I've been looking at American Apparel's advertisements for years now, and I'm still not sure what I think about them.
My feelings are another story. I loathe them -- and not just because the super-hip, low-fi, can't-be-bothered-to-look-professional-because-that's-so-uncool aesthetic is emblematic of everything that's irritating about a certain segment of contemporary urban youth culture. I loathe them because I believe they're meant to evoke pornography, sometimes even child pornography. The fact that a) this cannot be proved, and b) you can't say it without sounding like a prudish old biddy, drives me crazy.
Those are the tamer ads. From store window displays to billboards to print advertisements (mostly in alternative weekly newspapers), we can see the company logo and young women in men's-style briefs lying on their stomachs, young women in bathing suits with their legs spread, and young women whose torsos are covered only by their knees, which in turn are covered by 1970s style, knee-length tube socks.
Those tube socks are one of the details that give off a decidedly childlike aura. Though the models are an ethnically diverse bunch, there appears to be a slight emphasis on Asian and Latino women (it turns out many of the models are employed in American Apparel's factory or retail stores). And although none of this absolutely adds up to child pornography, there's something about the grimy, sweaty quality of many of the shots, the fleabag motel room backgrounds, and the models' startled, faux innocent expressions that make it all look less than legal.
I'm not the first to make this kind of observation, and American Apparel, wisely, has long maintained a "but it's art" defense. The grainy realism set against the slick polish of most ads means the art defense is not without merit. To help it along, many of the stores exhibit the work of local photographers, and American Apparel's website has a gallery section that displays not images from the ads and the work of amateur photographers documenting their neighborhoods (think snapshots of bowling alleys, not armpits).
It must also be said that American Apparel's wares are really made in America, in a single factory in downtown L.A., where workers are paid an average of $12.50 an hour and offered subsidized meals, healthcare and free ESL lessons. Dov Charney, the company's 38-year-old founder and chief executive, has been praised by immigrant rights groups for his anti-sweatshop stance and by the business community for his astonishing rise to success (he started in 2003 with one store).
On the other hand, Charney has also been sued by four employees for sexual harassment, is known for holding meetings in his underwear (a video of which used to appear on American Apparel's website) and notoriously masturbated in front of a magazine reporter who was writing a profile of the company. He also takes many of the photos that appear in the ads, selecting models from among his employees as well as people he sees on the street (they are reportedly paid a small fee).
Oh, and sometimes he picks himself as model. A pale, resolutely non-buff manboy with a highly cultivated seedy disco-era look (he regularly sports a handlebar mustache and metal-framed aviator glasses), Charney has put himself on nearly full display in a number of ads, at least one of which shows him in bed with apparently naked, much-younger women who look disheveled and adoring.
It's icky for sure, but is it wrong? Like Charney himself, American Apparel's ads are simultaneously defensible and indefensible. That's what makes them manipulative, especially to the progressive-minded person. No matter how vigorously she might defend free speech or hold forth about the transgressive appeal of billboard art, something about these ads puts her in the uncomfortable position of knowing just what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart meant when he said hard-core pornography was hard to define "but I know it when I see it." And if there's anything a progressive-minded person can't stand, it's having anything in common with a Republican judge.
Is it the disarming "naturalness" of the models that makes us "know" we're seeing something shady? Is it possible that even the most sophisticated of us can no longer stomach a model who isn't sculpted and waxed into improbable perfection? Or does our readiness to associate amateur-looking shots of barely dressed young people with child pornography suggest we're the perverts?
It's this sort of head-spinning, unwinnable argument that American Apparel wants us to have with ourselves. It's an argument I was almost willing to concede until I saw two new photographs that went up over the store at Sunset and Alvarado. They depict a man in his 60s or 70s with sunglasses and a Rosacea-tinged face. His gaze, both solicitous and oddly indifferent, points generally toward images of two very young looking, scantily dressed and provocatively posed girls. In my mind, there's no doubt what each represent: a paying customer and sex-industry workers.
When I called American Apparel to ask who the man was, a spokesman told me that no one knew, that the photo came from a stock collection, and that the design team just thought it looked cool.
So I guess that does make me a pervert. And just when I'd gotten used to being a prudish, old biddy.