Is this the End of American Apparel’s Controversial Ads?

Clothing brand American Apparel is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, its risqué ads—from in-your-face billboards to shocking online campaigns—have incited everything from mild discomfort to serious complaints. And it’s no wonder why: For years, the American Apparel image has been inextricably intertwined with the exploitation of women’s bodies.

Not only are AA’s models often scantily clad, many look underage and vulnerable. Comedian Amy Schumer summed up the aesthetic pretty succinctly when she said, “Every shot of them, it looks like a shot of the last time they were ever seen. ‘Help.’ It looks like they are waiting for Liam Neeson in the bottom of a closet. It’s like hostage lighting.”

AA’s controversial ads first launched under the direction of company founder and ex-CEO Dov Charney. Known for walking around in his underwear in front of employees and appearing in company ads in sexualized poses, Charney, who arguably shaped today’s hipster aesthetic, began to fall from grace in 2014 as lawsuits and complaints of workplace sexual misconduct piled up. That year, amid the controversy, the AA board voted to remove Charney.

Even more information exposing his behavior came to light recently: As part of a lawsuit Charney himself has brought against American Apparel, his former company released a slew of emails and texts that Charney allegedly sent to female employees. The messages include graphic sexual remarks inappropriate for any workplace. In an effort to separate Charney’s sordid antics from the company’s image, AA moved swiftly to make changes.

The corporation hired a new CEO, Paula Schneider, who took over January 5. Then, AA announced a plan to create a new marketing campaign designed to combat its sleazy reputation. In June, a slideshow outlining the company’s rebranding strategy was released. Centered in the discussion is the company’s plan to move away from “nudity and blatant sexual innuendo” in favor of “confident and naturally beautiful” models as well as an added emphasis on “racially universal” models of all ages.

Following that announcement, the company released an open call for new models in which women and men of “all ages, all sizes, all styles”—including models under 18, as long as they are accompanied by an adult—were welcomed. On July 5, the authors of this article attended an open casting at AA’s Los Angeles factory store in order to see if the cattle call had been successful in reaching a diverse group of models.

To prepare, we took cues from AA’s infamous employee dress code. We figured if “no uglies” are welcome in the storefronts, we shouldn’t take any chances at the casting call, so we donned our best stretchy basics and geared up for a day of judgment. 

We scoped out the more than 100 hopefuls while waiting in the humid factory cafeteria to see if American Apparel could possibly shirk its reputation and recruit the types of models it claims to be looking for. There were significantly more women and girls than men and boys, and everyone looked under 30. Occasionally, there were parents with kids so young it was hard to tell who was auditioning (in all the cases we saw, it ended up being the child—one girl in line ahead of us was 14.) At no point did either of us ever have our I.D.s checked, nor did the 14-year-old girl get checked for a “legal guardian,” although there was an adult hovering near her.

The casting call we attended was racially diverse. Based on our observations, a majority of the model hopefuls were people of color, although a significant number still fell into the typical AA body type that has been represented for the past decade (read: white, thin). (Full disclosure, both of us fall into the latter group.)

All in all, our audition experience was relatively uneventful. However, previous open calls have come with their fair share of scandal. Just this past March, a leaked email regarding a casting call in Los Angeles demanded only “Real models. Not Instagram hoes or THOTs [That Hoe Over There].” Eventually, the third-party modeling agency that sent the email took the blame, but said that the content of the message was based on American Apparel’s new model standards. An American Apparel employee supported the claim, stating that AA’s senior vice president of marketing, Cynthia Erland, prefers white models over 5 feet 7 inches.

Black employees have spoken up about the racism they’ve faced in their stores, and one look at American Apparel ads shows the lack of diversity in the company’s campaigns. The team behind the new campaign clearly recognized that fault and addressed it in their rebranding slideshow by discussing their target audience—”millennials”—but the photo they chose, of all-white models, completely misses the mark [emphasis ours]:


Based on what we saw at the casting call, American Apparel absolutely has the opportunity to rectify its past mistakes: The company has a diverse pool of models to pick from, and can choose to style and photograph them in a way that is “confident and naturally beautiful” without relying on blatant nudity and sexually inappropriate poses. Furthermore, the company is right in assuming that its “millennial” target market “value[s] social issues”—such as not objectifying women to sell a product.

Of course, if it’s really that hard for AA to shed its models-minus-clothing look, we’re in full support of the brand’s recent, unconventional ad campaign.

Photo from American Apparel’s Instagram

About and

Emma Niles is a recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz and an editorial intern at Ms. Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalorinda.
Kat Kucera is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Women’s and Gender Studies and Comparative Literature. She is currently a Ms. editorial intern based in Los Angeles.