What American Apparel Did Right / by Noel Kenny

"Read The Sexts Ex-American Apparel CEO Dov Charney Allegedly Sent Employees" 

"Dov Charney Says Having Sex With Coworkers Is Unavoidable"

"American Apparel Board Members Allege Ex-CEO Dov Charney Kept Images Of Sex With Staff On Company Computer"

These are just a few of the flowery headlines that express the general consensus about American Apparel.

Before I get dragged on Twitter as a female misogynist, I'll have you know I'm not here to defend Dov Charney or anyone associated with the company regarding sexual harrassment. I am just as disgusted as you are. I'm not here to argue about these charges. I wholeheartedly agree that taking advantage of women is never OK. More times than I'd like to admit, I've experienced my fair share of sexual harassment. I instinctively side with women in these cases unless explicitly proved otherwise.

I'm just here to say that American Apparel's outlandish advertising decisions may have made their brand image into something more sinful than it really was. I recall my dad spreading his arms across an American Apparel storefront photo as we walked along the Waikiki strip, shielding the NSFW photo of a grinning spread eagle brunette in harsh flash photography glory from my virgin 5th grade eyes. Unfortunately for my conservative Christian dad, these neck-bending squint-inducing advertisements would not stay hidden from my generation for long. The more distaste heaped upon the questionable morality of their ads, the more exposure the photos got. (All publicity is good publicity, right?)

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Growing up as a queer Asian Latina American with an immigrant mother had its unique hurdles. I spent a large majority of my teen years wishing I had European features and long skinny legs, like every fashion model that was worshiped on Tumblr. (While I am a quarter Irish, no aspect of my appearance embodies that.) I struggled to express my sexual identity without feeling judged and stereotyped by my peers. I grimace thinking back to how embarrassed I was that my mom had a Japanese accent and no college degree, and although I am proud of it now, I spent a lot of my childhood trying to hide this reality through pathological lying and denial. So naturally my soul has a sweet spot for the cuteness of mixed Asians being validated through American Apparel ads, and these very models have expressed feeling the same way.

"I have one eye that is slightly smaller than the other, and I barely reach 5’8” on a good day. I am Asian with freckles on my face, have scars on my knees from running and falling as a kid, and am considered too short to be a high-fashion model. But at American Apparel, that was all okay.

(...)

"I thought that perhaps someone out there who looked more like me would find solace in knowing that at least one major American retailer understood that there is more than just one image of a woman out there."

-- Valerie Lee in The Huffington Post

American Apparel prided itself on progressive practices before the trend of corporate social responsibility that every brand is currently oh-so-gingerly tip-toeing on thin ice about. The only other fashion brand that comes to mind that had equally in-your-face advertising emphasizing social issues is United Colors of Benetton.

American Apparel took a righteous risk by handing out "Legalize Gay" shirts to protestors at rallies against Prop 8, and fought a backlash of threatening phone calls and broken windows by expanding the exposure and production of these shirts.

 A photo I dug out from my Facebook archives of me as a 15 year old sporting the Legalize Gay shirt at my Catholic School. 

A photo I dug out from my Facebook archives of me as a 15 year old sporting the Legalize Gay shirt at my Catholic School. 

Their "Legalize LA" shirts promoted amnesty for undocumented immigrants in a fun and sexy way! Their warehouse factory workers' rights were overwhelmingly positive and completely underrated. Charney stated in an infamous interview with Claudine Ko, "I think sex motivates everything... It motivates my work, too. You don't want something that's sexually driven, like panties, but then have them made in a horrible sweatshop. Like, I know my workers have a good time. They drink beer, they have relationships, they have girlfriends. It's fun to make money and pay people well."

Claudine wrote about the pleasant, sunlight-filled work environment with massage therapists, free English-as-a-second-language classes, and workers socializing and even cuddling in a stairwell during breaks.

"Proudly Crafted In America", "Sweatshop Free", "Legalize Gay", and "Legalize LA" were repetitively and unapologetically plastered across photos of ultra-cool mixed girls (and might I mention trans and elderly models included) who stared at the camera in a way that conveyed they knew the power of their sex appeal. All of these aspects of myself that I had previously been ashamed of were now SEXY. I felt empowerment through what American Apparel embodied as a brand.

American Apparel was one of the first big fashion labels to commodify the underdog into a symbol of freedom and sex. American Apparel is the punk rock of fashion.

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We could mention how the media went above and beyond, examining years of Charney's private text messages to uncover and publish "illicit messages," many of which were consensual in nature. American media lived to cover the juicy Dov Charney soap opera that "coincidentally" guaranteed hot exposure and reeled in ad money... hypocritically choosing not to give a second glance to other stories that deserve the same light and justice. Equally vociferous efforts on this scale against other obvious offenders are rare -- Harvey Weinstein to name one.

American Apparel's brand image has been ripped apart and tainted forever, all of their good practices have been silenced by Charney's dumb loud mouth. In an attempt to put large media influence into perspective, I can't help but compare American Apparel to other corporations and industries that deserve equal skepticism and boycotting.

  1. Extreme misogyny perpetuated through rap music has been largely dismissed by the public because music literally releases dopamine in the brain with spell-binding beats and rhymes. An endless list of sexual assault cases arise against famous rappers and are resolved outside of court and forgotten. Another million records get sold.
  2. American Apparel's iconic clothing designs have been replicated by fast-fashion companies every season without fail. Consumers will criticize American Apparel as an overpriced brand, making money off of sexualizing women; then proceed to wear an exact replica of an American Apparel shirt, only to contribute to a company employing 14 year old Cambodians in factory conditions so bad that 8,000 workers collapsed. American Apparel clothes were overpriced for a good reason, unlike high-fashion labels.

If you, like I, have found strength and empowerment in American Apparel's brand, you don't have to shove that under the rug. Every big company that you support has AT LEAST one disgusting practice with negative effects on the environment or humanity. Wake up people! No big corporation is the Immaculate Conception. I encourage choosing the lesser of two evils, but it's okay to love American Apparel.

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Epilogue: My dumb ass should GET PAID for this 15 paragraph long endorsement!