American Apparel’s Rebrand, Led by Female Execs, Aims to Be Sexy Without the Sexism

Uncomfortably young models are out, and empowered women are in

American Apparel
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

It’s a tremendous understatement to say that relaunching a brand like American Apparel in the current cultural climate is a challenge.

It is, after all, a cult favorite clothing line perhaps best known for its controversial—bordering on pervy—ad photography favored by infamous and now deposed founder Dov Charney. Line-crossing and salacious even by fashion standards, the ads frequently featured young-looking women in positions of vulnerability or voyeur-like scenarios, and Charney often photographed the images himself. (You can revisit the brand’s descent into debauchery in this NSFW timeline curated by Esquire.)

The Los Angeles-based brand, acquired by conglomerate Gildan Activewear early this year, knows its marketing history and has vowed not to repeat it. The mantra: No more hyper-sexualized, male-gaze images.

"Women feel so conflicted about being sexual right now, but we’re taking a position to still be sexy, unapologetically so, but from an empowered female perspective.”
Sabina Weber, head of brand marketing, American Apparel

Though it would be easy to overcorrect, the new executives (the first all-female team in the brand’s history), are clear-eyed about their strategy, especially what they don’t intend to do.

“We don’t believe in covering up,” said Sabina Weber, head of brand marketing. “Women feel so conflicted about being sexual right now, but we’re taking a position to still be sexy, unapologetically so, but from an empowered female perspective.”

With its colorful “Back to Basics” ads, American Apparel started announcing its return a few months ago. Billboards, bus shelters and other outdoor ads in markets like New York and L.A., along with print and social, have been rolling out since, pointing consumers to the ecommerce site (there are no more branded retail shops).

The creative work on the ads, all done by a small in-house staff, uses a mix of male and female photographers working with everyday gals and guys, not models or paid influencers, Weber said, to show diversity in height, weight, age, ethnicity and body types. There’s little if any retouching, and the tone aims to be “honest, direct, playful, inclusive, sexy and occasionally slightly provocative,” said Weber, recently named one of Adweek’s L.A. Brand Stars.

The males are deliberately shot in similar poses, wearing the same amount of clothing as the females, Weber said.

Seductive, come-hither looks are still in, but topless and bottomless photos of seemingly underaged girls are definitely out. Models are required to be over 18, and a recent open call asked for those “25 or older.” The change was spotted by an Instagram commenter who said, “Finally less sexualized pre-pubescent bodies in their ads.”

One carry-over from past to present: armpit hair, which Weber says provokes consumer comments so nasty that it puzzles her. “It’s a very fascinating dynamic,” she said of the au naturale look. “Even as we feel we are evolving and making strides, women are still so angry and judgmental when another woman dares to show her body.”

Charney’s ads were no stranger to rejection (media platforms of all stripes turned down photography that bordered on kiddie porn), and Weber said a few recent American Apparel ads have been kicked back for showing “a bit of side boob—not even a nipple!” New York Metro’s refusal to run those ads was “probably my favorite rejection,” Weber said with a laugh.

Check out some of American Apparel’s new ad creative below and decide for yourself if the brand has shed what Weber called the “uncomfortable” images of the past that reeked of “a sense of desperation” in favor of a more progressive, 21st century-friendly approach.


@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.