When the news of American Apparel’s demise appeared last week, it felt surprisingly personal. The brand pioneered sweatshop-free production and redefined fashionable basics, but above all, American Apparel shaped the way my generation looked at clothes, sex and the body – for better or worse. And for me personally, American Apparel’s controversial ads became a way of finally coming to terms with the way I looked.
In 2009 I was 20 years old, and I hated my body. I went through high school as an overweight, geeky teenager, and after entering adulthood I was still struggling with eating disorders and body dysphoria. I grew up in Russia, which didn’t help; almost every single woman I knew was obsessed with dieting. I was getting my BA in journalism, and had begun to write about fashion. I clearly didn’t fit in a crowd of thin long-haired girls with perfect skin who worked in the industry – I was curvy, wore DMs and copied my hairstyle from Alice Dellal (and I mostly felt horrible about myself). I couldn’t bear looking at my thighs, and it seemed like a log possessed more sexual appeal than I did. Then one day, going through a stack of fashion magazines, I came across an American Apparel ad – and it changed something for me forever.
Most of the heavily-photoshopped fashion imagery I had seen before was about the ideal skinny model body. There was no room for flaws. The world of these images was a perfect one, one it seemed ordinary mortal women like me couldn’t belong to no matter how hard we tried. American Apparel’s imagery was different: the photos looked as if they could have been taken with a cheap compact camera, and the women had what looked like actual bodies rather than digitally manipulated ones. There were folds in their skin, they didn’t wear much make-up, they had breasts, bums and thighs, they had stretch marks, tan lines and body hair. They were human, beautiful and desirable. Suddenly, it was a little easier to look in the mirror.
Today, the notorious back-catalogue of American Apparel ads doesn’t look so good – the company’s founder and former CEO Dov Charney’s alleged sexual harassment of models and employees paint it in rather unpleasant colours, especially considering how prominently he features in the images himself. Of course, Charney had a ‘type’ – the girls weren’t hugely diverse in terms of body size, were mostly lighter-skinned, and were all objectively attractive au naturel (retail employees were also subject to rules on appearance, and were regularly photographed to make sure they fit the mould). It was the definition of ‘sex sells’ – and as I look back at myself aged 20, I find it sad that I needed the objectifying male gaze to finally accept myself the way I was. But then, there was hardly an alternative.
“As I look back at myself, I find it sad that I needed the objectifying male gaze to finally accept myself the way I was. But then, there was hardly an alternative”
If you could fit in their clothes, there was a certain freedom about American Apparel. You could feel it in their garments – bras with no underwire and t-shirts only made in one size which would fit whoever puts them on, regardless gender. They flattered your body and made you feel good. This freedom also came through in their imagery: they radiated active female desire, they portrayed proud porn performers with no shame or judgement. These photographs are still controversial, but they taught me not to ever be ashamed of my body or my desires.
Throughout its 20-year history, American Apparel had good moments and bad. It did have a CEO who embodied the worst clichés of a creepy power-abusing businessman, and it did promote the objectifying male gaze. But the company also championed LGBT rights, kicked conservative puritanism and was a beacon of progressive labour standards. It contributed to the shift in the way fashion treats the body – and particularly the female body. A few years will pass before the mainstream catches up (Victoria’s Secret is here to stay) but these days we have independent, female-run brands like Baserange, Marieyat and Lonely, which promote realistic and diverse images of the female body without the unnecessary sexualisation. Today, American Apparel’s advertising might seem hopelessly outdated, but it burned a trail for a more progressive way of looking at the body and sexuality.
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