In my final months of high school, I would sometimes open my laptop and do some online window-shopping during class. I had a Google Drive folder — titled “prefrosh fun >:D” — containing wishlists of clothes and dorm decorations alongside inventories of courses and potential concentrations. The clothes, like the concentrations, felt like signs of my future: a glimpse at who I could become once I moved to college.
At some point, I stumbled upon a tennis skirt from Los Angeles Apparel. On the website, bored-looking models posed in color-blocked clothing against a white background, and at the bottom of the webpage was a “Featured on Instagram” tab. Under the subtitle was a carousel of women posing in parks, apartments, and strip malls in every color of the brand’s tennis skirts. All of the photos were bright, grainy, and sexy in a way that seemed effortless.
The persona I had built for myself in high school was defined by good grades and raw ambition. Although I credit my nerdy, overachieving behavior with getting me into Harvard, it also blanketed me in a blob of sexlessness for almost all of my adolescence. My perceived plainness was compounded by my race. Growing up as a person of color in a white, conservative suburb of Texas, I was marked as ugly before I even knew what beauty meant.
Committing to Harvard felt liberating to me. In a student body full of nerdy overachievers, I no longer had to make academics my sole selling point. On a liberal campus far more diverse than my hometown (though still predominantly white), I thought my race would no longer be a burden. I could slough off my old, undesirable self and become anyone I wanted to be.
When the tennis skirt came in the mail, I felt like I had received the first piece of my new personality. Los Angeles Apparel was selling me a piece of overpriced clothing, but they were also selling me the chance to become one of the women on their Instagram page: reclining in a short skirt and spaghetti-strapped tank top, a lilac sunset framing my silhouette.
Los Angeles Apparel is the reincarnation of American Apparel, its far more popular predecessor from the mid-2000s. American Apparel’s ads sold sex unashamedly. Their billboards displayed faceless women in thigh highs, topless women in technicolor tights, women on white bedsheets with their legs splayed open. American Apparel’s aesthetic garnered controversy, but it also made the label one of the most popular clothing brands of its time.
American Apparel was one facet of indie sleaze fashion. The subculture — characterized by flash photography, wired-in headphones, grungy, indulgent clothing, and lamé everything — was a hedonistic response to the Great Recession, resisting the cleanliness and curation that marked that era. Now, indie sleaze is experiencing a renaissance. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and a rollback on social freedoms in the United States and United Kingdom, adopting the indie sleaze aesthetic feels like dressing for a party at the end of the world.
I love the cluttered, mismatched eroticism of indie sleaze. That said, I think the messiness of the movement runs deeper than sweat and smudged eyeliner. Cultural critics who lived through the first wave of indie sleaze recall how the opulence of the subculture was built atop rail-thin beauty standards and rampant misogyny.
Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel and Los Angeles Apparel, could arguably be called the architect of indie sleaze. He pioneered the direct flash photography and the bright, sordid sexiness that came to define the subculture.
Charney also had a reputation for being a massive creep. American Apparel’s decline began with a series of lawsuits leveled against Charney, accusing him of sexual harassment. Although Charney was never found guilty, he was ousted from his role as the CEO of American Apparel, and the company swiftly went bankrupt.
Two years after his fall from grace, Charney started Los Angeles Apparel, a quiet copycat of his original brand. In recent years, Los Angeles Apparel has experienced a surge in popularity alongside the resurgence of indie sleaze. The brand’s Instagram account — full of washed-out, filmy photos — now has over 159,000 followers — including me.
Since coming to college, I have amassed a collection of tennis skirts from Los Angeles Apparel. Sometimes, I try to make excuses for my wardrobe decisions — besides, doesn’t everyone I know, regardless of their progressive ideals, still shop from Amazon? Still, I can’t shake the fact that my love for Los Angeles Apparel opposes my self-professed feminist politics. When I add another tennis skirt to my shopping cart, I line the pockets of a man who built his career on the degradation of women.
I could stop shopping from Los Angeles Apparel, but I’m not sure if I could ever escape the contradiction of holding feminist convictions while trying to survive as a woman in the world. Femininity has never felt natural to me. Whenever I shave my legs or curl my hair or wear makeup, I don’t feel “empowered” or “good about myself,” as countless beauty magazines have told me I should. When I doll myself up, I’m not chasing an amorphous sense of self-satisfaction — I’m trying to secure social capital.
Like many women, I’m hyper-aware of how my appearance influences my treatment by society. Since I hit puberty, I have been treated more kindly by the world when I make an effort to be prettier and more palatable. This phenomenon is what the writer and activist Janet Mock calls pretty privilege: “the societal advantages, often unearned, that benefit people who are perceived as pretty or considered beautiful.” Beauty, of course, often aligns with societal standards of acceptability. By being cis, able-bodied, and relatively thin, I meet some of these standards, and pretty privilege is conferred to me without any effort on my part. At the same time, my race sets me at a disadvantage in a Eurocentric system.
Although it comes with societal benefits, I don’t want to conflate prettiness with power. During his tenure at American Apparel, Dov Charney would select his models by thumbing through application photographs and selecting the women that appealed to him. Prettiness is at the mercy of male desire — and I am intimately familiar with the ways that women are punished for failing to maintain beauty.
For most of my life, I was told that I was ugly and unfuckable. I spent years swimming in baggy t-shirts and crying in fitting rooms, constantly at war with my body. For this reason, I don’t entirely fault myself for aspiring to the laidback, lo-fi sexiness advertised by Los Angeles Apparel. Though personal choice is not above scrutiny, I struggle to fault any woman for chasing the capital that comes with prettiness, no matter how compromised that capital may be.
I long to be the type of woman with a pure moral compass, if such a woman even exists. I don’t want to hand my money to faceless CEOs in a conference room, whether that CEO is Dov Charney or the men who run almost every major razor company, lingerie label, and beauty brand. But at the end of the day, I know I will wear my tiny tennis skirts to parties, because I crave the capital that comes with being a desirable woman. I will wear makeup to all of my job interviews, because I know beauty will help me get what I want.
The other day, I started scrolling through Instagram stories while I was procrastinating writing a paper. On Los Angeles Apparel’s story, I saw a call for new models — no experience required. My thumb pinned the story to my screen, freezing the ad like digital taxidermy.
I could never model for Los Angeles Apparel. I am neither tall nor model-skinny, and I know of too many family members that would die of shame if they saw me posing in a lamé string bikini. Still, in that moment, I reveled in the fantasy of my body, framed by the brand’s Instagram account, awash in the camera flash and its white light.
— Magazine writer Yasmeen A. Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.