Like many before it, struggling retailer American Apparel's latest campaign has stirred plenty of controversy. Set to run in the UK and U.S. editions of Vice next month, the ad depicts Maks -- a merchandiser who has worked at the vertically integrated company since 2010 -- topless, with the words "Made in Bangladesh" printed in Helvetica across her chest. (A hint of nipple is strategically peeking out from under the "in".)
Maks is a former Muslim who was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, but she has lived in southern California since the age of four. In a few wordy paragraphs below the photo, American Apparel tells Maks's story, and also details the jeans she's wearing, unbuttoned. ("Maks was photographed in the High Waist Jean, a garment manufactured by 23 skilled workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare," it says.)
Unsurprisingly, the web had mixed feelings about Maks, with one publication calling the ad "bizarre" and another deeming it "pretty cool." The most thoughtful commentary, however, came from Fashionista contributor Tanwi Nandini Islam on Elle.com. "Maks is as Made in America as American Apparel. Her unabashed nudity is a tacit reminder—this is what American Apparel looks like. This is what our fantasy of what Made in Bangladesh looks like. Not a poor, underpaid, overworked young woman making you a $5 shirt for 30 cents an hour," said Islam, who was born in Bangladesh and actually wrote the rebuttal while on a month-long visit to the country. "This ad has little to do with the woman in front of us, and everything to do with the Bangladeshi female garment worker who remains invisible."
Islam's point should be considered seriously, but I can't help but wondering if she is taking American Apparel to task for something it shouldn't be criticized for, at least not under these circumstances. This is, after all, an advertisement for clothing. (Maks is half naked, but those jeans do look great.) And while American Apparel obviously wants to point out that, as a company, it pays its employees fairly -- especially when compared to factories in Bangladesh -- an advertisement might not be the right avenue to directly attack Bangladesh's garment industry, or even shine a light on the workers who keep it going. I recently emailed back and forth with American Apparel creative director Iris Alonzo about the campaign. While her responses certainly won't diminish Islam's concerns, they do make the advertisement's mission clearer:
How did you come up with the concept for this?
We have often photographed and featured our employees in our advertising campaigns over the years. We'd been looking forward to doing a photo shoot with Maks for a long time. She's a lovely person and a great employee. We also found her background to be compelling for a variety of reasons and the ad came from that. We're very proud of her and her bravery.
What message are you trying to deliver? (It seems like the media is confused as to whether this is a response to the poor working conditions at factories in Bangladesh, the preconceived notions of what it's like to be a Muslim woman living in America, or both.)
Like a lot of our ads, it has multiple meanings. The "Made in Bangladesh" headline refers to the origin of the model as well as an issue of critical importance in the fashion industry. In regard to Maks, she is an independent young woman who is forging her own path regardless of what may be culturally expected of her. We believe all women should be able to decide how to live their lives and have the freedom to express themselves. The labor issue is something we've spoken out about for a long time. Just one year ago the Rana Plaza factory collapse took the lives of 1,140 garment workers. We find this to be devastating and inexcusable. In addition to physically unsafe conditions, Bangladesh has some of the lowest paid garment workers in the world. The recently increased monthly wage is still only $68 USD per month. American Apparel's nearly 5,000 industrial workers in Los Angeles are earning from $10- $25 per hour. It is important for consumers to think about the people that we don't see when looking at fashion photography. And it is absolutely critical for brands that are engaging in any sort of manufacturing to be ethically responsible. Garment manufacture is a difficult and skilled profession and American Apparel's mission for the last 15 years has been to prove that it can be done without exploiting or endangering the people behind the machines. Because the point is not where a factory is, but how the people inside of it are being treated.
It seems that, with all of AA's controversial ads, the media tries desperately to put a negative spin on whatever you're doing. For me, there's always an element of celebrating women to everything you present. Is celebrating women, diversity and fairness at the core of every concept, or am I over-thinking it?
We absolutely celebrate women, diversity, healthy body image and female empowerment in our ads and in our company culture in general. We never retouch the women in our photos, don't cover our models in makeup and always try to capture the individuality and personality of the subject - who are usually our employees, friends and customers. We also try to tell a bit of their story in the ad, like we did with Maks. Some ads are sexually charged, some are not, and some are both. We release a tremendous number of images featuring personal style, our industrial workers, even members of our CEO's family. The media tends to focus on the more risqué content. At times that can be frustrating but it is ultimately what creates the platform where a single, simple ad, such as the "Made in Bangladesh" ad, can get the kind of coverage and attention that it has so far.