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An American Dilemma
Oregon Daily Emerald
Susan Goodwin
January 18, 2006

The recent arrival of a clothing store on East 13th Street that sells a brand with no logo from a corporation with rather un-corporate business practices is the latest example of a growing trend in American pop culture: conflicting values.

One of American Apparel's main selling points is its progressive business practices. Based entirely in one Los Angeles warehouse, American Apparel is made by American workers who are paid between $12 and $15 an hour, who receive health care benefits including on-site massages and subsidized lunches, and are offered English classes if they do not speak English.

About two years ago, a labor union tried to organize the workers, but the workers refused.

"I think that many of our workers came from such bad conditions and have had negative experiences with unions, that it didn't appeal to them," said American Apparel spokeswoman Alexandra Spunt.

"It was a very strange and disillusioning experience for me to see how corrupt the union was in its tactics," Spunt said.

As part of its vertically integrated manufacturing plan, American Apparel handles its own advertising. All of the models are actual American Apparel employees and none of the photos are retouched or airbrushed.

"Our business practices are out-of-the-box and have forged a new path in business manufacturing," said Cynthia Semon, media relations director at American Apparel. "Same with our advertising."

But American Apparel's progressive business practices — non-sweatshop labor and an organic cotton line promoting sustainable farming methods — are overshadowed by its advertising campaign, which often features scantily clad models in provocative poses that display little of the clothing supposedly being advertised, critics say.

When you buy American Apparel, you send the message to the fashion industry that consumers want and are willing to pay for clothing that is made in an ethical and sustainable manner.

But you also accept the hyper-sexualization of women (and to a lesser, but growing extent, men) whose provocative appeal is the main selling point.

American Apparel is aware of the seeming contradiction between its progressive business practices and controversial advertising.

"The criticism of our ads has more to do with their rawness and the intimacy of the pictures," Spunt said. "At the end of the day we sell T-shirts and panties that have a sexier look. We're not using sexy images to sell unrelated products.

"We're trying to put out an image that the people who buy our clothes can relate to," she said. "And we're also trying to expand the idea of what beauty is. ... On occasion we've recognized that we may have made a wrong choice. That's what happens when you experiment."

So should you buy American Apparel?

Before deciding, you should check out and watch the slide shows of various American Apparel workers who also model its clothing — many photos are close-ups of their butts, boobs and groins — and decide for yourself what you think is being advertised: clothing or nakedness.

You should also read about the company's vertically integrated manufacturing plan, which proves to the fashion and business worlds how using American labor can be profitable and ethical.

If you have time, watch the ABC "20/20" interview with American Apparel founder Dov Charney in which he explains his workplace philosophy of freedom, why consensual relationships between employees are allowed and his technique for designing underwear: taking off his pants and walking around his office. Charney also answers questions about the three sexual harassment lawsuits filed by former female employees.

As art director at the store on East 13th Street, University student Brian Wiley, 24, handles the store's advertising design. He chooses the photos on the walls.

"All the ads in the store, with the exception of the art exhibits, are untouched," Wiley said. "They don't correct anything, whether it's a zit on a girl's ass or a shiny forehead. I think it's progressive that we don't do that at all.

"I think what shocks people more so is the intimacy of the pictures," he said. "It looks like something that was done at home with your girlfriend perhaps.

"When you see polished images all the time and then you finally see something that is real, it's out of the ordinary," Wiley said.
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