By Keely Savoie
With the arrival of American Apparel in Park Slope, Brooklyn’s stalwartly anti-chain-store neighborhood, the trip up gritty, traffic-clogged Flatbush Avenue now culminates in the lusciously moist, open mouth of a Lauren W. Her tongue flirts with her fingers through parted lips, and it looks as though she’s inviting us to taste the same quintessential flavor of American Apparel she appears to be savoring: CEO Dov Charney.
American Apparel ads have become their own pop-culture entity. At first sight, they excited something in ad-watchers and media-thinkers. The ads seemed new, edgy, smart, and real. They feature very young women (and some girls under 15, if rumors are true) who are unpolished, un-retouched, and hyper-sexualized. The camera-eye leers at crotch level, focusing where flesh disappears under thin cotton fabric, lingering on bruised thighs, scratched buttocks, stubbly armpits. It lurks above the tawny-skinned, thin models who are lolling about on tousled sheets, propped against door jambs, bent over plastic crates, or sprawled on cheap couches. The camera’s lens becomes a proto-phallus, as if you are seeing a photographic rendition of a horny boy’s favorite sexual fantasy. It’s not a far stretch; Dov Charney is listed as the “artist” in many of the photo montages on the American Apparel website. In Lauren W’s slideshow, she is shot from the shoulders up against the backdrop of a pillow. In excruciatingly close views, we are taken through a series of her facial expressions of lust, sexual excitement, orgasmic ecstasy, and coy satiation. In one of the final shots, a male hand reaches down from behind the camera, and touches her chin.
“Dov’s whole thing [is about] humiliating women . . . not letting them be strong and in control – always [appearing] vulnerable,” says Adam Neiman, CEO of No Sweat Apparel, AA’s main anti-sweatshop (and pro-union) T-shirt-and-tank-top competitor.
These are the ads that took American Apparel from being unknown to becoming almost as much of an urban fixture as Starbucks – that’s what we’ve been told. At first the ads were a welcome departure from the air-brushed anorexic tyranny of most Madison Avenue “sex sells” fare, but under the surface of the too-close, Polaroid-candid, spots-and-all realism was the same ol’ same ol’: “Sexual expression co-opted by capitalism,” as Jean Kilbourne, author of Can’t Buy My Love and ad-critic extraordinaire, puts it.
The images of super-young models prostrated in positions of hyper-sexual vulnerability are reminiscent of a Calvin Klein advertising controversy of a decade ago, in which pubescent teens were deliberately posed to evoke that bastion of ’60s sleaze, rec-room pornography. Unsurprisingly, the CK ads generated immense controversy, which of course translated to immense profits.
By the same token, American Apparel ads recall the “classic” ’70s images from Hustler magazine, which also adorn the walls of their retail stores. Predictably, the smarmy AA ads have generated considerable buzz that has facilitated American Apparel’s ascendancy. But American Apparel did CK one better. The edginess of the ads garnered the headlines, but the topper – the piece de resistance for Charney’s target demographic – appeared further down in almost every single article ever written about American Apparel: the parenthetical appeal of AA’s anti-sweatshop schtick.
It was the seemingly incompatible combination that really launched AA from obscurity to ubiquity within a couple of years of opening their first retail store. Therein lies the genius of the marketing strategy of American Apparel. They know sex sells, but free press with a progressive twist sells a whole lot more.
The real story of American Apparel’s ads is how the company has used the bodies of its barely legal employees to shore up its appeal to the progressive left by implanting anti-sweatshop shtick into every article generated by its low-budget, sexist ads. And the AA demographic – low-wage-worker-defending (but high-wage-earning), guilt-ridden lefties who want nothing more than to assuage their own angst-ridden middle-class anxiety about having succeeded in the capitalist world by consuming with conscience (and the more conscience, the better: sweat-free, fair-trade, organic, vegan, and sustainable) – ate it up.
“He [is] basically telling the left on one hand, ‘Yeah, you’re making me work,’” says Neiman. “On the other, [he’s saying], ‘Kiss my hairy bare butt.’”
American Apparel’s fame as an anti-sweatshop hero company is rooted not in ideology, but in the cut-throat clothing industry. Charney had just opened American Apparel’s first retail store in downtown L.A. when he learned that another T-shirt-and-tank-top outfitter, the late SweatX, aimed to open a retail outlet right next door. “He saw a threat from SweatX, so all of a sudden he realized that there was press – lots of it – so he played that angle,” says Neiman.
“Dov had never shown any interest up to this time in the sweatshop issue whatsoever,” Neiman says. “It was all about sex – sexy tees, sexy tees, sexy tees – was it.” Sex is still the central concern for Charney. Wherever Charney goes, rumors and insinuations follow. Stories about workplace nudity, inappropriate come-ons, and outright sexual harassment seem to sprout out of Charney.
But it’s also a whole lot more than just sex. It is the cynical positioning of those female bodies over a backdrop of progressive causes, an incomplete and cognitively dissonant seduction that seems, nonetheless, to have worked well enough that almost every shirt I’m tempted to buy has that tell-tale three-circle logo of American Apparel. And no wonder: American Apparel is, ironically, the brand of choice for any number of progressive organizations who decide to do a little T-shirt marketing.
“It always astonishes me when people who consider themselves progressive fall for this,” says Kilbourne.