American Apparel—the controversial retailer known for its outspoken CEO and its provocative advertisements—has unveiled its latest campaign. The ad features a topless model of South Asian descent, with the words ‘MADE IN BANGLADESH’ boldly printed across her chest and a detailed account of her background.
“[Maks] is a merchandiser who has been with American Apparel since 2010. Born in Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh, Maks vividly remembers attending mosque as a child alongside her conservative Muslim parents. At age four, her family made a life changing move to Marina Del Rey, California. Although she suddenly found herself a world away from Dhaka, she continued following her parent's religious traditions and sustained her Islamic faith throughout her childhood. Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions. A woman continuously in search of new creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot.
She has found some elements of Southern California culture to be immediately appealing, but is striving to explore what lies beyond the city's superficial pleasures. She doesn't feel the need to identify herself as an American or a Bengali and is not content to fit her life into anyone else's conventional narrative. That's what makes her essential to the mosaic that is Los Angeles, and unequivocally, a distinct figure in the ever expanding American Apparel family. Maks was photographed in the High Waist Jean, a garment 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.”
Sure, the statement may be a playful nod at the model’s heritage, but it also targets one of the fast-fashion industry’s biggest issues: sweatshops and their unsafe working conditions. In April 2013, Bangladesh-based garment factories made international headlines when the Rana Plaza Building, which produced clothing for the likes of JC Penney and Mango, collapsed, causing over 1,000 deaths.
Following the tragedy, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney spoke out against overseas, sweatshop production. "In Bangladesh, the problem with these factories is that they’re only given contracts on a seasonal or order-by-order basis," Charney told the L.A. Times. "There’s so much pressure to perform, some of the working conditions are outrageous, almost unbelievable. It has completely stripped the human element from the brands… It’s such a blind, desensitized way of making clothing."
In 2002 American Apparel dubbed itself “sweatshop-free,” priding itself on producing pieces in Downtown L.A., rather than outsourcing overseas like many other fast-fashion companies. The brand also cites on its website that its “garment workers are paid up to 50 times more than the competition” (i.e. Bangladesh sweat shops). “I think these retailers need their asses handed to them,” Charney said of the companies who outsource to unsafe factories.
Whether or not Charney is intentionally trying to take a jab at the poor working conditions in the region, it's hard to see the new campaign as anything other than another of the company’s misguided moves. An advertisement from May 2013 appropriately emphasized the company’s “Made in the USA” attitude in light of the situation abroad. With dangerous conditions still affecting factory workers in Bangladesh, Charney deserves applause for his commitment to socially-responsible manufacturers. But, utilizing a topless, Bangladeshi model to promote the cause? That may not be the most tasteful route.