Los Angeles Apparel mask:

“[They are a] little bit more in tune with the values of many adults in the developed world,” he says, alluding to the fashion world’s shift towards sustainability. “We don’t want to be littering.” Plus, they are washer-dryer friendly. “They dry out. If you get sweaty in it, you could put it in the sun. I keep two on me.”

But are they medical-grade?

Definitely not.

Does he care?

Nope. “I don’t give a fuck what they say,” he says.

Randomized control studies have shown that there is no evidence cloth masks are as good as disposable surgical masks, and that extended use—much less reuse—may be an issue.

Charney is a workaholic, a provocateur, and a hard-driving businessman who turned a t-shirt into a brand that was at one point estimated to be worth $1 billion, only to be dumped by the company’s board. Officially, he was fired for alleged misuse of company funds and failure to prevent defamatory blog posts by an employee. (This is a clarification he is insistent on. “I am an atheist, but I’m a Yiddish person, false accusations are very important,” he says.) Earlier allegations of sexual misconduct and the resultant reputation he’d earned for being a creep probably didn’t do him any favors in the boardroom that day.


But Charney’s modus operandi seems to be that dire times call for dire measures. And we are very much living in dire times. “There are people making masks in the hospitals by hand using scraps that they are picking up at Home Depot,” he counters. “Every doctor I’ve talked to has said, of course, [any mask] is going to be better [than nothing].” Perhaps less scientifically soundly, he adds, “The government says the surgical mask is good for the doctors; well, this is thicker than a surgical mask.”

When I ask if he would recommend I wear one of his masks to the Passover seder my octogenarian great-aunt is planning, he gives me a firm no. “We are not purporting to be a scientist. We are making no guarantees. It’s like abstinence.” Wink, wink.

Yet Charney’s factory continues to buzz, with three-quarters of his 400-plus employees working exclusively on churning out “thousands” of these masks a day. “If we really work at it,” he suggests, that number could grow to “maybe 30,000 a day.” And, he says, if he had the proper specs and material to design a medical-grade, or, better yet, an N95 mask, he would. “I’ll give them to the hospital for free. I’ll work with the government. I’ll do anything we can.”

So with sales already coming in, last week Charney put out an all-caps “urgent” call to “government agencies” on Instagram offering textile or sewing services to municipal, state or federal agencies. So far, he claims to have sold thousands of the three-packs, including bulk shipments to China and a medical supply company that will put the product through more rigorous testing and “bullshit.” (VICE has reached out to the U.S.-based medical supply company for comment but had not gotten a response at the time of publication.) Over the weekend, he says, he entered into conversation with FEMA. If contracted, Charney says he will work with government agencies to design a mask that is HHS approved. (When reached for comment, a spokeswoman for Health and Human Services told VICE, “FEMA nor HHS-ASPR has received any information on this as of today. It may be in the pipeline with other agencies.")


Charney alleges he’s spent $100,000 on new infrastructure, including lower-voltage machinery that his workers could, should the need arise, bring home, allowing them to continue working remotely—and ensure a steady paycheck. The company has begun taking workers’ temperature twice daily and mandating social distancing in the lunchroom. If caught working sans mask, you’re in for an earful from Charney. “Someone has to be the bad guy,” he laughs. He addresses many of his employees by their first name. Only one worker has called out sick so far—”It’s like this is the healthiest we’ve ever been,” he laughs. Also, he’s hiring.

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, and it has become apparent that the federal government can’t be counted on, leaving states, cities, companies, individuals, and real housewives to bear the load of this pandemic. On March 7, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, allowing him (nearly) full reign over the state’s response, and when he put out a call on Twitter last week for all apparel companies to pivot to producing PPE items like masks, volunteers flooded his comments. “NY will pay a premium and offer funding,” he announced. First up was designer Christian Siriano, who immediately replied, “If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks my team will help make some. I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help.” A few hours later he posted a photo of a prototype to his Instagram. "We want to be safe and make sure all the legal requirements are met," he wrote.


Governor Cuomo, much like Charney, is known to be bullish, but in recent weeks that has been seen as an asset, not a detriment; he has garnered praise for calling the shots while so many government agencies continue to wait on federal guidance. Worldwide, though, high fashion houses like Prada in Italy and luxury giant LVHM in France have already converted certain of their factories to help produce PPE and hand sanitizer. H&M Group, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, and many others have similarly begun to provide aid. In the US, companies ranging from Gap, Inc. to Fruit of the Loom have raised a hand; meanwhile, some of the largest American retailers have also begun reaching out to the government seeking federal support.

Still, stateside, enlisted manufacturers, as LA Apparel seeks to be, will need to work with the Department of Health and Human Services—home to agencies such as the FDA, CDC, and NIH—which has struggled to find footing under the Trump administration’s equivocating, before they can call their masks medical-grade. But medical-grade is seemingly not the standard being demanded any longer: The CDC has released a loosened criterium for what gear should be worn when, providing more detailed guidance for hospitals and healthcare providers facing urgent shortages of PPE. Worse-case scenario, healthcare providers “might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.”

Alongside its peers, Los Angeles Apparel’s “urgent” call to “government officials” no longer seems quite so absurd. They too have a full sewing team ready to work at home if necessary. At large, the company claims to be prepared to (or at least acknowledges that they are likely to) take a financial hit. Asked if there was any piece of him that hopes to gain redemption with this effort, Chaney balks. “I think I built a fantastic business. I’m paying the highest wages in my industry. I’m in Los Angeles the city, not in Vernon or outside [the city]. I’m doing the right thing. I’m taking care of people. And now I’m producing these masks. All that can be said is I’m doing it, I work like 20 hours a day doing it, I would have done it no matter what.” Now it’s just a matter of whether we are ready to welcome Dov Charney back into the fold, no longer a slimy t-shirt slinger, but this time as a modern-day sort of Rosie the Riveter. Assuming FEMA—or someone—can get it together enough to describe what he should be making. Ideally it would be something that would work.

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