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Have we reached 'porn chic fatigue'?

Date

Robin Givhan

An image of a model in an American Apparel look book.

An image of a model in an American Apparel look book. Photo: American Apparel

The Wednesday evening decision by the American Apparel board of directors to immediately suspend Dov Charney and replace him as chief executive may be the clearest signal yet that the fashion industry has finally hit porn chic fatigue. It only took repeated allegations of sexual misconduct. And perhaps a financial downturn: American Apparel reported a net loss of $106 million in 2013 and a $37 million loss in 2012.

"We take no joy in this, but the Board felt it was the right thing to do," reads a statement by Allan Mayer, who will co-chair the board in Charney's absence. "Dov Charney created American Apparel, but the Company has grown much larger than any one individual and we are confident that its greatest days are still ahead."

American Apparel, a publicly-traded fashion company based in Los Angeles, produces sportswear basics - T-shirts, leggings, underwear, shorts and the like. It was founded by Charney while he was a student at Tufts University and he eventually moved the company to Los Angeles in 1997. As a business, American Apparel was distinguished by Charney's insistence on keeping production in Los Angeles and proudly declaring his workplace free of sweatshop labour practices.

Suspended .... American Apparel founder Dov Charney.

Suspended .... American Apparel founder Dov Charney. Photo: Getty

As a brand, it also relied on provocative advertising campaigns to give its mostly generic wares a lucrative sizzle. Those ads often featured crude snapshots of young female employees in compromising positions.

Over the past decade, Charney, as the public face of the brand, has faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation. Until now, the company has stood behind him. His termination "grew out of an ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct," said the board in its statement.

In an industry where personal aesthetics evolve into brand philosophy and personal peccadillos inform marketing strategies, it's hard not to connect American Apparel's porn-ish advertising with Charney's own views about women. Fair or not, when a company's advertising is voyeuristic, subjugating and purposefully slimy, one wonders about the mindset out of the person overseeing it.

Terry Richardson appears in a photo shoot for Purple Magazine.

Terry Richardson appears in a photo shoot for Purple Magazine.

While ads featuring young-looking girls in their underwear, staring into the camera with their legs splayed open, should not serve as an indictment, they do say something about the nature of an industry and the particular environment sowed by American Apparel, as well as other brands. The fashion industry often walks the line between sexual titillation, impropriety and downright smuttiness. The balancing act can be invigorating. Exploring a gray area can be edifying.

But the industry regularly takes the position that those who complain about it or raise concerns are prudes, unsophisticated or - the ultimate insult - simply too old to get it. The more successful the designers - or the more influential - the greater leeway they're given to push boundaries with little consequence. And if they are forced to apologise, the opening sentence typically begins with the equivalent of: "If anyone was offended. . .."

Porn chic has been a staple in fashion's repertoire. Back in 1995 Calvin Klein caused a stir with his CK Jeans ads featuring crotch shots of startlingly young-looking models lolling about in a rec room. The ads sparked an FBI inquiry. When Tom Ford was creative director at Gucci, a 2003 advertisement featured a model pulling down her panties to reveal the brand's G logo shaved into her pubic hair. A male model was kneeling attentively nearby. The British attempted to ban it. And in 2011, Marc Jacobs was rapped on the knuckles for a fragrance campaign featuring an underage Dakota Fanning flopped on the floor in a party dress with a giant flower topped perfume bottle sprouting from between her legs.

The Marc Jacobs fragrance ad featuring a young Dakota Fanning.

The Marc Jacobs fragrance ad featuring a young Dakota Fanning.

The mini-scandals are, to some degree, evidence that the advertising has achieved its goal. It has cut through all the clutter and got people talking. But at what cost?

A recent cover story in New York magazine about the photographer Terry Richardson was thick with salacious details about his sexual preferences, accusations of harassment, tales of model intimidation and repeated examples of his photo shoots turning into naked sex-capades. Much of this activity reached back almost two decades, until finally, after repeated complaints by models decrying his behaviour, a few fashion magazines have ceased working with him.

Richardson is, by no means, an out-of-work photographer. But there is the slightest indication that the industry is tiring of porn references and realising that it isn't the only way to capture the culture's attention and leave viewers agog.

The fashion industry loves to walk to the edge of an artistic precipice. That's what makes the business so dynamic. It magnifies and dissects the culture's darkest fantasies and unspoken desires. But in fashion's willingness to free-fall into the depths, there's often no way to stop until it hits rock bottom.

The Washington Post

11 comments

  • All I know is I'm fatigued with the increasing difficulty I have in differentiating the SMH from Mail Online. Judging by the story/picture ratios we're assaulted with every day, you'd swear the most newsworthy thing in the world is that a young woman is scantily clad.

    Commenter
    Cam
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    June 20, 2014, 3:37PM
    • No
      Only a naive or misguided judge would conclude that.

      Commenter
      Padrino
      Location
      Ellivarray
      Date and time
      June 20, 2014, 4:12PM
      • Have we reached 'porn chic fatigue'? - NEVER!

        Commenter
        Some Dude
        Location
        Mitcham
        Date and time
        June 20, 2014, 4:27PM
        • One down. Only a third of total internet traffic to go.

          Commenter
          Sub
          Date and time
          June 20, 2014, 9:33PM
          • Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not 'pecadillos' or 'sex-scapades'. Please use clear, accurate and honest language. This is journalism after all.

            Commenter
            Mel
            Date and time
            June 21, 2014, 7:10AM
            • To a certain audience the porn chic image is immature and detracts interest in the product. It really riles me that these images of young people flood the media whilst the integrity of the work by artists like Bill Henson is denigrated and compared to the fetishes of corporate sleaze. We all know young adults and tweens are highly influenced by social imagery as they explore and negotiate their sense of self, I hope there can be further duscussion in classrooms to dissect the behaviour of irresponsible adults.

              Commenter
              LJanes
              Date and time
              June 21, 2014, 7:59AM
              • About time.

                Commenter
                Rob
                Date and time
                June 21, 2014, 8:14AM
                • Women can (and should) revel in the freedoms won. Every rights-war delivers something good. Now we see women enjoying ever increasing body-pride - that for some manifests as an undeniable urge to flaunt oneself semi-naked here, there and everywhere. Look at me. Look at me. Liberation turned narcissism. All those so effected can do is - well - push the limit. Less clothing is more something. The predictable end point is when there's nothing left to reveal. I guess that's when we go back to long skirts and ankle boots.
                  As humans we are prone to folly - but its the journey and not the destination I guess. I have to wonder if the if the current fashion in rampant exhibitionism is really just "me me me" behavior. Though young self proclaimed "ground breakers" delight in this. Personally empowering - probably. But for these tired eyes its rather pathetic and desperate. I'm over it.

                  Commenter
                  GeeWiz
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  June 21, 2014, 12:05PM
                  • Why bother with 'porn chic'? There's lots more on real porn. Oh, you would not be seen dead watching that?

                    Commenter
                    Wernher von Braun
                    Date and time
                    June 21, 2014, 2:55PM
                    • Team Terry Richardson Well the models are porn fools for the pornotographer Terry. This is fashion /?

                      Commenter
                      Sir Walter
                      Location
                      Ivory Tower
                      Date and time
                      June 21, 2014, 6:09PM

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