Don't Be a Victim: The Sheer, Shiny, Sequined Consumer Distraction Method
Last Wednesday morning the man who hands out the free newspaper by my subway station delivered some bad news.
"No trains," he said as I grabbed the paper.
Apparently there was a major thunderstorm in the wee hours, which failed to disturb my inebriated sleep. I shuffled towards a crowded bus stop, my skin covered in a film composed of the balmy residue of the air outside and the alcohol seeping out of every single pore on my body. I anticipated the chaos that would ensue, the buses packed with pissed off bankers and exhausted-looking labor workers, the air a-flutter with complaints mumbled (or yelled) into cell phones, the smell of human sweat and coffee. In a word: misery.
And then it got worse.
On the cover of said morning periodical was a picture of a woman holding open a vest to reveal a pair of perfect breasts obscured by that oh-so-familiar black censorship line. A delicate Star of David necklace dipped just below her collarbone. The accompanying article was about a local American Apparel store down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that had recently installed a video billboard of the woman undressing in its window. This video, some say, is essentially stripping, albeit a blas?©, hipster version, and they want it gone. Others, like the store manager, refuse to call it pornography.
"It's art," numerous people state in their testimonials.
(Side note: Since when are the two mutually exclusive? Salvador Dali said that all art is erotic, and I'm inclined to agree with him. But... Maybe my beef with American Apparel isn't that it uses quasi-pornographic material to advertise but rather that they do it to distract from the fact that their products are, well, kinda shitty.
My discomfort with American Apparel began a few years ago when I read a profile of the company's founder, Dov Charney. In this article Charney came across as a complete egomaniac, someone who would be dangerous if his weapons weren't fabric. A sort of demagogue of the t-shirt, if you will. I envisioned him wandering, maybe skipping a bit in a self-contented way, shirtless amongst his plebian workers in a large factory (not a sweatshirt, mind you) outside of LA. This unnerved me, but I decided I was judging him unfairly, given the fact that he was such a (self-professed) humanitarian. This article must have come out at least five years ago, and in the time that's passed I've seen countless new American Apparels rise from the concrete, infiltrating every neighborhood, even the demure Upper East Side. The rise of nausea that one's edifice causes me is mixed with the guilt of knowing that my anger is somewhat unsubstantiated as this well-oiled machine deserves the success. It is not unlike the love-hate relationship I have with Starbucks, which started as a tiny coffee distributor outside of Seattle. I imagined these two powerhouses, along with Google Inc., MySpace and HPV, had formed a group similar in nature to the world-dominating Pentavirate in Mike Myer's grossly underrated So I Married an Axe Murderer.
Again, though, I tried to shake off this feeling. One: the company does not use sweatshop labor. Two: It started as itty-bitty and, through sheer force of will, climbed into the stratosphere of success, like the Little Engine That Could. Three: they had every style t-shirt in almost every color imaginable! Tube-socks! Cotton skirts! And there's the rub. The sheer array of pieces available at American Apparel is enough to make anyone lose their marbles right there in the middle of their too-brightly-lit, too-clean-white store. "Do I need the unisex short-sleeved jersey v-neck in red or the baby rib basic short-sleeved tee in hunter green? The unisex sheer jersey loose crew summer t-shirt? u-necked? Cap-sleeve? Midnight blue? Orange?"
Truth is, you don't need any of them. Before you contemplate curling up in the fetal position and asking the tattooed, mullet-headed female cashier for a pacifier, just reach your hand out and feel the fabric. Not too pleasant, is it? Almost all of their products are rather rough to the touch and, at least for me (and out comes the bias, carefully hidden in true journalistic style until now), ill-fitting. They have a line of softer shirts but careful examination of the prices will have one realizing, for better or worse, that people-friendly labor comes with a price. Better to go to your local Salvation Army and pick up something perfectly worn and authentically hobo-chic for five dollars. And if you don't reach out and touch the material, you run the risk of getting distracted by the more daring gamut of clothing, which grows daily like a tumor, designed to make you forget the more boring stuff and renew your faith in American Apparel as avant-garde AND philanthropic. This useless lot includes a cotton spandex jersey unitard with full leg coverage, running shorts that shouldn't qualify as outerwear, red and gold legwarmers and neon pink hot pants with small iridescent sequins. Even I have found myself listlessly examining a red leotard and contemplating if the Jane Fonda look will ever come back in. You, too, will probably be confused by many of the pieces.
"Hm, a gold lame bathing suit with a neck that dips down to my belly button. That could be cool?"
Let me assure you: no, it cannot be cool. Not even in the ironic sense. Well, maybe if you found one in your crazy aunt's closet and took a bunch of Polaroid pictures of yourself wearing it, but only if you were high, and you put it back in the closet afterwards and never touched it again.
A mere day after reading the article about the pornographic ad campaign, another tactic I am sure is meant to dazzle the consumer and render him or her fashionably unconscious, I ended up at that very store on Orchard street with a friend. We watched the video playing on the outside. The screen was tiny and the choppy film showed a tall, thin boy with shaggy hair and very pale skin undressing until he wore some kitschy, child-like underpants. It was one of the least titillating things I've ever seen, third after Bambi and First Daughter with Katie Holmes. Inside there were a few other screen installations above racks of t-shirts and t-shirt dresses. Most of them depicted attractive girls demonstrating the variety of ways one can tie the straps of different dress styles. They all stood against a white background and had an almost bewildered look upon their face, as if following the instructions of a creepy, off-camera entity. The whole thing was eerie, and we fled almost immediately.