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

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.

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."

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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