One man strives to liberate society's restrictions on sex.

 American Apparel: Appalling or Appealing? 

            At first sight, it would not appear that the image on the left is an advertisement. The brazen expression of the woman seems to be selling more than just clothing. Who is behind these advertisements? Dov Charney, the 38-year-old CEO of the clothing company American Apparel. There he is below in another one of his company’s ads.

            In a society where sex is portrayed as a shameful deed, we sure do see a lot of it. We drive by monstrous billboards on the highway. We flip through pages of ads in magazines. We pay money to see it in movies. The list goes on. We like to think of sex as a private and intimate act that never leaves the bedroom, yet it’s mass-produced everywhere. 

The majority of ads today are visibly set-up. [CS1]It’s obvious that the people posing are professional models surrounded by cameramen, bright lights, make-up artists, hair stylists, and probably a colossal fan to get that tossed hair effect. Although we cannot see these people behind the scenes, we know they’re there. 

When observing an American Apparel ad, however, this factor of fallacy is not as evident. The models are not ridiculously beautiful or painstakingly thin. They are average men and women with imperfect bodies, razor bumps, and have sweat stains on the clothes they’re modeling. There is no evidence of make-up or use of hair products and none of the models have been retouched or airbrushed. Charney is giving sexiness a new natural look. These aren’t professional models walking the runway, appearing on the red carpet, or jetting off to Europe. These are everyday people who could easily be spotted strolling down the street. 

When Charney examines the multiple photos via email he receives from girls hoping to be hired as American Apparel models, he has strict limitations on what he wants, or rather, what he doesn’t want. No make-up, no plucked eyebrows or piercings, and no short hair-nothing that would be unnatural (Wolf). Charney’s involvement in the ads runs even deeper. For many of the photos, Charney himself is listed as the photographer. Some of the models featured are female employees and he has sporadically used girlfriends to model as well.[CS2] 

Despite the unsettlement of the debate over whether or not the advertising techniques of American Apparel are acceptable, the bottom line is that sex still sells. Although Charney is following this tradition be portraying sex, he is omitting the fluff and using genuine women. The reason why American Apparel’s ads are deemed so offensive is because of the erotic poses the models are placed in. Most often than not, the women are bending over, sprawled out on the floor, arching their backs, lying in bed (such as the ad above), or taking a shower. Some even appear to be in a state of arousal.[CS3] 

Contrary to popular belief, PhD sexologist Annie Sprinkle finds the ads rejuvenating. “He [Charney] obviously appreciates female sexuality in all its glorious sleaziness. If you see sex as bad, dirty, and ugly, then you’re going to see these ads as bad, dirty, and ugly,” said the former porn star (Vasil). The ads aren’t insulting because of the sexual poses put on display but because of the realness of the women and the setting that most people can relate to. Suddenly Charney is taking this private act and exposing what it truly looks like for everyone to see. Most people want to keep sex private and out of the public eye because when out in the open, sex is seen as disgraceful. Charney is trying to change this by representing sex as the natural act that it is. It’s not always glamorous and romantic as movies and other ads portray it.[CS4]

[CS5]Besides the ads, another controversial step that American Apparel has taken is explained in its slogans “sweatshop-free” and “vertically integrated manufacturing”. What’s unique about Charney’s business is that it is the largest single garment factory in the U.S., taking care to accomplish all prospects of manufacturing without ever leaving the country. In a world where outsourcing is extremely common, everything American Apparel is produced right in downtown LA where the company’s headquarters are located (Straub). The majority of his 4,000 employees are immigrants, mostly Mexican. And who wouldn’t want to work for Charney? Besides earning an average of $13 an hour (twice the California minimum wage), American Apparel employees get a stretch and massage break everyday and receive subsidized lunches and health insurance, free English classes right in the factory, and free bus tokens and rental bikes for transportation purposes (Barco).

This commendable aspect, however, clashes with the raciness of American Apparel’s ads. The suggestiveness and grittiness of them is often associated with pornography.[CS6] Surprisingly though, Charney does not shun the negative connotation associated with pornography, but instead clutches it lovingly. The atmosphere of American Apparel’s ads is meant to mimic porn from the 1970’s and 80’s. Covers of dated issues of Oui, Penthouse, and Playboy are even hung up inside the stores for the visibility of the customers. In an article titled “And You Thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?” that appeared in the NY Times Magazine in 2006, author Jaime Wolf drew an appropriate parallel between Dov Charney and the most notorious man in the pornography business, Hugh Hefner. Both strived to redefine sexiness: Hefner’s take on it was that sexiness could be found in “the girl next door.” “In an updated 21st century way,” said Wolf, “the American Apparel ideal is Charney’s Young Metropolitan Adult…whom you might see walking down the street.”

Hefner was also infamous for having sexual relations with a few of his Playboy Playmates, something that Charney has engaged in frequently as well. When asked in an interview with Adria Vasil for an issue of Now Magazine in 2005 if he slept with his models, Charney replied, “It has happened, and it’s potentially possible that I’d fall in love with models, as they’ve fallen in love with me. People fall in love.” 

This passive attitude, however, backfired in Charney’s face when three sexual harassment lawsuits were filed against him in May of 2005 from three former female employees and a contractor. The thing is, Charney never pressured any of his employees for sex. Rather, it was his openness towards the subject and the bringing of sex from the ads into the workplace that created an uncomfortable situation for some. The allegations included using vulgar terminology when speaking and referring to female employees, conducting meetings in his underwear, giving two of his employees vibrators, exposing himself to a female employee, and requesting that his model scout recruit women with whom he could have sex with. Charney denied these accusations. Prior to these incidents, Charney masturbated in front of a female reporter from Jane Magazine in 2004 (Navarro).

The CEO’s inappropriate behavior is a reflection of his open perception of sex. For Charney, there are no boundaries between American Apparel’s advertisements, the workplace, or his personal life. He is on the brink of a revolutionary mission to liberate the restrictions put on sex and to render it truthfully, without humiliation. Sex, after all, is vital to the existence and evolution of the human race, so why should it be kept hidden? Despite this view, Charney disobeyed certain rules that as the CEO of a company, he was obligated to follow. (This resulted in multiple sexual harassment cases under his name.) If Charney could only leave the sex to the advertisements, his fresh and groundbreaking vision may have a chance at becoming a reality in the future.[CS7]

The spoof ad below is emphasizing Charney’s blatant tolerance and encouragement of people’s sexuality, including his own (as seen from the spread legs). There are no distinctions or boundaries between American Apparel’s advertisements, the workplace, or Charney’s personal life-they are all driven by sex. Charney’s advertising technique is his way of casting a whole new light on the act. Despite his distortion of the same idea (the women in his ads, like models for other brands, appear in vulnerable and humiliating positions), he is making the effort to expose the natural and beautiful act of sex.

Greek statuary embodies the essence of beauty that Charney will never be able to achieve in his advertisements. In the spoof ad, his head is placed on a famous Greek statue known as the “Sleeping Satyr”. Satyrs are mythical creatures known for their wild partying and sexual conquests, kind of similar to Charney. The position of the satyr is also reminiscent of some of the poses of American Apparel’s models.






Barco, Mandalit. “American Apparel, and Immigrant Success Story.” NPR 28 April 2006. NPR Online. 5 Nov. 2007

Navarro, Mireya. “His Way Meets a Highway Called Court.” 10 July 2005 5 Nov. 2007

Savoie, Keely. “F*cking Progressives.” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007

Straub, Jim. “Who’s Your Daddy?” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007

Vasil, Adria. “Porn Pushers or Youth Prophets?” Now Magazine March 2005. Now Online. 5 Nov. 2007

Weight Control Information Network. 2007.

Williams, Dez. “When the Sideshow Becomes the Main Attraction.” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007

Wolf, Jaime. “And You Thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?” 23 April 2006 6 Nov. 2007


All photographs are from the American Apparel website.

 [CS1]This paragraph rambled on too much, so I cut out a sentence and reconstructed the following one to sound more concise.

 [CS2]These three sentences were originally at the end of the next paragraph. I moved them up behind the sentence about what Charney doesn’t allow on models as another example of how much he participates in the whole process.

 [CS3]I removed a sentence here about the lack of clothing seen on the models. I didn’t see it as essential to my argument.

 [CS4]This entire section is completely new and wasn’t present in the original draft. Initially, I wanted to emphasize that despite Charney’s use of real women, he is still selling sex. However, I then completely switched sides and decided to defend Charney and his innovative advertising. I discussed how his use of real women was a way to show the world that sex is nothing to be ashamed of because it’s an ordinary act.

 [CS5]There was another paragraph before this one describing how Charney’s current success can be traced back to when he first came into the garment business as a teen. While interesting, it was redundant and distracted the reader from my claim.

 [CS6]This sentence originally suggested that I believed that American Apparel’s ads were on the verge of being pornographic. I reworded this phrase, however, to show that many people (not necessarily including myself) draw a link between pornography and Charney’s ads.

 [CS7]This is a new paragraph that replaced a prior paragraph explaining Charney’s target customer. Instead, I decided to focus on Charney’s good intentions of shedding new light on sex, but how he isn’t going to get anywhere if he continues behaving the way he does in the workplace.

 [CS8]Since I changed my argument in my paper, I also had to change my analysis of the ad.

take me back home!