Thursday, July 07, 2005

So Very American

Well, I guess it's time for me to weigh in on the American Apparel question. Ezra's already given away the ending, but I came to my position via a different road.

I'd been passionately debating the merits of shopping at American Apparel the past few nights with a friend. My original cause for concern was a New York Times article detailing CEO Charney's strange exploitations, followed by a jaunt to the website to check out the so-called "natural" models. I agree with other's characterizations of the ads as low-fi basement porn. Some of the ads seemed to have such an overtly sexual overtone you'd think you'd accidentally gotten a peek of a pre "Girls Gone Wild!" de-shirting.

Ads aside, I found Charney's behavior abhorrent, and labor issues aside, AA seemed up to no good.

But a new store just opened down the street, and despite my protests that AA was unacceptable, a sort of morbid curiosity swept over me (the kind where you know you're not supposed to do something, so then you have to do it), I grabbed Ezra and stomped down the block to check it out. The store was totally different from its demonic reputation, and that fact was more than enough to sway my formerly cemented views.

When you look through the photo albums on the web, they are enormous, gritty, and in quick succession. Not so when you enter the store, bombarded by a juicy color palette comprised of twenty or so different shirt/dress/pant styles. Compared to the bright, cheery style of the clothing, the pictures are hardly noticeable. In fact, most are displayed in small montages that, due to their dark aesthetic, blend in to the background.

Second, the clothes, especially the t-shirts, are really modest. Charney's clearly not trying to outfit a subset of club-hopping girls with their newest backless top (unlike other trendy stores-- can we say Bebe?). And the best part -- the montage in the dressing room featured a pale, frizzy haired, pudgy girl. There were articles about the company on the wall by the dressing rooms, including the critical NYT piece I'd mentioned.

As for Charney, I'm still a bit torn, but have a few responses. First, I've no doubt, especially at fashion companies like AA, there's a fair amount of sleeping with the boss and sexual harassment. Further, I think we're all forgetting the agency of the women working at the office here, in that they, especially at this point, have some knowledge of the work atmosphere. A career in the office at AA is not by any means the end all be all, and I think it might be attracting some women who might have some comfort, or at least indifference, to the office practices (see Amanda's comment thread.) That said, I hope that the exposure of these practices could lead to some good, like a call for an end to the sleazy behavior, or at least educate the women working there/applying there about the company culture, so they can choose for themselves if they want to participate. Ideally we're talking lawsuits, because frankly, the behavior is illegal, and I do hope it ends.

But boiled down, my simple view is this: American Apparel is no different from any other mainstream/trendy fashion establishment except in one facet: its labor policies. If it can set a standard of profitability through living wages, super affordable healthcare, and other generous benefits, that puts it a head above the rest. Really, what are my other shopping options? Super cheap Target clothes which were no doubt produced in a sweatshop, super revealing clothes with sexual ads and sweatshop production, or sexual ads, modest clothes, and living wages?

I think I'll choose door number 3.

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