A Young Feminist’s Perspective on Twenty Years of American Apparel Ads


American Apparel advertisements have been branded with that ambiguous scarlet letter “controversial” since the early 2000s. Are they edgy or exploitative? Are they misogynist or empowering? How have the ads evolved since Dov Charney got fired in 2014? Is “evolved” even the right word?

Former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney has a history of power abuse—one (actually, 5) too many sexual harassment lawsuits, degrading comments to employees, rumors of Charney holding an employee against her will as a “sex slave.” In the feminist circle, Dov Charney is spoken of as our “resident skeezy uncle.” Namely, calling hypersexualized images of young (often white) girls “edgy” to further Charney’s capitalist agenda is a feminist’s worst nightmare. Since Charney was fired from the company in 2014, the ads are supposedly “tamer.” Meaning, instead of skinny young girls in tiny underwear, we get skinny young girls in denim jackets and knit sweaters.

Charney’s mid-2000s ads—many of them shot by Charney himself—were unapologetically exploitative. Early photographs of mostly-naked models in bed are amateur porn-esque. They are perhaps intentionally slimy, like a nude circulated around a clique of teenage boys. The male gaze does not hide itself here: you get fragmented, dehumanized close-ups of tits, ass, and pussy. You get grainy, intimate shots, presenting the model in compromised, hypersexualized spaces. You get Dov Charney posing proudly in bed with an anonymous, barely-clothed young girl. All in the name of “clothing you love to wear.”

Have the post-Charney ads evolved to being less exploitative? Perhaps “evolved” isn’t the right word. AA’s got a brand new CEO, but the male gaze is still all over their images. Though more clothed, we still see very young, thin, predominantly white women posed to highlight cleavage and curves. Has AA’s exploitative practices withdrawn since Charney, or have they merely changed façades? Are the ads evolving with the feminist movement, or is the face of capitalist patriarchy simply putting on a new, more subdued mask? Has the cat caller on the sidewalk retreated to the bushes, so to speak? American Apparel ads since 2014 seem to be less of an evolution of political consciousness and more of a metamorphosis of the patriarchy’s sexual eye. Does one type of perversity rank over another?

Perhaps a more interesting question: if American Apparel feels the need to transform their image, are they sensing the fragility of sexually exploitative images in our current cultural climate? If (and perhaps when) Dov Charney returns to AA, will his choice aesthetic come too late, now that the 21st century is sweet sixteen and won’t take daddy’s shit anymore?

What exactly is a young radical feminist supposed to do with American Apparel ads? We’re not going to put women in cardboard boxes and tell them to hide their tits. There is a slippery line between desexualization and censorship, and to act conservatively in the exposure of the female form isn’t going to aid anyone’s liberation. On that same vein, casting American Apparel off to the side - labeling it chauvinistic and irredeemable - doesn’t seem like a productive conversation either. Perhaps American Apparel ads can be a generative tool to look at how we imagine women, sexuality, capital, and mass marketing in the 21st century. The ads offer room for questions—does it matter who is behind the camera, and why? Is the unapologetic display of a woman’s body empowering, or does it become something else when selling product gets involved? Perhaps the ads – with all their flaws attached – will allow us to refine our positions and perceptions, making us better, more nuanced feminists. So, without further adieu, for better or for worse, here are 20 American Apparel ads from the past twenty years:  

1995: 'Fresh Funk For Girls' - The Blossoming

1996: 'Who Is American Apparel' – A More Innocent Time

1997: 'January Classic' - The Girl Next Door Fantasy

1999: 'Dov's Panties' - The Creep Creeps

2000: 'T-shirt Cool" - Dov Makes An Appearance

2001: "Classic Girl" The First Black Model

2002: "Fuck The Brands That Are Fucking The People" Oh, The Irony

2003: "Carefree, Comfortable, Cotton" Take It All Off or Jerk Me Off Over The Phone

2004: "Aprés ski." Sex After An Afternoon on the Slopes

2005: 'Meet Lauren Phoenix' 160 pounds of magic. Actress. Director. Look Her Up On Google

2006: 'Hiking!' Down To Fuck On The Trail

2007: "Léa, a young comedienne...." Blue Is The Warmest Color

2008: Retail Locations "Licking Dov's Crotch" 

2009: "Flex Fleece" Advert Banned In The UK For Suggesting Underage Sexuality

2010: "Human Pyramid" Literally, Women Stacked on Top of Women

2011: "Happy Winter" American Apparel Enters A New Age

2012: 'Made In the USA' American Apparel Introduces A Model In Her 60s

2013: "Happy Holidays" Meet Samantha, American Apparel Saves Face

2014: "Operated By Dov Charney" In June of This Year, Dov is Sacked For Sexual Harassment and Fiscal Irregularities

2015: "Classic Girl" The School Girl's Tumescent Nipples, The Coquettish Smile, The Fantasy Continues

Recent news is that a judge has blocked Dov Charney's most recent attempts to gain control of the company he built with his own two hands a little over twenty years ago. Paula Schneider, a woman no less, has held on to the reins of the company and is planning an overhaul. Charney is currently brainstorming a way to start a new clothing company, which should be interesting to watch unfold.