Last week, my friends and I were walking down E 13th Ave. when we decided to look around American Apparel. Three of us had no money to spare, as usual, so we waited for the lucky one to try on her armful of sheer tanks as we lingered in the severely white box of a store.
One of my friends was standing next a particularly lifelike, yet spindly mannequin wearing oversized glasses and a trademark American Apparel bow hair clip. I snapped a picture on my iPhone to accompany my latest Tweet, and immediately one of the dainty employees rushed across the store.
“Excuse me, we don’t allow anyone to take pictures in here,” she said. “I know it’s kind of weird, it’s just a rule we have.”
I apologized and she lingered for a bit (possibly expecting me to delete the picture), before walking away dejectedly when I pocketed the phone. “I wonder what they’re trying to hide,” my friend laughed out as we left the store.
I got to thinking. American Apparel, famous for its extensive combinations of spandex and cotton in bright and sometimes metallic colors, has a controversial business strategy. The most public of which is its advertising.
The Guardian named American Apparel the brand Label of the Year in 2008. “It is flagrantly exclusive in marketing its wares to the superyoung and supercool,” says the Guardian article. “Its advertising campaign is a series of bald, starkly lit, un-retouched pictures of pretty boys and girls, contorted into positions that suggest yoga and outlandish sex.”
This isn’t an exaggeration; most of the ads feature sprawling half-naked people wearing only the featured piece of clothing. A recent ad on the back cover of Vice magazine introduces The Four-Way Stretch High-Waisted Zipper Pant with a traditionally un-airbrushed looking model posing on a couch in an amateur-porn-ish manner.
Worry not, though. The ad promotes American Apparel’s “Made in USA – Sweatshop Free” promise among details of vertically integrated manufacturing and environmentally friendly factories.
The doorway at our UO campus store sits between life-size white paintings of leotard-clad women. Everything about the store screams seduction; the company has even had a few messy sexual harassment lawsuits filed against it (none of which have been proven).
Somehow, claiming to be a responsible company while running the most provocative mainstream advertising in today’s society makes American Apparel this brilliantly disturbing brand that I can’t decide whether to love or hate. Is it refreshingly shocking or is it taking part in the age-old “sex sells” trend?
Either way, the company’s advertising seems to be working. Maybe the solid-color clothes within the secretive walls of American Apparel just prove too tempting to college students with their eyes on the edgiest trends. Or maybe they feel good supporting a company that’s doing something different despite some criticism and disgust.
Either way, I have to agree with Polly Vernon of The Guardian writing about Dov Charney, the founder and CEO of American Apparel: “Dov Charney, a man whose joint obsession with decent business ethics and sex, [is] as controversial as he is successful.”
For now I have to say, live on American Apparel, with your semi-secretive ways and your inappropriate advertising. I hope to one day own some of your high-wasted tribal print skirts and velvet tube dresses, but from now I’ll admire your curiosities from afar.
Follow Tamara at @tamfeingold