A Polaroid of a dead-eyed young woman in undies and tube socks on a dirty tousled bed isn't usually an emblem of social justice. The peace dove doesn't get photographed like that.
Yet for nearly a decade, American Apparel has merged such DIY-porn images in its ads with an anti-sweatshop, corporate-responsibility ethos. Luckily for those whose exploding heads cannot contain this much contradiction, American Apparel may be dying.
The retailer, which runs the biggest garment factory in the U.S. and has 285 stores in 20 countries, saw its debt load escalate to $120.3-million earlier this year. Sales are declining and the company was granted an extension until November 15 to file financial results and avoid being delisted by the New York Stock Exchange.
But even if American Apparel climbs back from the financial brink, it's already a cultural corpse. Over the past decade, the brand's ethical credentials receded as its aesthetic fell in step with the ickiest trends of the new millennium: a spandex-lined gutter for slumming à la Girls Gone Wild, Britney Spears and reality TV hot-tub parties. As comedian Amy Poehler, talking about American Apparel ads, told Bust magazine: "Look, I love beautiful girls, too. I think everyone should be free to have their knee socks and their sweaty shorts, but I'm over it. … I'm over the girl that's tired and freezing and hungry." Maybe we all are.
In the late 1990s, a young Montrealer named Dov Charney began selling T-shirts out of his dorm room at Tufts University. A Malcolm Gladwell essay in The New Yorker in 2000 painted Charney as a T-shirt Da Vinci, obsessing over looms and torque, perfecting his fine cotton baby rib Ts. The T-shirt-maker-as-auteur depiction clicked with the moment of No Logo, Real Simple and slow food. Charney's plain, un-branded Ts bore a "Made in Downtown LA" label and the public was invited to tour the factory and watch legal workers enjoy fair pay and health plans.
Maggie Matear, a Queen's University PhD candidate specializing in marketing, has spent the last few years researching American Apparel, conducting lengthy interviews with shoppers. "American Apparel made shopping seem mindful," she says. "There are four signals a company gives off to prove its authenticity: simplicity, transparency, credibility and a disinterestedness in the corporate bottom line. That's what Charney said in the early days: We're not in it just for profit."
But even as he was championing immigration reform, four former employees filed sexual harassment suits against Charney. He reportedly enjoyed walking around the office pants-free and often referred to women as "sluts" and "whores." During a 2004 interview with Jane magazine, he repeatedly masturbated in front of the writer. (He claimed he was masturbating off the record.)
Somehow Charney's sleaziness, so in tune with the times, proved an asset, building up the brand. American Apparel was no longer the stomping grounds of righteous granolas but the creation of some Larry Flynt-like madman pimping unflattering disco pants and zippered bathing suits.
As American Apparel shifted from a small, anti-brand brand to a massive chain, the ads went from naturalistic and serif-free to rumpled and spread-eagled. The women looked as if Charney, who usually took the pictures, just happened to stumble upon them in basements before the roofies had worn off. This image coincided with the rise of celebrity magazines and online stalking sites; at any point in the mid 2000s, it was easy to confuse an American Apparel ad with a paparazzi photo of a trashed Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, those "icons of female ruin," as author and journalist Katha Pollitt called them.
While non-celebrities scrambled to similarly degrade themselves on reality TV, Charney was claiming to eschew models for "real people" - employees, friends and porn stars. The company exuded insider-ness, affecting a little community of likeminded T-shirt wearers who choose to be naked in front of the boss. This seemed right in tune with the messy feminism of the past decade, where freedom means being as skanky as you want, ladies - I mean, sluts. But where was the power that was meant to accompany this relentless sexualization? The Lindsays and AA models were weak and exhausted, devoid of pleasure.
These days, Lindsay Lohan can't get hired and Britney Spears looked sober on Glee. Even the American Apparel shopper is growing up, according to Charney, now 41, who recently declared hipsterdom over and said: "Kids are moving away from piercings." In this still-fragile economy, lace cat suits don't help at a job interview.
Charney is taking the company preppy. I visited my local American Apparel the other day: two floors with no other shoppers and a lot of striped button-downs and khaki pants. At the front counter were some arty porn magazines. It felt old. I scanned a few crotch-happy ads and thought about how laying claim to ethics in one area and trampling them in another erases that first moral gesture.
On the wall, the diamond stretch lace bodysuits rested on limbless mannequins. I was happy to leave.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that American Apparel has stores in 200 countries. They have stores in 20 countries. This online version has been corrected.