In fewer than ten years, American Apparel went from being a ubiquitous brand to a closely-watched corporate drama marked by several sexual harassment lawsuits against CEO Dov Charney, who had become infamous for masturbating in front of a journalist and unapologetically sleeping with employees. A new docu-series, Big Rad Wolf, produced by VICE Studios and airing on Quibi October 19, explores Charney’s ouster and attempted resurrection through interviews with a range of employees (some traumatized, some loyal) and Charney himself—a kind of “hipster Succession,” as the documentary team came to view it.
VICE spoke to the director, Eva Gunz.
VICE: In the first episode of the series, a former American Apparel employee, Maceo Keeling, poses the question: Why would anybody want to watch a documentary about Dov Charney? How would you answer that question? What is it about the American Apparel saga that merits reexamination right now?
Eva Gunz: Love him or hate him, there is no American Apparel without Dov Charney. His name is synonymous with the brand because he was the brand. Although years have passed, the company’s story resonates because of its connection to so many current issues: cancel culture, immigration reform, labor practice, sexual harassment and #metoo, a shifting economy, media manipulation, manufacturing/Made in USA, trade wars, etc.
Can you explain why you decided to make Dov Charney’s perspective and narration so central to the series?
This is the first time Dov has ever sat down for an interview for a documentary. I realize that this is a tricky question to answer because he is so polarizing, and therefore lends itself to criticism- but I think as a filmmaker, it’s always the ideal to get the main subject of your story, whether good or bad, or both. Dov’s perspective felt very central to the story. Having insight into Dov gives insight into why the company was what it was, why people were drawn to him and also repelled by him. This is key in understanding the company’s success, as well as its demise.
What was the dynamic like behind the scenes during those interviews?
Nothing exciting to report there. Most of the interviews and filming took place at Dov’s factory, where he currently lives.
The scenes with Dov’s father are pretty distressing, learning that he’d lost all of his savings as an investor in American Apparel and is now unable to retire in his 80’s. Why was it important to you to include this father-son dynamic in the series?
Well, first off, I will say that hanging out with Morris was a treat. Certainly the best interview of the series! We are all very grateful for his hospitality.
Including this relationship was key for us from the very beginning for a few reasons. I think people will have certain expectations walking into this series, and meeting Morris in the context of Dov’s childhood certainly challenges them. Regarding Morris losing everything, it’s a really poignant moment that says a lot about the human cost of a company going out of business. There were a lot of perspectives we could have included instead of Morris’—the company closing was a major blow to a lot of people—but there was something that felt very revelatory in hearing it from him. It comes full circle, with Dov starting the company at 15 in his basement to this moment. Morris reminds us that it’s not just numbers on a balance sheet when these big companies close.
Charney is known for paying a living wage to garment workers, but he’s also been accused of sexual misconduct and using ethnic slurs and other unacceptable workplace behaviors [Charney has denied many of these allegations]. As someone who spent a fair amount of time with him, do you have any thoughts about this disconnect?
I don’t know if there’s an answer as to how to reconcile those two things, or if those two things can be reconciled. That duality is what makes Dov a compelling, albeit challenging subject, though. Some people say his sweatshop-free ethos is just a marketing ploy, and it definitely helped the brand’s appeal, but on the other hand you’ve got many workers who love him, and even pooled money together and worked for free to help him launch his new company. You’ve got current and former employees who will go to the mat for him, while at the same time there is a history of serious allegations and workplace misbehavior. Those are very hard things to bridge.
With this documentary, I tried to give a very factual window into what happened. It’s really up to the viewer to determine on their own how they feel about him. We spoke with so many people who were young when American Apparel was formed, and who now have the perspective that comes with age. I think that their thoughts and observations, which are often complicated and conflicting, are so valuable to this piece.
As you note at the end of the documentary, four workers in the Los Angeles Apparel factory died of the coronavirus and 300 workers got sick. Were you able to speak to anyone about what happened there, and what the situation looks like now?
We weren’t able to cover the event so I can’t really comment but Los Angeles Apparel has a statement on their Instagram that’s worth reading if anyone is interested.
American Apparel’s shifting reputation—and the media coverage that drove it —is a big theme of this series. Over the course of filming, what did you learn about how Charney and his employees viewed the media and media coverage?
I’ve actually given this a lot of thought and I wish I had more time to get into this in the show. This relationship is actually one of my favorite things about this whole story. I’m sure you know from your time at Jezebel that American Apparel, and this is something they’d come to regret, had a very active interplay with this nascent form of new journalism that none of us at the time could have foreseen would become what it did. They really stoked controversy, dropping ads with pornstars, leaking stories to these gossip websites, and then even posting comments under fake names on those same articles, designed to rile things up. At first it drove traffic to the site and people enjoyed the “what had American Apparel done this time” controversy. Which I think in its own right says a lot about the time, yeah? Sexually provocative, scandalous headline = more clicks.
A lot of our subjects had a lot to say about this too. Everything from calling their strategy “some Roger Stone shit,” to remorsefully acknowledging that “they didn’t ever think that websites (like Gawker) they’d go to for gossip would also be the places people would go for real information about American Apparel.” That said, when the cultural tides turned, it really started to affect the perception of the brand. One of the marketing people from that time put it well when he said they traded their long-term reputation for short-term gains. And that tide is when things really started to turn.
Something that became clear to me back when I was reporting on American Apparel was that this was an incredibly convoluted, constantly unfolding situation. How did you approach that as a documentary director, in trying to build a clean, easy-to-follow narrative?
Right you are in terms of how complicated the story got! In terms of building a clean, easy-to-follow narrative, we were super lucky to have been able to interview Jim Edwards, the Editor in Chief of Business Insider who covered the whole saga extensively and was able to lay it out really clearly for us. It’s an epic battle for control. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can say that our team started referring to it as “Hipster Succession.” Of course, there are some voices we would have loved to interview but that just wasn’t possible, because of ongoing litigation, and for their personal reasons.
What was it like to finish filming during a pandemic?
Yeah, not the most fun I’ve ever had. For people in the middle of production and post-production, Covid couldn’t have come at a worse time. I mean, smack in the middle of everything for us, and it all happened so quickly. As I remember it, I was sitting with our exec from VICE Studios and my business partner toward the end of day at our GNZ offices in Downtown LA, we hear national treasure Tom Hanks has COVID-19, and then a day later we are working from home. A little insane considering we had a good amount of shooting to do still, and now had to get multiple edits happening from multiple locations on an archival-heavy, server-based project up and running in a few different locations as well. Overall though, we were lucky that our team was nimble. If there’s one lesson I could pass on for those prepping to shoot or edit in COVID, most importantly, do it with people you like.