Safe to Say…

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Montreal has eight American Apparel locations, more than any other city but New York and LA, but our streets are devoid of the company’s notorious advertisements, except for those on the stores’ façades themselves. (The back pages of our weekly newspapers, however, are another story.)

In New York, though, American Apparel has made a mark with frequently-changing billboards that feature the kinds of ads that have made it so infamous: young-looking hipsters, clad to various degrees in the company’s clothes, shot in unflattering light and in a variety of pseudo-pornographic poses. (If you still haven’t seen any of the ads, American Apparel has some of the tamer ones on its website, along with photo galleries of its models.)

Lately, there has been a sort of backlash against American Apparel. Earlier this year, a series of ads at the corner of Allen and Houston, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, raised the ire of some nearby residents. The first, described by one blog as a “leotard-and-knee high socks beaver shot,” came in the early spring. Then, over the summer, it was replaced by a new billboard advertising tights, its topless model visible only from behind, bum thrust outwards. By the end of October, it had been defaced with neon green paint and the inscription: “Gee, I wonder why women get raped?” Shortly thereafter, in early November, a paste-up appeared on a SoHo street lampooning a 2005 American Apparel tube sock ad.

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I can’t help but find myself amused by the consternation over American Apparel’s advertising. For the most part, it is no more revealing or exploitative than most other fashion ads; the difference is that American Apparel’s provocation is cheeky and only half-serious. It takes typical fashion advertising and strips it of all pretence and glamour, reducing it to its bare sex-driven essence. American Apparel’s ads are vulgar, and they’re certainly brash, but at least they’re honest in their intentions. They don’t dance around the fact that they are using tits and ass (and other things, too) to sell fabric. At least its models are human-looking, unlike the hairless androids often featured by other companies.

American Apparel’s other, non-sexploitative marketing efforts suggests that the company has a pretty good sense of humour, too. In May, at the corner of Houston and Allen, it took a break from crotch shot billboards to run an ad featuring Woody Allen, from a scene in his 1977 film Annie Hall, dressed as a Hasid. It was accompanied by the Yiddish phrase der heyliker rebe, “the holy rabbi.” When asked about the ad, which only lasted for a few days, American Apparel’s representatives would only say that they view Woody Allen as their “spiritual leader.”

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On American Apparel’s website, the company declares its devotion to “people, places and things that surround us” with photos of everyday streetlife in Hong Kong, signs in Montreal and mid-century architecture like Habitat ’67. (Sound familiar?) This is a company with a heightened awareness of kitsch, and a passion for kitsch is what is driving a large part of our current urban culture. That might explain why, even though many people seem repulsed by American Apparel, even more are attracted to it.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 20 2007at 11:12 pm , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to “Safe to Say…”

  • Semi-relevant background: Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, was born in Montreal. His mother, artist Sylvia Safdie, is Moshe Safdie’s sister, probably accounting for the interest in Habitat 67.

  • Definitely. I didn’t want to mention Dov Charney because any discussion of him would require at least another post unto itself.

    There a lot of Montreal influence at American Apparel. Not only do they have a lot of stuff on their website, it features in some of their advertisements. One of consisted of several photos taken inside a Hasidic clothing store in Outremont or Mile End.

  • Jimmy Zoubris says:

    Glad to see you mentioned the Montreal Influence. I also think they own the back page of the Mirror magazine.
    I believe they also advertise that all their clothes are made in North America. Nothing is made overseas or imported.

  • Maria Gatti says:

    I’m very disappointed that you are practically excusing Dov Cherney’s gross sexism, echoed by the disgusting way he treats his own female employees. This from a company that claims to have ethical business practices.

    It makes me very sad, as in general your comments on urbanism and social issues are very progressive. I really don’t want to slag men as defending their own privilege, but here there is a huge disconnect with most of your posts and comments.

  • I guess you can say that I’m making excuses for American Apparel’s advertising, but don’t think that what I said has anything to do with Dov Charney himself. The way he treats women in his company is another issue entirely.

    American Apparel’s advertising is certainly sexist, but that isn’t any different from most fashion advertising — it’s just that its depiction of women is one that reaches people on a more visceral level than the glossier fashion ads that everyone has apparently gotten used to.

    Maybe I’m just digging myself into an even deeper hole, but let me put it this way: at least American Apparel is aware of its own sexism. It’s very self-conscious in the way it evokes cheap porn, 1970s pop culture and everything else like that. Companies like Guess, Abercrombie & Fitch and Calvin Klein, all of which have advertising campaigns even more prominent than American Apparel, are far more disturbing to me because they seem completely oblivious to the inherent sexism of their message.

    Don’t get me wrong; I think the whole game is sleazy. I just don’t think that American Apparel is worse than most. In terms of its public advertising, and more specifically the billboards in New York, I think that it’s less offensive, and sometimes more imaginative, than advertising from other companies.

  • A further debate on American Apparel ads is needed. We recorded a podcast about the supposed sexist nature of the ads. Tune in.

    http://scribblesheet.co.uk/debates/?p=7

  • charlotte says:

    Woody Allen is suing for $10 mil for being used as an American Apparel model w/out his permission.

    http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/107833.html

  • […] Canadian site, Urbanphoto, has an outsider’s cooler view, analysing the ad accurately as kitsch, in effect transcending the adversarial/collaborative dichotomy: On American Apparel’s website, […]