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June 19, 2014

Charney's out at American Apparel. Have we reached 'porn chic fatigue'?

The Wednesday evening decision by the American Apparel board of directors to immediately suspend Dov Charney and replace him as chief executive may be the clearest signal yet that the fashion industry has finally hit porn chic fatigue. It only took repeated allegations of sexual misconduct. And perhaps a financial downturn: American Apparel reported a net loss of $106 million in 2013 and a $37 million loss in 2012.

"We take no joy in this, but the Board felt it was the right thing to do," reads a statement by Allan Mayer, who will co-chair the board in Charney's absence. "Dov Charney created American Apparel, but the Company has grown much larger than any one individual and we are confident that its greatest days are still ahead."

American Apparel, a publicly-traded fashion company based in Los Angeles, produces sportswear basics - T-shirts, leggings, underwear, shorts and the like. It was founded by Charney while he was a student at Tufts University and he eventually moved the company to Los Angeles in 1997. As a business, American Apparel was distinguished by Charney's insistence on keeping production in Los Angeles and proudly declaring his workplace free of sweatshop labor practices.

As a brand, it also relied on provocative advertising campaigns to give its mostly generic wares a lucrative sizzle. Those ads often featured crude snapshots of young female employees in compromising positions.

Over the past decade, Charney, as the public face of the brand, has faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation. Until now, the company has stood behind him. His termination "grew out of an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct," said the board in its statement.

In an industry where personal aesthetics evolve into brand philosophy and personal peccadillos inform marketing strategies, it's hard not to connect American Apparel's porn-ish advertising with Charney's own views about women. Fair or not, when a company's advertising is voyeuristic, subjugating and purposefully slimy, one wonders about the mindset out of the person overseeing it.

While ads featuring young-looking girls in their underwear, staring into the camera with their legs splayed open, should not serve as an indictment, they do say something about the nature of an industry and the particular environment sowed by American Apparel, as well as other brands. The fashion industry often walks the line between sexual titillation, impropriety and downright smuttiness. The balancing act can be invigorating. Exploring a gray area can be edifying.

But the industry regularly takes the position that those who complain about it or raise concerns are prudes, unsophisticated or - the ultimate insult - simply too old to get it. The more successful the designers - or the more influential - the greater leeway they're given to push boundaries with little consequence. And if they are forced to apologize, the opening sentence typically begins with the equivalent of: "If anyone was offended. . .."

Porn chic has been a staple in fashion's repertoire. Back in 1995 Calvin Klein caused a stir with his CK Jeans ads featuring crotch shots of startlingly young-looking models lolling about in a rec room. The ads sparked an FBI inquiry. When Tom Ford was creative director at Gucci, a 2003 advertisement featured a model pulling down her panties to reveal the brand's G logo shaved into her pubic hair. A male model was kneeling attentively nearby. The British attempted to ban it. And in 2011, Marc Jacobs was rapped on the knuckles for a fragrance campaign featuring an underage Dakota Fanning flopped on the floor in a party dress with a giant flower topped perfume bottle sprouting from between her legs.

The mini-scandals are, to some degree, evidence that the advertising has achieved its goal. It has cut through all the clutter and got people talking. But at what cost?

A recent cover story in New York magazine about the photographer Terry Richardson was thick with salacious details about his sexual preferences, accusations of harassment, tales of model intimidation and repeated examples of his photo shoots turning into naked sex-capades. Much of this activity reached back almost two decades, until finally, after repeated complaints by models decrying his behavior, a few fashion magazines have ceased working with him.

Richardson is, by no means, an out-of-work photographer. But there is the slightest indication that the industry is tiring of porn references and realizing that it isn't the only way to capture the culture's attention and leave viewers agog.

The fashion industry loves to walk to the edge of an artistic precipice. That's what makes the business so dynamic. It magnifies and dissects the culture's darkest fantasies and unspoken desires. But in fashion's willingness to free-fall into the depths, there's often no way to stop until it hits rock bottom.

 

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