I am face to face (or rather, face to groin) with Sofia’s crotch, featuring blue micro-poly short shorts and a S&Z Jersey zip-up hoodie. Now, crotch, breasts and all, she’s lying on her bed and enjoying a stretch in a green nylon bandeau top and yellow micro-poly shorts. At a restaurant table, while wearing a gray “baby thermal,” she sticks her tongue out and raises her eyebrows with her fingers.
I envy her. Sitting there on my americalapparel.com computer window, Sofia looks so comfortable.
But for people who are anti-American Apparel, or anti- the anti-brand and anti-sweatshop company, the model’s poses convey nothing but sexual exploitation, pornography and impropriety. By poo-pooing the revealing and sometimes self-posed photo advertisements, however, left-wing advocates who once sided with the sustainable L.A.-based business miss the point. American Apparel isn’t breaking the fashion corporation mold by photographing Sofia’s crotch; it’s breaking the mold because it’s not trying to sell fantasies of luxury or sex. Instead, it’s just selling basic T-shirts and underwear, advertising relaxation and lounging — all the good stuff that comes with being almost naked.
Founded in 1997, American Apparel showcases its products — which range from socks to underwear to clothing — with models who are often nonprofessional or even American Apparel shop employees. The online photo series develop in non-constructed settings — a house, a garden, stairs, a town and many of the galleries on the website skip models altogether, portraying cities and landscapes as well as the internal workings of the American Apparel garment shop.
As for the model shots, pundits are often quick to link them to stories about American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, who has gained notoriety as a corporate playboy of sorts, admitting to sleeping with models and employees and masturbating in front of a JANE magazine writer. Though many of the lawsuits against Charney alleging sexual harassment have been dismissed by judges, employees now must sign a statement that reads: “American Apparel is in the business of designing and manufacturing sexually charged T-shirts and intimate apparel, and uses sexually charged visual and oral communications in its marketing and sales activity.”
Sexually charged T-shirts and underwear? Please. Find me a T-shirt that is sexually charged without a body inside it, or underwear that isn’t.
But the latter part of the statement has a point. Looking at the photos, I can see how some would say they speak to a male eye. But the photos and its models are also true to life, and to call them chauvinist or pornographic ignores the fact that they contain as much sexuality as you could extract just from living with girls who are not afraid to sit comfortably on couches with — dare I say — spread legs.
The girls aren’t sculpted and dressed to satisfy a male onlooker, as they are in every single Victoria’s Secret advertisement, nor are they stylized to be high-end fashion. These girls were probably shot in their homes, in hallways with doors and windows in plain sight. They didn’t have to try hard to pose — they’re lying comfortably in beds, maybe playing dress-up with sunglasses or playfully hiding behind curtains.
Or they’re lying in the back of a car and just hanging out. I can’t even recall the number of times I’ve seen my friends, both male and female, sprawled out on a couch, the ground, the backseat of a car; people tend to take advantage of their flexibility, especially given California heat. The camera angles may be deliberately varied in order to bring different parts into focus — legs, breasts, faces, arms, knees — but they definitely do not privilege a male gaze. They’re natural angles capturing the fact that humans often don’t meet each other at full-frontal angles, regardless of gender and relationship.
True, it’s not just the online albums but printed ads that have truly drawn the ire of feminists and conservatives alike, ads which have focused solely on body parts, Dov Charney’s exposed penis or expressions of ecstasy. But in the context of MTV reality shows’ descent into soft core and this generation’s tendency to bare almost all on MySpace, the images hardly come as a surprise. Nor do they come off as demeaning; all they really spell out is poor marketing in the larger media landscape.
My advice to American Apparel? Cut down on the uninteresting close-ups, and create more photo features of males, in order to bring balance to the photos and broaden the subject matter. In the meantime, if some photos are partial to the buttocks or feet, let it be, because when it comes to perceiving the physical world, human eyes don’t automatically zoom out.