I don’t buy leggings. My thighs overfill them, I am male, and they look silly with socks, so no, I don’t buy leggings, and I don’t buy hoodies, and certainly not hotpants, hoiked up like a thong above the double smile of an untanned arse. But despite their being aimed at someone else, American Apparel‘s adverts, their bleachy scenes of pre-sex and thigh socks, have an impact on me.

The best thing about American Apparel, I’ve come to realise, is the debates that arise from each of its campaigns. For every new advert you’ll find an online conversation around issues rarely argued anywhere else. American Apparel ads feature girls bent over, typically. They’re stark and Polaroid-y, reminiscent of a Readers’ Wives spread, but shot through a hangover, in the back room of a trainer shop, on someone’s long cigarette break.

The latest ads, a series of three women (the first a ballerina in pale-pink underwear reaching skyward to reveal stubbly armpits, the second topless in shades painting her nails, the third knickerless, swinging  from a tree in long socks and a shirt), this week prompted the Mail to ask: “Has American Apparel gone too far with ‘creepy’ controversial new campaign?” A recent American Apparel advert in French fashion magazine Purple shows a girl reclining in a cable knit sweater and white lace knickers – her pubic hair is the focal point of the photo. Copyranter asks if this is the brand’s “sleaziest ad ever”, ignoring perhaps the 2009 campaign banned by the Advertising Standards Authority: the 23-year-old model (who, over six images, removes her unisex Flex Fleece zip hoodie) seemed “young and vulnerable and [the ad] could be seen to sexualise a child”.

Once American Apparel positioned itself as the new Gap – anti-trends, ethical, gently alternative. Its ads reflected this, un-Photoshopped,  with simple clothes modelled by employees. But at some point it changed. Its ads became sexier. The women in them wore fewer clothes and bent over further, their bodies were cut up into bite-sized portions, their expressions became blanker.

Designed to outrage, the ads led  to furious defacings: in 2007 one on a giant billboard in New York was sprayed with the sentence: “Gee, I wonder why women get raped.” They led to discussions about sex and ethics, to commentary about body hair, so rarely seen on models, here used by the brand to provoke – the stubbly armpit, the pubic hair signifying something shocking. They led to analysis of why American Apparel’s idea of “natural” is so often read as disturbingly childlike; the company prides itself on enforcing a strict minimal-make-up and unplucked-brow rule on its employees and models, a rule which doesn’t, to me, speak of comfort or beauty, but instead hints  at an uncomfortable balance of  power. “Girls” are bare-faced in this world; “women” wear make-up.

When a 23-year-old woman, unzipping her top, is forbidden to wear cosmetics by her male boss  (Dov Charney, the snickering subject of reams of sexual harassment lawsuits) she appears amateur and unprepared – looking at the ad, we  feel like we’re spying. I welcome the debates; the brand less so.

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