The End Of An Era: All Of American Apparel’s Most Controversial Ads

There have been lots of problems for American Apparel; the clothing company was at odds (again) with Great Britain’s Advertising Standard’s Authority over its risqué imagery and the CEO was fired after a lengthy investigation into his ethics. Now, American Apparel is shutting down after being purchased at a bankruptcy auction by Canadian company Gildan Activewear. Since American Apparel is closing its doors, let’s take a quick walk down controversy lane and revisit some of the most scandalous ads, some of which honestly belong in Playboy magazine.

ASA Ruling

After receiving two complaints against ads currently appearing in print and on the company’s website, the ASA looked into the matter and saw several reason to rule on the matter and ban the offending photos. You can take a look at these images for yourself and decide if you agree but it is quite apparent that these ads are inappropriate.

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This first image is one of the more pg-13 rated shots; if we are honest, the racy images increase in vulgarity from here. This shot of a model with an oversized sweater would probably be really great for the public to see if she was actually wearing pants.

Final Decision

The final decision noted “a voyeuristic quality to the images, which served to heighten the impression that the women were vulnerable and in sexually provocative poses.” This will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who’s ever seen an American Apparel ad before—these ads are incredibly provocative.

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This second ad image is supposed to sell thigh-high socks and body suits but the only image you get is a close up of the model’s crotch area. Whether she is sitting, kneeling or spreading her legs, you sort of lose the thought that you want to buy American Apparel legwarmers.

Gildan Purchase

Gildan has indicated that they will shut down American Apparel’s 110 stores. The factory in Los Angeles where the company had produced all of its clothing is also being closed. If you haven’t heard of Gildean, they make t-shirts and other clothes themselves. Gildan snatched up all of American Apparel’s intellectual property, some manufacturing equipment, and more for $88 million.

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In this ad, American Apparel is showcasing some neon pink tights in hopes you will feel compelled to purchase a pair of any one of their tights. But this image of the model only wearing tights while clutching to a pillow doesn’t really scream “buy these.”

Comment from Gildan

Unfortunately, in the process of shutting everything else down, nearly 3,500 people could be out of work immediately. Gildan had their spokesman, Garry Bell, addressed the purchase with the LA Times. He said: “This was always about buying assets out of bankruptcy. The reality is this wasn’t a purchase of an ongoing concern.” That sounds a bit callus and harsh for those who will soon be unemployed.

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In this ad image, American Apparel went a little more “old school” with a 1950s kind of look. The model is showcasing some hosiery with a simple bun and a black and white traditional photo, but her pose is what makes the ad controversial.


Gildan intends to snap up American Apparel’s branding to complement its current print wear business. After it is acquired and incorporated, we’ll just have to see what this means for American Apparel’s styles and fashions over time.

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Now, this image is definitely racy. The model is laying, with her arms up, and the top she is supposed to be selling is completely see-through. The ad, titled “Summer Basics” is not so much about selling summer wear because it poses the question: what is the point of wearing this top? It leaves nothing to the imagination so you might as well go topless.


With a made-in-America style behind its brand, along with trendy, often controversial ad campaigns, American Apparel was absolutely “unique.” While they stirred up a lot of controversy, you can definitely admit to one thing about this company: you didn’t know what to expect next.

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This ad takes the previous ad’s question and doubles down; here is a model, with no face and no shirt, who is supposedly selling tights. With two images side-by-side, one close up of bare breasts and the other a close up of the models bent-over genital area, you know you aren’t compelled to buy tights. You are more compelled to admit to viewing porn at this point.

Hit Up the Sales

If you are a fan of American Apparel, you better go hit up all those hot clearance sales while you’ve got the chance! The company — as we know it, at least — will NOT be around for very long! There is a lot to choose from so you can probably find something that fits into your style and taste. Maybe you can get a nice pair of underwear.

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OK—we can all agree that underwear is considered risqué in one form or another. There are several types of underwear and everyone has their own personal preference. But all underwear is private; it covers your “private area” for crying out loud, which is why this ad—while selling underwear—is arguably too sexualized. You can’t even see the underwear they are selling when its being pulled down!

Charney’s Ethics and Misconduct

In 2014, American Apparel fired to its founder Dov Charney as chief executive due to an “ongoing investigation into alleged misconduct.” As scandal clung to Charney, the company’s financial performance faltered and shares in the company have fallen 84 percent over the past five years.

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After viewing this ad image, you will no longer wonder why Charney’s ethics and misconduct was being investigated. Who, in their right mind, decided that having topless models with no faces can sell pleated pants. Once people see this ad they definitely don’t see pleated pants and think ‘I would like to purchase a pair of those’—they just see breasts.

Sexual Harassment

Charney was the subject of several lawsuits, as well. All were for sexual harassment and violence aimed at employees. These charges were routinely denied by American Apparel but it is safe to say that the damage has been done. You honestly have to think though—for someone who releases such scantily-clad images—he is a sex-charged person.

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This ad is back to basics and bares it all in nude colored shorts and bra. Yes, it is true that nude colored fashion is definitely “in” and on trend, but with this ad, you have to do a double take. The model is posed in a sexual manner and looks like she is wearing nothing at all.


Charney relished the aura of misbehavior. His company’s advertising became renowned for its over-the-top and unbuttoned sexual imagery and he enjoyed all of the attention. It is true; it is good to stir up some controversy to get your products seen, but not like this. Some of the ads were so out-there that they drew bans overseas.

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After seeing this ad, you can’t help but think what this model was thinking when she was asked to spread her legs for the camera. The ad with the headline “Now Open” is obviously tied to the model’s pose and you lose sight of what product they are actually selling.

What Were They Thinking?

Looking back at American Apparel ads as the company closes makes everyone wonder, is that was what people wear? That was what people thought was fashionable? So much of what is being sold through American Apparel is leggings as far as the eye could see; black leggings, denim leggings, leggings that were made from some space fabric that looked like moonlight.

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But in this image, it is hard to decide what is sadder: the look on this poor dogs face or the naked model sporting legwarmers—and just legwarmers. For a company who sells leggings and other forms of pants and bottoms, you have to wonder why they choose to have their models bottom-less.

Controversial from the Beginning

American Apparel built their stores and stories on the appeal of being a little bit controversial. This unique angle made them seem trendy, like you wanted to be a part of the style that goes against the grain of societal standards. But their CEO was more than little bit offensive. Would you believe that in one of Dov Charney’s early interviews, he repeatedly masturbated in front of the journalist?

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So these ads shouldn’t be shocking right? Knowing who was running the company and what his behaviors were, he was considered to be a sicko. And in this ad, we again have models with no faces who are positioned yet again in a sexually suggestive pose. Can you answer the question: what are they selling here?

Total Exposure

Sure, Dov Charney was a creep. But you could even say, well, that most genius individuals are a bit peculiar. It’s easy to see how so many were seduced by his funny brand for so long. There was a lot going on in the ads. Terry Richardson’s minimal photography and white backgrounds suggested realness and urbanity, somehow allowing for the alleged assaults behind the camera. But bottom line is there was a lot wrong with Charney and it translated to American Apparel.

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At this point, we have progressed from exposed breasts to women’s genitals being on display. Charney was sending a message that it was liberating for a woman to make a sex object of herself.


American Apparel marketed “hipness.” So in the process making it mainstream, there’s nothing left to sell. And while looking back on the ads and the stories of sexual harassment in the company, their treatment of women was a big part of their downfall. Their “grooming standards” were published with the memo to staff that they shouldn’t pluck their eyebrows or wear make-up.

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When you look at their ads, there is this creepy vibe; the image of girlhood is instantly obvious. The “grooming standards” wasn’t American Apparel wanting staff to feel confident “bare-faced,” it was about emphasizing their girlishness—which is apparent in this “flexible” ad.

AA Ad or Playboy?

If American Apparel hadn’t been banned for bad taste they should have been banned for bad marketing. Who could look at these ads and think, ‘people will love this’? The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has said of American Apparel: “We considered the ads had the effect of inappropriately sexualizing school-age girls and were therefore offensive and irresponsible for that reason too.”

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And this ad is no exception. This model is incredibly girlish looking and could very well be a young teenager—so why is she baring it all, taking off her underwear and smiling for the camera? It is too much to say this is selling something American Apparel is selling—this belongs in Playboy.

Original Ethical Approach is Gone

American Apparel was built on a platform of ethics that ensured their products were made by workers earning a living wage in Los Angeles, California. This platform to support American jobs and workers was a move in the right direction but it obviously got lost. Despite their ethical approach, they also didn’t invest in good PR.

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This ad shows a model with a flannel top and is advertising that it is “made in USA,” which reiterates the ethical message. But how can a company say they are ethical when this model is not wearing pants? And she just one is among a long list of models who haven’t worn pants in their ads.

Voyeuristic Feeling

If you do a quick search on Google, you will see a long list of their other controversial advertising images. From women who are too young in too grown-up poses (and who are usually in their own bedrooms) to the home video style of photography that gives a voyeuristic feeling to attract the viewer’s eye (along with the wrong type of predatory people).

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This ad shows Sophie and what can only be explained as a voyeuristic photo. She looks like she is getting up from a bed and someone snapped a photo peering down her shirt. It definitely does not give the message that a product is being advertised.

Sexist Ads

The ads are all about sexualizing young girls so it is not a far reach to also say that this sexist advertising led to the downfall of the company. Dov Charney was responsible for all of the marketing. The demographic target market range should be aimed predominantly at women but the ads are for the likes of men.

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Speaking of the likes of men, American Apparel released this ad of two women who are very close to one another and are selling…rompers? It’s hard to know what American Apparel’s goals are with this one. This ad is reaching the triple X category.

Record Shows the Truth

If you are ever curious enough about Dov Charney’s creepy record, you should just read through his list of crimes and misdemeanors. It is like reading a real life version of Boogie Nights – funny to begin with but it continues to escalate and becomes sad and just plain nasty. With this backstory, it is no wonder why the brand very quickly was no longer sexy; it was just sleazy.

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Speaking of sleazy, there is a professional and appealing way to sell a bikini. When you are selling a product to a woman, you need to think of how she would like to see herself in it. Maybe she’s feeling confident and is enjoying a drink by the pool. She’s probably not bent over in front of a camera like this ad shows.

Shock Tactics that are More than Meets the Eye

You could probably argue that shock tactics still work in this day and age. It is hard to imagine something the American public hasn’t been exposed to at this point, right? It has become much harder to shock people. And yes, sex sells. But this is not a shock tactic. This is like looking into the mind of a sick individual.

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Which brings us to our last shocking image on this list. This ad is a bit disconnected to say the least; a model wearing socks who is shown in a series of images making an obvious sexual facial expression. You know, it reminds us of the scene from When Harry Met Sally (and this model would make Sally blush). While American Apparel did some things right, it did a lot of things very wrong.