During the past few weeks there’s been a minor Internet kerfuffle over the reputed hiring practices of the hipster clothing label American Apparel. According to documents obtained and published by Jezebel, the women’s site of the Gawker Media network, the company has spent years intentionally hiring only hipster-hot employees (male and female) to work in its stores, which sell clothes that only fit skinny people. If you’re chubby or wear New Balances or wire-frame glasses, sorry, but AA doesn’t want you.
Personally, while the aesthete in me appreciates the label’s preference for solid colors and fairly simple items of clothing, I’m too big and preppy to adopt AA’s orthodox look, nor do I want to. And despite being a twenty-eight-year-old heterosexual male who hopes always to see as much of as many pretty girls as possible, I find their raunchy ad campaigns kind of gross. By all appearances the company’s founder, Dov Charney, is greedy, pompous, and more than a bit lecherous. American Apparel’s whole media campaign has always been brazenly, unapologetically about using the exposed skin of slender young people with interesting hair to sell slim-fit clothing.
Which is to say, the company operates like pretty much every other clothing line on earth, from Old Navy to whatever gets strutted around on runways in Milan. Models are always physically attractive humans; even outlier types of models–e.g. “plus-size” women–have better faces and skin tones and hair than most people. 99% of us couldn’t make it as professional clothes-wearers. We don’t look right for the part. The young people who work retail in any chic clothing store are the “in-house” models–whatever else they do while on the clock is secondary to their main purpose, which is to visually contribute to the general aura of coolness/hipness/whatever the label is trying to gin up.
This is exactly how it should be. American Apparel’s policy truly would be scandalous if it were based on the sort of essentialist discrimination that has long been established as culturally poisonous and destructive (misogyny, homophobia, racism, things like that). If they sold exploding oil rigs (for example), they would also deserve legal scrutiny. And if AA were a public institution, hiring people based on looks and sartorial taste would be not be OK: you can’t defensibly argue that Elena Kagan isn’t hot enough for the Supreme Court. But American Apparel is a private, for-profit company. They sell a particular brand of style–a “look”–which is clearly organized around a particular type of bodily appearance. That is what clothing retailers do. It’s what one must do in order to have a shot at becoming a profitable, taste-making designer. This has always been the case. If you don’t like how American Apparel does what it does, then don’t buy anything there. You can even tell everyone you know how lame they are (and their policy is pretty sad, albeit realistic). But don’t pretend that they are accountable to some nebulous cultural standard or that how a private T-shirt company structures its business model is a huge public matter which threatens to undo the achievements of feminism. They aren’t and it’s not.
It is also hypocritical of Jezebel to push this critique. Their website’s tagline is “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women” (which would be annoying even if it were grammatical). Each day they post dozens of high-res pictures of and stories about movie stars, famous designers, models, and crap like that. Hey, guys: HOLLYWOOD AND NYC FASHION WEEK RUN ON THE SAME PRINCIPLES AS AMERICAN APPAREL. If you don’t complain when Brad Pitt gets cast ahead of Paul Giamatti, then you have to leave Dov Charney’s creepy brand alone, too.