American Apparel. Poverty Porn.


American Apparel, purveyor of shiny pants and bodysuits (that as a friend of mine complains “always end in a sneaky g-string”) has once again courted controversy with their latest ad campaign.

The full page ad that will appear in UK and US editions of Vice features Maks, a rather stunning Bangladeshi-American lass who has worked for the company since 2010, with the words “Made in Bangladesh” splashed in Helvetica (of course) across her naked (of course) chest.

What with the toplessness, the allusions to ethical concerns about Bangladeshi garment industry and the mention of Mak’s abandonment of her Islamic faith, American Apparel are obviously out to shock. And as a feminist who is heavily engaged with the social and environmental impact of fast fashion, I’m torn – is the sexual and cultural exploitation occurring in this ad excusable if it’s for a good cause? Does it bring to light the plight of the Bangladeshi garment worker, or does it exploit them to sell high-waisted jeans and over-priced tees?

The campaign plays to one of American Apparel’s unique selling propositions – they are sweat-shop free, with all of their clothes being manufactured in their own factory in Southern California. It’s an admirable fact, and one that has the company putting a focus on the environmental and social impact of clothing production – the decidedly unglamourous side to fashion that most retailers ardently avoid.

But, not content with celebrating the fact that they employ over 5000 people in their local factories (the largest sewing facility in North America, according to the company), the company goes after already marginalised Bangladeshi garment workers. The very first point they proudly make in the ‘About Us’ section of their website is “Our Garment Workers Are Paid Up to 50 Times More Than The Competition.” Well bully for you, American Apparel employees! You earn more than your “competitors” in Bangladesh – that’s definitely something to shout about. The Bangladeshi garment worker’s minimum wage, by the way, is 5,300 takas (that’s about $75 AUD) a month, which, as insubstantial as it is, still represents a 77% increase  following the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza which led to 1227 deaths. The ‘Made in Bangladesh’ campaign pushes this point as well. The final sentence of the ad (the first time the actual clothes are mentioned) describes the jeans as “a garment manufactured by 23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.” Obviously it is commendable that American Apparel pays their employees fairly, but directly attacking the Bangladesh garment industry as a whole is an unhelpful simplification of a complex situation.

In response to the criticism of the campaign, American Apparel’s creative director Iris Alonzo said, “It is important for consumers to think about the people that we don’t see when looking at fashion photography.” But I struggle to see how this image supports this sentiment – rather, this antagonistic approach silences the workers themselves, a predominantly female 3.6 million strong industry that is integral to the economic development of Bangladesh.  It is incomprehensible to me why American Apparel would choose to pick on the workers, rather than the western fashion brands and retailers that are squeezing these developing nations for every dollar in an attempt to increase margins. The answer is not to stop manufacturing in Bangladesh – a boycott would cripple the economy and lead to mass unemployment – but to raise the standards of working conditions and provide workers with a living, not minimum, wage.

There is no denying that American Apparel are a more ethically and socially responsible option than many fast fashion retailers with murky supply chains, and that they should be able to market themselves as such. But this ad works goes further, fetishising race and cultural difference to sell product.

The beautiful, half-naked Maks in her undone blue jeans is the kind of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ that suits American Apparel – sexy, exotic, confident and Westernised. She is a version of multiculturalism that they can get on board with, but hardly represents the majority of women in her native country. As Tanwi Nandidn Islam wrote of the ad while on a trip to Bangladesh, “it’s unthinkable here for a woman to be topless in a billboard ad—there just isn’t that level of risqué—yet. By sexualizing a phrase reserved for labelling clothes, we see exploitation at its most provocative.”

It is also an odd choice for the fashion brand to focus on Mak’s relationship to Islam. The first few paragraphs of the ad’s text read like her personal religious history, the outcome being that she “ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions.” This could just be part of the marketing strategy to, as Alonzo says, “tell a bit of their story in the ad” in order to connect with consumers, or it could be a strategy to stir more controversy. Either way, it’s no accident that a brand that so strongly aligns itself with Americanness chose a model who had “distanced herself” from Islam and seems to narrow even more the company’s view of diversity.

American Apparel’s intentions are not evil – as Alonzo has said their advertisements aim to “celebrate women, diversity, healthy body image and female empowerment.”  But this advertisement does not meaningfully represent Bangladeshi or American women. Through the model’s topless form, we see yet another example of American Apparel exploiting a women’s body to stir publicity and sell clothes.  They are not celebrating the naked female body for the sake of art or creative freedom, they are commodifying female sexuality to sell jeans.  The brand may have noble goals of female empowerment and diversity, but this seemingly only extends to young (with one notable exception), sexy women who look great with no pants on.  So while it’s not surprising that the brand has come out with yet another campaign that so pointedly objectifies women, it is worsened by their attempt to layer it with an ill-considered message about responsible manufacturing. By going after Bangladeshi workers, American Apparel attacks the symptom of the problem rather than the cause, proving that while their manufacturing philosophy may be ethically sound, their marketing strategy leaves a lot to be desired.

This article originally appeared on the Ideas at the House blog here and then a version appeared on Daily Life here.



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