American Apparel: Appalling or Appealing?
At first sight, it would not appear that the image to the left is an advertisement. The posterior view of the woman wearing socks seems to be selling more than just clothing. Who is behind this advertisement? 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 sit down to watch our favorite TV shows. 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. The lighting is too extreme to be natural, an invisible breeze blows the model’s hair back, and there is usually no familiar setting, just a monochromatic backdrop in the background. These are obviously 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 (mostly 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. None of the models have been retouched or airbrushed. Charney is providing the concept of sexiness with 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, no tattoos or piercings, and no short hair-nothing that would be unnatural (Wolf).
Charney is another step ahead of other clothing labels with the provocative poses his models are 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. In most cases, only one article of clothing is visible on the model: a pair of underwear, a sweatshirt, a pair of tube socks. 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.
While many find the ads offensive towards women, 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).
Despite the unsettlement of the debate over whether or not the advertising techniques of American Apparel are acceptable, the bottom line, enforced by Charney, is that sex still sells. Yes he is breaking from tradition be omitting the fluff and using genuine women in erotic poses, but sex is sex no matter who or what is alluding to it. Real women or not, sex has always been good at causing controversy and controversy has always been good at bringing in money. So with sex still being portrayed, Charney is still making a profit, about $250 million annually to be exact (Palmeri).
His knack for business began in prep school when the native Canadian began bringing back Hanes t-shirts from the U.S. to sell in Canada. Charney was so successful over the next few years that he dropped out of Tufts in 1989 to devote himself to the garment business full-time. After hitting bankruptcy with the flood of imported goods in 1996, Charney tried again two years later and has been going strong ever since. Currently, American Apparel has stories in 69 cities across 16 countries and is still expanding (Palmeri).
American Apparel’s slogans “sweatshop-free” and “vertically integrated manufacturing” are what make the company so commendable. (It’s a factor that at times overshadows the sexual innuendo in the ads). 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. An immigrant himself, Charney recognizes the contributions they make to the U.S. economy. 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 positive aspect, however, clashes with the raciness of American Apparel’s ads. The suggestiveness and grittiness of them is almost on the verge of being pornographic, which is exactly the image that Charney is going for. He 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. Just by taking a look at the CEO himself sporting colossal muttonchops, one can see his obsession with this era. By observing the ads, it would make complete sense that Charney gets his inspiration from erotic images, such as those seen in dated issues of Oui, Penthouse, and Playboy. Covers of these magazines 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 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 (preferably Asians). 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 behavior is a reflection of his open position towards sex, which he shares with his target customer: the socially conscience and involved urban hipster in his or her twenties. Charney’s belief is that the family values and uptight views of the baby boomers are finally coming to a close and replacing it is this new generation with new opinions. This casual outlook on sex is evident in American Apparel’s advertisements that seem to reek of it, and therefore succeed in attracting this new crowd. According to Charney, we are on the brink of a youth revolution aiming to liberate the restrictions on sex, and he is at the helm of it. “Young people are going to redefine what’s wrong and what’s right, and they’re going to create new freedoms, freedom of thought, freedom to be nasty, and freedom to explore the bounds of life,” said the CEO in an article published in the McGill Daily (Meyer). Ironically, the youth obsessed Charney is 38 years old.
The spoof ad below is poking fun at 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.
Advertising in the 21st century has come to emphasize sex more and more, with American Apparel leading the way. Many of its ads are leaning towards pornography to such an extent that “The next direction for American Apparel” refers to the foreseeable future in which Charney will have his models pose completely nude. To begin down that path, Charney is depicted as the first to volunteer.
Overall, the ad is meant to expose the sexual mentality of American Apparel’s CEO and his indifference to pornographic images projecting out to the public.
Barco, Mandalit. “American Apparel, and Immigrant Success Story.” NPR 28 April 2006. NPR Online. 5 Nov. 2007 http://npr.org
Meyer, Jon. “Man in his Carlsberg years leads youth revolution.” The McGill Daily 22 Nov. 2004. McGill Online. 7 Nov. 2007 http://mcgilldaily.com
Navarro, Mireya. “His Way Meets a Highway Called Court.” NYTIMES.com. 10 July 2005 5 Nov. 2007 http://nytimes.com
Palmeri, Christopher. “Living On The Edge At American Apparel.” Business Week 27 June 2005. Business Week Online. 5 Nov. 2007 http://businessweek.com
Savoie, Keely. “F*cking Progressives.” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007 http://clamormagazine.org/issues/38/
Straub, Jim. “Who’s Your Daddy?” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007 http://clamormagazine.org/issues/38/
Vasil, Adria. “Porn Pushers or Youth Prophets?” Now Magazine March 2005. Now Online. 5 Nov. 2007 http://nowtoronto.com
Williams, Dez. “When the Sideshow Becomes the Main Attraction.” Clamor Magazine Fall 2006. Clamor Online. 6 Nov. 2007 http://clamormagazine.org/issues/38/
Wolf, Jaime. “And You Thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?” NYTIMES.com. 23 April 2006 6 Nov. 2007 http://nytimes.com
take me back home!