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American Apparel's in-house guru shows a lighter side

'48 Laws' author Robert Greene acts as chief Dov Charney's informal older brother, preaching 'crush your enemy' but practicing tolerance. His books are big with rappers, executives and prison inmates.

August 30, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Greene, with his cat Brutus, is the author of "The 48 Laws of Power." Greene says he practices maybe half of the laws from his best-known book, including Concentrate your forces and Plan all the way to the end.
Robert Greene, with his cat Brutus, is the author of "The 48 Laws of… (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles…)

When author Robert Greene wrote his bestselling book "The 48 Laws of Power," his win-at-all-costs message turned him into a cult hero with the hip-hop set, Hollywood elite and prison inmates alike.

Crush your enemy totally, he wrote in Law 15. Play a sucker to catch a sucker, he said in another. Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Greene's warrior-like take on the quest for power, written more than a decade ago, would eventually attract another devotee: Dov Charney, the provocative and sometimes impish chief executive of Los Angeles clothing company American Apparel Inc.

The 52-year-old Greene — a former screenwriter who speaks five languages and worked 80 jobs before writing "The 48 Laws" — has become Charney's guru, a trusted confidant to the 42-year-old entrepreneur and, insiders say, a voice of reason on American Apparel's board of directors.

"There's definitely an older-brother, younger-brother dynamic," said Allan Mayer, a public relations man and fellow board member. "Dov is a very brilliant, creative guy and he can also be mercurial and very impulsive, which are excellent qualities, but sometimes he needs to be reined in. If Robert says, 'Well, hold on, buddy,' Dov generally will."

Charney refers to his close friend alternately as a genius, El Señor and Jesus. The American Apparel founder says he was hooked on "The 48 Laws" the moment he opened its burnt orange cover, with its straightforward philosophies of Machiavelli, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and others. He's handed out hundreds of copies to friends and employees, and readily quotes the laws during board meetings.

One of Charney's favorites: "Enter action with boldness" — Law 28.

"Everybody practices it every day," he said of the book's principles during a recent dinner of Korean barbecue and beer with Greene in downtown Los Angeles. "These are the rules that govern human interactions.... Robert's book is as much a documentation of your flaws — you just score yourself on each one."

Charney is also a fan of another Greene tome, "The Art of Seduction," which counsels readers to "get what you want by manipulating everyone's greatest weakness: the desire for pleasure."

That might raise some eyebrows, since Charney is being sued by five former employees who accuse him of sexual harassment. Charney and American Apparel have denied the allegations, calling them extortion attempts.

The seduction book, Charney says, is fascinating to him as a study in human behavior — from the perspective of the seducer and the seduced.

"We all like to be seduced, we all want to be lied to once in a blue moon, and the seduction book documents this pattern," he said.

For his part, Greene says he practices maybe half of the laws from his best-known book, including "Concentrate your forces" and "Plan all the way to the end." He says he drew the laws from his observations of the powerful and that some of the rules — like "Crush your enemy totally" — aren't ones he personally follows, although he believes they can be helpful to others in different situations.

"These laws … people might say, 'Oh they're wicked,'" he said, leaning back in an armchair with a steaming mug of black tea in the covered patio of his sunny, Spanish-style home in Los Feliz. "They're practiced day in and day out by businesspeople. You're always trying to get rid of your competition and it can be pretty bloodthirsty, and that's just the reality."

Published in 1998, "The 48 Laws" became a sensation with rappers such as 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes, who tapped it as a guide for getting ahead in the ruthless music business. Its influence also spread to Wall Street tycoons, Hollywood stars like actor Will Smith and producer Brian Grazer, and NBA players, notably Andrew Bynum and Chris Bosh. Even Cuban dictator Fidel Castro read it, Greene says.

It's also a popular book in prisons, where its survival-of-the-fittest ethos seems to have struck a responsive chord; Greene keeps a box of fan mail he's received from inmates.

Since its debut, the book has sold 1.2 million copies in the U.S. and has been translated into two dozen languages.

After Charney read it in 2001, he contacted Greene and the two hit it off over sushi at a Japanese restaurant near Echo Park. A few years later, Charney hired Greene as a consultant, paying him a $30,000 annual retainer so he could call the author "at any hour of the day," Greene recalled.

Charney would seek advice on taking the fast-growing company public, problematic employees, relationship troubles and unflattering media portrayals of himself and American Apparel over its racy clothing and overtly sexual advertisements.

When the company went public in late 2007, Charney quickly approached Greene for a spot on the board. He has been a director ever since, earning $97,000 last year.

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