Photo: Courtesy of American Apparel.
Ever since American Apparel announced its plans to fire Dov Charney, its controversy-magnet CEO, it's been tempting to link his fall with that of Terry Richardson, the photographer whose sexually explicit pics have been alleged, through a groundswell of models' testimonies, to be the outcome of varying levels of dodgy, exploitative, and non-consensual circumstances. And to be sure, there's something satisfying about watching the fall from grace of these two icons of sleaze (a title both men would likely embrace).
That goes double for women like me, who came of age in the '90s, and were confused to see many millenials' whole-hearted embrace of the Vice, Terry Richardson, and American Apparel ad aesthetic. Make no mistake: We are a liberated generation that has no problem with frank sexuality or transgressive art (just ask us how we feel about Tracey Emin). But, what all but a few prudish pearl-clutchers objected to was not these images' raw sexuality, but their unmistakable frisson of objectification, misogyny, and, in the case of Terry "hey ladies, ever fellate someone in a garbage can?" Richardson, unmistakable woman-hate. All of this was not new or boundary-pushing. This was business-as-usual, Hustler-brand sexism, dressed up in a circle skirt that we hated ourself for kind of wanting.
In the case of AA, the sexism was also dressed up in the conscience-cleansing rhetoric of garment workers' rights and made-in-America pride, with many ads citing pleasant factory conditions, living wages, and the brand's dedication to immigration rights. One typical ad blandly stated: "Made In USA Sweatshirts" along with photos of a topless woman in an open hoodie and knee socks, contorting herself on a tabletop. For American Apparel, crowing about its fair labor practices was a sleight of hand that both deflected the conversation about the ads' sexism, and obscured the fact that having a CEO purported to have sexual relationships with many of his female employees was also a labor problem. For women who were passionately involved in the anti-sweatshop movement of the '90s, American Apparel's stratospheric success was a deeply pyrrhic victory. This was an intersection-fail writ large, a runaway fair-labor success story that seemed to tell women that we were expected to choose between workers' rights, and our own.
But, here's the thing: Fair treatment of your garment workers shouldn't be the crowning achievement of your brand. That should just be table stakes. And, a new breed of brands like Reformation and Everlane prove that sustainability and labor transparency can, and should, be as integral to your brand as good design. Meanwhile, brands like Uniqlo and Ayr understand that you can sell quality, fashionable basics with a vertically integrated business model — without ads that look like Irene Cara's audition scene from Fame. With Charney out, and many companies and magazines vowing not to work with Richardson again, maybe public opinion is finally turning against the "sleaze sells" ethos that's dominated fashion for too long. After all, shopping for T-shirts (or, you know, gold lamé), or thumbing through a magazine shouldn't ever be an exercise in ignoring your better judgement.
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