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Man of the Cloth

American Apparel’s new spin on the “shmata business”

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The men and women who usually model for American Apparel, the Los Angeles-based chain that’s cornered the market on bright, solid-colored clothing, look perpetually ready to jump into bed. What then can be made of their new ad, a nine-shot tableau of a Hasidic clothing merchant?

American Apparel has long garnered attention for their vaguely voyeuristic ads: flatly lit, haphazardly cropped photos of amateur models in deliberately spontaneous poses, wearing little but their skivvies. They exemplify the strategy that has made the 8-year-old company successful—infusing the ordinary with sex appeal—and have fanned sparks around two sexual harassment suits against founder Dov Charney.

Turns out the maniacally mustached entrepreneur himself took the photos of the bearded salesman during a 2003 visit to his native Montreal. With oversized glasses to match Charney’s, the bearded salesman (originally seen on the company’s website) leans on a rack of black suits, chatting with the photographer and projecting a casual authority. Often, when Orthodox men are photographed, they come off as curious foreigners—either specimens under a microscope, like Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s contended Methuselah, or else objects of casual caricature. But Charney’s photos, shot in the style of his other ads, evoke the same intimacy that makes his usual subjects so seductive, making the merchant appear more human, more ordinary, and even, yes, a little hip.

The effect is only magnified by the tagline, “There’s nothing like the shmata business.” When used these days by anyone under 50, and more dubiously by retailers, the word “shmata” tends to ring of irony, if not mockery. Yet Charney means it when he calls his company a “shmata business”—he loved when Malcolm Gladwell compared him to the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century handschumachers of upstate New York. “They were glove EXPERTS, and I was a T-shirt EXPERT,” he told Mireille Silcoff. “It’s just so fucking old school Jewish. I thought, ‘I’m REVITALIZING a TRADITION.” Playing up the link between a Hasidic merchant, a secular mogul, and a long-lived working-class ethos is not only surprising—imagine Ralph Lauren harking back to midtown garment factories—but oddly heartwarming, and far more convincing than you’d expect.

One wonders what Charney discussed with the salesman that day, and why he left with a black suit and fur hat of his own—to show genuine respect, or give the story a proper punchline? But the ad succeeds because for a moment it endows dignity on two unlikely subjects: the Hasidic clothing merchant—who, with his long racks of black garments, is the original purveyor of plainness—and Charney, who may not deserve the sheen of innocence that the “shmata business” suggests.

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Man of the Cloth

American Apparel’s new spin on the “shmata business”

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