Fashion retailer American Apparel filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The flagship of mainstream hipster fashion, this was less the end of an era and more of a maturing of Indie culture. The main reasons for this downfall were numerous. The marked price increase in products, bad financial management, and the sexual allegations against founder and deposed CEO Dov Charney. Symbolically though, the exposure of what lay underneath the brand exposed us to hard truths about the values of Indie culture.
American Apparel resonated with my generation, with most friends my age and myself still having a t-shirt or socks somewhere in our wardrobes. The brand symbolised an aesthetic and an ethical call to arms. Indie branding owed in many regards to the backlash against corporate greed. After increased publicity of corporate greed and greater awareness of sweatshop clothing scandals of the 1990s, we wanted more. Fashion-wise, this often meant a rejection of labels in favour of plain, functional tops balanced with bright colours and good quality. Their production was American-based and paid their workforce double the national minimum wage. They were sex-positive and defied moral criticism by prominently displaying the gay magazine Butt in-store. It was a new kind of brand that promised cheap, aesthetically-pleasing, ethical clothing in which we could have capitalism and ethics.
Rather than achieving liberation, we ended up worshipping an aesthetic while ignoring an exploitative undercurrent. Indie culture has been as notably bad as everyone else in terms of misogyny, classism, and ethnic homogeneity. Perhaps we never initially noticed because of our reliance on nostalgic irony as central to our aesthetic values. American Apparel has certainly captured the public imagination through their homage to 1970’s porn imagery in advertisements. This appeal to nostalgia promoted an ideal of sexually-driven human beings free from moral Puritanism. Yet like with the hippie movement, the ideal of sexual liberation has been often used by misogynists to use their power to their own benefit. Quite fittingly, there have been multiple allegations of sexual inappropriateness against Dov Charney as well as his self-promoted sexual objectification. Numerous claims of sexual harassment, sex for employment, keeping an assistant as a ‘sex slave,’ and attending meetings and walking around the office near-nude. Similarly, the continued popularity of photographer Terry Richardson within Indie culture, mainstream fashion, and establishment figures confirms that brand image matters more than ethics.
In this case though, the weakness of irony as a fig leaf is the gradual rejection of irony applied to sexuality or gender. The downfall of American Apparel and Terry Richardson is that they depend on such a narrow brand image and, like Nike or McDonalds before them, are vulnerable to changing social attitudes. Third wave feminism has provided an antidote to corporate branding for a generation of men and women fluent in social media and new journalism. Protests against brands and their maestros have exposed Indie lifestyle brands to be as hollow as those corporates we originally derided decades ago.
With the legal and ethical bankruptcy of American Apparel, there is an opportunity for the broader Indie culture to move away from lifestyle brands and in favour of individual reasoning both through challenging hierarchy and through individual interpretation of ironic value. Nostalgic irony is fine as long as you can easily separate the fashion from the out of date values of the time it’s associated with. For me, that’s Carry On Films without holding many of the gender attitudes of the 1960s and Nancy Sinatra without Frank Sinatra. For the American Apparel ideal, you can easily both appropriate 1970’s porn chic fashion and enjoy a freer sexuality and not treat people solely as extensions of your sexual desires and power. Imbuing pieces of apparel with imagined qualities provides neither solace nor substitute for ethical reasonings we must negotiate ourselves daily.