Why I’ve Given Up Shopping at American Apparel

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive.

First published in The Huffington Post 30th April 2013

Shiny disco pants are everywhere and I need block-colour basics as much as the next girl, but cracks are beginning to show in American Apparel’s conscious-consumer chic.1. It’s stupidly expensive. The prices are not exactly student-friendly and I’m not sure I would be willing to pay £46 for a plain polyester sweatshirt (suspiciously similar to the type I was forced to wear at school) even if I had a real income.2. The ‘fitness’ clothes are completely impractical. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried the gym in a mesh bodysuit with a thong bottom, but I wouldn’t advise it. Also, all bodysuits on the website are modelled without bras underneath, including those made from sheer fabric… not exactly gym (or in-public) friendly.

3. Despite slogan t-shirts calling for the legalisation of gay marriage and the ‘sweatshop free’ label, there is something less than savoury about American Apparel. Founder and CEO Dov Charney has been involved in a string of sexual harassment lawsuits and in 2004, Jane magazine’s Claudine Ko reported that during an interview with Charney he received oral sex from a female employee and masturbated repeatedly.

4. I want to look at tights, not some girl’s arse. Not only do a significant proportion of the female models featured on American Apparel’s UK site look decidedly underage, but the sexualised poses and volume of flesh on show are wholly unnecessary when one considers both the context of the images and the product they are promoting. The ‘Sheer Luxe Cut-Out Pantyhose’ for £19 leave the entirety of the wearer’s bum exposed, and to put issues of design and comfort aside (because they look REALLY uncomfortable), I found myself asking why the accompanying slideshow of images needed to show the model bending over suggestively, with entirely bare breasts. There is no age restriction on accessing the site and interestingly enough, none of the male models are bending over, sucking their fingers or showing their bare bum cheeks.

5. You’re only hired if you look right. Charney’s comments regarding only employing the ‘right type of black girl’ are a particularly noxious example. Of course, this is not unique to American Apparel and Abercrombie & Fitch are a high profile example of a clothing retailer with a gross hiring practice, paying out $40 million in 2004 for refusing to give non-white applicants positions in-store. However, this gives lie to the progressive politics and the declaration that the company are ‘setting a new standard that others will follow’, found on their website.

6. Dov Charney doesn’t want his employees talking. In 2010 Gawker ran an article on American Apparel’s ‘At Will Employment Confidentiality Agreement’ which introduces a penalty of $1,000,000 for any American Apparel worker who speaks to the media or disparages Charney in public or online. The agreement also stipulates that when out and about, employees should not discuss the company at a volume that ‘reasonably could be overheard by a third party’. So basically, you have to whisper. Such measures certainly suggest that the company has something to hide.

Despite the seething mass of corporate paranoia, rampant misogyny and disturbing sexualisation of young models displayed by American Apparel, I still believe that we can have clothing companies that pay their workers a fair wage without negating this achievement through other types of unethical behaviour. But until Charney makes substantial changes to the way his clothing empire operates, the lurex shine has definitely worn off American Apparel.

The nightmare of Masters funding

You have to be serious when you’re a Masters student. It’s about knuckling down, focusing and not dyeing your hair a different colour every two weeks. So said my mother.

First published in The Independent: 30th April 2013

You have to be serious when you’re a Masters student. It’s about knuckling down, focusing and not dyeing your hair a different colour every two weeks. So said my mother.

Despite the academic step-up from your bachelor’s degree, the sense of superiority when faced with an unwashed and hungover population of undergraduates and a dissertation hand-in date in darkest September, it becomes quickly apparent that the really thing serious about being a Masters student is that the people holding the educational purse-strings have overlooked you. There isn’t any money.

We know this and we know that every time George Osborne opens his mouth it’s going to be painful, but I always believed that working hard and aiming high would be rewarded. Waking up to reality was uncomfortable, to say the least.

According to this, MA humanities students can be funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council or ‘sometimes’ by charities and other trusts. In this statement, ‘sometimes’ is the operative word. These grants and bursaries are like gold dust. Like magical pixie dust. They are not a reality for most students pursuing a taught MA in the humanities. The Student Loans Company offers no support for postgraduate degrees unless a career in teaching is what you’re after. The only option is to get a bank loan and cry yourself to sleep at night with thoughts of the interest accumulating.

A taught Masters degree is an essential milestone on the road towards a PhD and a possible academic career. You can’t move forward without one but it is an area of education that has been woefully neglected when it comes to funding and support for students. A good MA is tough, and rightly so. The rollercoaster of intense mind-expansion and long periods of solitary study can seriously knock your academic confidence. It is quite challenging enough without any added financial pressure.  

Get a part-time job, you say! Fair point, and of course I would if I could guarantee that the hours spent perfecting the art of pint-pulling wouldn’t jeopardize my degree, the very reason I took on the work in the first place. But perhaps my degree is in jeopardy already.
MA students are squeezed from all directions by very real financial pressures including rising tuition fees, rent, bills, food, travel, books and other course materials, plus their heavy workloads.

Many of those who start their MAs and experience financial pressures are becoming anxious, even depressed – and they are underperforming as a result. And let’s not forget the very able graduates who would have chosen an MA were it not for the cost. Higher education should not be a frivolous privilege for those wealthy enough to afford it. The fact is that people who can and should fly high aren’t gaining the academic altitude that they should. Part of Britain’s academic future has been clipped and the fact that it is due to money seems crude to me.

A highly-qualified workforce can benefit the economy and society generally, energising businesses and driving innovation. A meritocracy rewards the most gifted and hardworking, not a fraction of the most gifted and hardworking and those with the dumb luck to be from a wealthy background. I’d like to ‘knuckle down’, as my mother said I must, to some serious study without the constant worry that I can’t pay my heating bill or buy a key course text.

But it’s difficult. I worry for myself, of course, and my finances. I worry for my degree and more than that, I worry that future generations of students will face a pared down, dumbed down academia, that is only half up to the job and only available to those who can afford it. That, I believe, is serious.