American Apparel Trades Soft Core for Social Consciousness

Crotch shots are out at the Los Angeles–based company, which could put the focus back on its sweatshop-free commitment.

(Photo: Courtesy American Apparel)

Jun 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A decade ago, a friend working for a fashion brand asked if my then-two-year-old son could model for an advertisement for its children’s line.

The company was American Apparel. Today, it's well-known for its ads featuring images of barely legal–looking young women—often with a seemingly unnecessary emphasis on their crotches—and the multiple sexual harassment lawsuits models and employees have brought against its founder, Dov Charney. (Charney successfully defended himself against most of them).

I’d never heard of the company, but my friend told me how it paid a living wage to its employees. The garments weren’t made in nasty overseas sweatshops but in downtown Los Angeles, she said. These were policies I thought were worth supporting. But over the years, the company's marketing became even more sexualized, and my son grew up. One day, passing one of the American Apparel billboards that are ubiquitous in our Silver Lake, California, neighborhood, he turned to me and asked, “You let me model for that company?”

Now it appears “that company” wants to be best known for the people making the clothes, not the ones modeling them. Charney was ousted as CEO last year and replaced with fashion veteran Paula Schneider. On Monday, the company revealed to investors that it’s ditching its risqué billboards and print ads for more “positive,” “inclusive,” and “socially conscious” branding. The era of American Apparel ads so over-the-top in their objectification of women that some were banned in the U.K. seems to be coming to a close.

(Photo: Courtesy American Apparel)

The change comes on the heels of beefcake-peddling fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch’s April announcement that it would be eliminating sexualized advertising and would no longer feature shirtless models in its stores. Abercrombie’s sales have been tanking, as have American Apparel’s, which fell 11 percent, year to year, in March. Just as millennials are demanding healthier, less processed food, so it seems the generation is less interested in clothing marketed with a "sex sells" angle.

So, Why Should You Care? The cultural shift at American Apparel might reposition the company as a socially conscious leader in the fast fashion industry. The company’s “sweatshop-free” tagline is still legit—its garments are still produced in the U.S. instead of in minimally regulated, often dangerous conditions common in overseas facilities other fast fashion brands contract with. If it's successful, other companies might follow—ultimately improving working conditions for thousands.

(Photo: Courtesy American Apparel)

After the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500 others, retailers such as Walmart, Gap, and Sears banded together to create the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. But enforcement of the alliance’s standards has been criticized as inadequate. According to Fashion Revolution Day, an annual effort that commemorates the factory collapse and draws attention to the problem of unethically sourced clothing, 60 percent of brands don’t even know the circumstances under which their garments are manufactured.

RELATED: Provocative Labels Expose Sweatshop Horrors to Shoppers

According to the company’s website, American Apparel employs 10,000 workers worldwide, half of them in Los Angeles. At a time when a fair-market-rate two-bedroom apartment isn't affordable on a minimum-wage salary anywhere in America, the average American Apparel factory worker in Los Angeles earns $12 to $14 dollars per hour. That's “the highest pay worldwide for the manufacturing of apparel basics, and significantly more than California's minimum wage” of $9 per hour, according to the company's website.

These two aspects of American Apparel are all too easy to ignore while, as the company presentation put it, “nudity and blatant sexual innuendo” are front and center. The presentation, titled "Chaotic to Iconic," outlined plans to become “a financially sound, socially conscious, iconic brand that provides high quality American-made products to consumers while maximizing stakeholder value.”

How the rebranded American Apparel executes its updated mission remains to be seen. However, as the new ad above indicates, the company doesn’t seem to be meeting its mandate of being “racially universal” quite yet.