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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

Greene is the first to admit that he's an odd choice for the American Apparel board: He never went to business school and has no financial or retail background.

He says he stays out of day-to-day operations, but he remains a forceful presence on the board and Charney's most vocal ally.

Greene was the first to resist when some board members proposed closing American Apparel's downtown Los Angeles manufacturing facility for a few weeks to cut costs. And when others felt obligated to respond to bad publicity, he trumpeted one of his laws: "Always say less than necessary."

"People who do know a lot, like with business degrees, are kind of trained to think a certain way, and that makes them, you know, a little bit limited," Greene said.

Greene's outsider perspective has been especially valuable in the last year as the company has confronted speculation that it would file for bankruptcy protection. On Tuesday, American Apparel said in a regulatory filing that a group of Canadian investors was looking to sell its shares in the company four months after throwing it a financial lifeline. Shares closed at 97 cents, up 4 cents on the day, but down 43% year to date.

Despite the cunning tone Greene adopts in his books, in person he's calm and mild-mannered, a student of Zen Buddhism who reads voraciously about history and war, practices Pilates, is an avid swimmer and mountain biker and follows a gluten-free diet.

"He's like the Wizard of Oz — behind the curtain is a nice man," Charney said. "He's never professed to be a power hog; he's just documenting it."

Greene grew up in Baldwin Hills and Brentwood and graduated from Palisades High School. He went to UC Berkeley for a couple of years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he earned a degree in classical studies.

After college, Greene flitted from job to job — working as a translator, construction worker and magazine assistant, among other things — before winding up near Venice, Italy. While working as a writer at a new art and media school, he met book packager Joost Elffers, who asked Greene if he had any ideas for a book.

On the spot, Greene came up with an idea about power, and two years later, he and Elffers sold "The 48 Laws" for $450,000 to Penguin Books. HBO has since optioned it for a possible television series. Greene, meanwhile, is working with his agent to develop a series based on "The Art of Seduction."

These days, Greene spends his time working on his fifth book, this one about "how humans achieve mastery," writing from the home he shares with his longtime girlfriend, artist and filmmaker Anna Biller, and their tuxedo cat, Brutus. He also consults on the side for tech executives, movie directors, actors, political advisors, sports agents and others — for $600 an hour.

"People write business books that are all very sugary to me; there's a grain of truth but they don't really express the reality," Greene said. "So in some ways I went the other direction for dramatic purposes because I was so sick of those books that don't have any real relationship to what we experience."

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