Charney’s Los Angeles Apparel jumped at the chance to provide stylish options as city officials called on Angelenos to wear masks outside.
It was April 1 but nobody was laughing.
Eleven more L.A. residents had died from COVID-19 illness in the past day, bringing the total number of fatalities in the county to 65. Officials confirmed 3,518 positive coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. Even a beloved musician succumbed to the deadly virus and he was just 52 years old.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti made a bold move at his daily COVID-19 press conference: He advised residents of the second-largest city in the nation to wear something over their faces when going out. And then he fumbled a bit as he donned a black face mask.
Well, maybe that was funny.
“I know it will look surreal,” he said. “We’re going to have to get used to seeing each other like this … This will be the look. Let me lead as mayor and let people know that this is the way we will be seeing each other. And wearing this on the streets is something that will help us all.”
About 5 miles south of City Hall, Dov Charney was listening closely. What the mayor was saying was music to his ears.
After Charney, the notorious founder of American Apparel was forced out of the iconic brand he created in 1989, he quickly set up shop in South L.A. under the name Los Angeles Apparel. And it wasn’t just him. Many of his former workers made the move down Central Avenue along with him.
Last month, Charney made news when fellow polarizing trailblazer Kanye West revealed that he was on a quest to create “the perfect hoodie” for his Yeezy line and had partnered with him and Rochambeau designer Laurence Chandler to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Apparel had been producing fabric masks for none other than FEMA and selling their unique designs on the company’s website.
“Initially, we started seeing a shortage of masks on the market, and many of our employees use masks while they’re sewing,” Charney said by phone Wednesday night. “So we started to toy with the idea.” When they finally got the fit right, he says they “ran with it.”
To be expected, the company has over a dozen different designs for the mask. Even though customers can order a pack of three masks for $30, Charney says he’s giving away so many for free, he’s currently losing money on the venture.
“We are donating a large majority of the masks that we are making,” he said. “It’s very difficult because we are paying to make the masks. People say, ‘Oh, you should give them away.’ Well, we are already giving them away.”
The Canadian-born entrepreneur says he has invested almost a million dollars into mask-making equipment, as well as enacting a number of safety procedures in his factory, including social distancing and taking workers’ temperatures before they begin their shift. They’ve even swapped out punch clocks with facial recognition technology to cut down on touching shared surfaces.
“Ideally, I don’t want one COVID case in here,” he said, noting that everyone in the building wears masks, including himself.
Then, he excused himself and took his temperature. It was “good,” he said with a laugh.
Soon after Garcetti’s announcement, Charney got on the company’s Instagram account and began a live stream, alerting all who were viewing that he would be hiring hundreds of people to meet the swelling demand. He wanted maintenance workers and people who knew how to pack orders. He promised overtime hours.
Through the mask, you could see the smile on his face as he answered questions from the stream of viewers.
He stresses that the company makes no guarantees that these fabric masks will protect the wearer from infection the way N95s can. That’s not what they are for, he says.
“N95s are fantastic, but you can’t wear those all day,” he said. “It’s not feasible and even if you have one you should give it to a first responder. But if you are infected, a [fabric] mask will help reduce the chance of transmission to a third party. Which is so important. Protect the innocent from you.”
In his daily news conference from Sacramento today, Gov. Gavin Newsom cheered on Californians wearing masks, but as long as it’s a part of a comprehensive effort to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
“We believe and we put out guidelines that if individuals want to have face coverings, that is a good thing and a preferable thing, in addition to the physical distancing and the stay-at-home order,” Newsom said.
“We have been very clear that if you are going into an environment where physical distancing is all but impossible, for example, into a grocery store with small aisles and a long queue, that we do believe it would be additive and beneficial to have a face covering,” he said.
Later in the day at the White House, President Donald Trump was asked about masks. He doubled-down on his fondness for scarves. “In many ways a scarf is better,” the President said in his daily press conference. “It’s thicker.”
While many await the CDC’s official recommendation for face coverings, Charney is grateful that he started making masks a month ago. Once he gets all the people trained and in place, he estimates the factory can produce 300,000 masks a week. The mayor said yesterday that the city hopes to see over 100 manufacturers delivering two million masks a week.
Expect the ones coming from Los Angeles Apparel to be a tad more stylish than others.
“The good thing about having a good looking mask is it makes it easier to wear,” he said. “The mask also sends a statement to others that you’re taking this seriously.”
Charney has taken this project so seriously that he’s been living out of the factory. Literally. All day, all night.
“I’m deep in it,” he said. “I believe in it intensely. I like the challenge of manufacturing. To win it you’ve got to be in it all the way.” But doesn’t he need some time to recharge the batteries?
“People talk about a work/life balance,” he said, “but this is balance for me because it’s all work and it’s my life and I love it.”
Clearly, this will soon be a financial success for him. Would he consider this his comeback?
“I didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “I’ve been hustling garments my whole life. I’ve had ups and downs, but my workers have been with me the whole time. We’ve already hired hundreds of people because we want to keep up and we want to be at the forefront of making high-value, made-in-the-USA basics. And right now, masks are a basic.”
Not only that, but the man who filled closets around the world with trendy clothes does not think this is a passing fad.
“For the rest of my life, when I’m sick I’m going to wear a mask,” he said. “I think we will be wearing masks in the western world forever.”