Is this American Apparel's most shocking campaign ever?


Madelin Newman

The new American Apparel campaign: 'Made in Bangaldesh.'

The new American Apparel campaign: 'Made in Bangaldesh.'


American Apparel, purveyor of shiny pants and bodysuits, has once again courted controversy with their latest ad campaign.

The full page ad that appears in UK and US editions of Vice magazine features Maks, a stunning Bangladeshi-American woman who has worked for the company since 2010, with the words “Made in Bangladesh” splashed across her naked chest.

What with the toplessness, the allusions to ethical concerns about Bangladeshi garment industry and (as is explained in her profile) Mak’s decision to abandon her Islamic faith, American Apparel is out to shock. I’m torn – is the sexual and cultural exploitation occurring in this ad excusable if it’s for a good cause? Does it bring to light the plight of the Bangladeshi garment worker, or does it exploit them to sell high-waisted jeans and over-priced tees?

The campaign plays to one of American Apparel’s unique selling propositions – they are sweat-shop free, with all of their clothes being manufactured in their own factory in Southern California. It’s an admirable fact, and one that has the company putting a focus on the environmental and social impact of clothing production – the decidedly unglamourous side to fashion that most retailers ardently avoid.

But, not content with celebrating the fact that they employ over 5000 people in their local factories (the largest sewing facility in North America, according to the company), the company goes after already marginalised Bangladeshi garment workers to make their point. 

The ad explains (in the first and only time the actual clothes are mentioned) that the jeans are "manufactured by 23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.” Obviously it is commendable that American Apparel pays their employees fairly, but directly attacking the Bangladesh garment industry as a whole is an unhelpful simplification of a complex situation.

Why pick on the workers, rather than the western fashion brands and retailers that are squeezing these developing nations for every dollar in an attempt to increase margins? The answer is not to stop manufacturing in Bangladesh – a boycott would cripple the economy and lead to mass unemployment – but to raise the standards of working conditions and provide workers with a living, not minimum, wage.

There is no denying that American Apparel are a more ethically and socially responsible option than many fast fashion retailers with murky supply chains, and that they should be able to market themselves as such. But this ad goes further, fetishising race and cultural difference to sell product.

The beautiful, half-naked Maks in her undone blue jeans is the kind of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ that suits American Apparel – sexy, exotic, confident and Westernised. She is a version of multiculturalism that they can get on board with, but hardly represents the majority of women in her native country.

American Apparel’s intentions are not evil – Iris Alonzo's the brand's Creative Director says, their advertisements aim to “celebrate women, diversity, healthy body image and female empowerment.”  But this advertisement does not meaningfully represent Bangladeshi or American women. 

While it's not surprising that the brand has come out with yet another campaign that so pointedly objectifies women, it is worsened by their attempt to layer it with an ill-considered message about responsible manufacturing: that the answer is not to increase wages of poorly paid workers in developing nations, but instead to shift consumption to American-made products. By going after Bangladeshi workers, American Apparel attacks the symptom of the problem rather than the cause, proving that while their manufacturing philosophy may be ethically sound, their marketing strategy leaves a lot to be desired.

Join the conversation about the consequences of 'fast fashion' at the All About Women festival at The Sydney Opera House this weekend.