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Marketing Youth Revolt

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

A Hot Topic wall of shirts

Much of the apprehension once sparked by youth culture has now been reduced to consumer theatre: any suburban teen or 20-something can don punk, goth, or hippie style supplied by chain stores that sell pre-torn jeans, mass-produced tie-dye shirts, or black nail polish.  Youth culture may once have referred to a generationally distinct experience, but today it is shorthand for a marketing demographic, a consumer identity that fancies creative and even rebellious personalities are confirmed in shopping.  The contemporary youth marketplace is populated with contrived “edginess” projected onto the likes of Iron Maiden shirts, cannabis earrings, and shotgun shell shot glasses, but it is not clear that those trinkets or shows of stylistic resistance pose any significant threat to the established order of things.

Post-war youth experience has been distinguished by a progressively persistent marketplace appeal to boomers and successive waves of Gen X-Y-and-Z’s that has aspired to sell youth resistant aesthetics.  On the one hand, mass-produced commodities tend to reduce genuine subversiveness to aesthetics or reproduce reactionary politics behind the guise of ironic humor.  Bands pilfered from history become an aesthetic “look”; racy promiscuity clumsily poses as independent morality; and drug allusions paint drug consumption simply as a pleasure pathologized by elder ideologues.

On the other hand, though, youth culture is a rich terrain of digital spaces, musical tastes, sexualities, and materiality that ideologues rush to manage yet can never predict or control.  The caricature of a homogeneous youth culture bound by birthdays ignores the diversity of contemporary experiences and the degree to which youth consumers acknowledge the patent absurdity of consumer culture. The wall of sex, drug, and rock shirts at mall stores may be less about public generational revolt than they are soliloquys: consumers clad in Pink Floyd shirts imagine and find pleasure in their perceived creativity and its violation of bourgeois normality. Read the rest of this entry

American Apparel and the Politics of “Natural Beauty”

The unshorn mannequins in Soho's American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

The unshorn mannequins in Soho’s American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

This week an American Apparel store in New York secured a flurry of attention after it installed female mannequins whose sheer lingerie reveal dense pubic hair.  The Valentine’s Day window display in the American Apparel Soho store includes three mannequins in sheer white underwear exposing netherhair and nipples.  The international media attention has focused on American Apparel’s calculated history of “shock” advertising, and delicate sensibilities may stop at this point and choose not to survey the range of the corporation’s provocative advertising, much of which is not-safe-for-work.  American Apparel has been predictably superficial in its defense of the mannequins as symbols of “natural beauty” that confirm the “rawness and realness of sexuality.”  In the hands of American Apparel the unshorn mannequins are marketing mechanisms that are, at best, an ironic illumination of ideological beauty standards.  American Apparel’s mannequins underscore our social uneasiness with deviations from unexpressed feminine beauty ideals; they certainly emphasize how complicated it is to address such deep-seated ideologies in consumer space and in the hands of corporations like American Apparel.

An ad for American Apparel's transgendered and transsexual model search.

An ad for American Apparel’s transgendered and transsexual model search.

American Apparel fancies its mannequins are statements of a novel notion of uncontrived, “natural” beauty.  In a press release last week the company indicated that “American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration.  We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form.”  American Apparel’s defense of the “natural female form” is a strategically uplifting celebration of “real life” bodies, and perhaps it inches away from the notion of beauty materialized in super model aesthetics.  For instance, last year the firm ran ads with a transgendered model and was crafting campaigns with more transgendered and transsexual models.  The corporation has likewise long argued that it refutes the clothing industry’s ideological notion of beauty, suggesting last week that the hirsute mannequins reflected the philosophy of “our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.” Read the rest of this entry