The first time I met Dov Charney, I had no idea it was him.
Unlike what many might imagine, he was not overtly "creepy" and didn't say or do anything to make me feel uncomfortable. He smiled, happy to meet one of his newer employees, and was nothing but polite as he looked me in the eyes, reached out to shake my hand and continued about his business.
At the time, I was leaving the American Apparel Los Angeles headquarters and heading to a photo shoot for the brand. I am one of their "regular" models that appears frequently on the website wearing different colors and styles of their catalogue.
What I am not, however, is what you would consider a "typical" model. I am not Caucasian, blonde and blue-eyed, I have one eye that is slightly smaller than the other, and I barely reach 5'8" on a good day. I am Asian with freckles on my face, have scars on my knees from running and falling as a kid, and am considered too short to be a high-fashion model.
But at American Apparel, that was all okay. In fact, it's what the famed brand has historically embraced about its eclectic array of models: different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, hair colors, skin types, heights and backgrounds. There are pale girls, tan girls, short girls, tall girls, multiethnic girls, young girls and even elderly girls in their advertisements.
It's not to say that everything at American Apparel is peachy keen. There's no doubt that certain images associated with the brand have been out-of-the-box risqué and sometimes downright inappropriate. In the same tow, the aforementioned Dov Charney was fired from American Apparel for "misconduct" in mid-2014 following multiple reports and incidents of his strange behavior.
I was on the phone with my mom as I parked in the parking lot of the Los Angeles American Apparel headquarters for my very first test shoot. She, in excitement about my new potential opportunity, had checked out the website. As any mother would be, she was concerned.
"Are you sure? Some of these pictures are..." She paused, unsure what to say. My mom, though far from the stereotypical strict, suffocating "Asian mom," was worried not only about my image, but my safety.
I promised both verbally to her and myself that I wouldn't pose in any way that made me uncomfortable. This included any type of nude, implied nude or suggestive poses or pieces of clothing as many of their lingerie and controversial advertisements show. As a full-time student, a journalist hopeful, as well as a role model for my two younger cousins who were avid shoppers at the brand, I knew it just wasn't for me.
The reason why I continued to model at American Apparel for two years following that day is because I never received any pressure to go against my promise. On the first day, after test shooting a couple of their signature American Apparel zip-up hoodies, my photographer asked if I would be comfortable modeling a pair of underwear. I took them in hand and stared at them for a moment. Immediately sensing my hesitation, he added, "If you don't want to, it's totally okay. We'll skip it."
And we did. When shooting product (images you see online when shopping on the website), whenever I was handed a piece of lingerie, a cheeky bodysuit or even a dress made of a slightly see-through fabric, I would give my photographer a look, to which he would come to know meant: "We'll skip it."
My mom now asks me to send her all of the images I shoot with American Apparel and eagerly shares them with her friends. She often calls to tell me that she's so proud.
That's the reason I returned to American Apparel for the next two years to continue modeling and learning about their brand. The people I met were fun, accepting and interesting. The models I met and worked with were beautiful, most untraditionally or not obviously so, but all hardworking, sweet and diverse. Some were students, like me. Others were entrepreneurs, modeling for fun while working on their own jewelry lines or music careers. There were world travellers, drummers, record-signed singers, tri-linguists and even a marine biologist.
In short, the people I have met are far from "Instagram hoes" or "thots," whatever those are. As Animal New York unveiled, American Apparel's latest campaign to rebrand their company following the departure of Dov Charney aims to cast models that "conform to industry standards." Senior Vice President of Marketing Cynthia Erland of the company allegedly said that currently, the site's featured models are "too short," "too round" and far from her desired image of predominantly Eastern European or Russian models.
Despite the fact that the company has been endlessly chastised for their unconventional imagery, the company itself has never once reprimanded their models for not looking or behaving a certain way. None of the models I have ever worked with have been told that they are too fat or too thin, too pale or too dark. The images have an incredible turnaround rate because barely, if any Photoshop is used to "perfect" blemishes or alter the model's true image. In fact, the only time I was ever asked not to do something was once when I showed up wearing eyeliner. They asked if I could take it off and model with a natural, no makeup face instead, please. All of their models are organically real -- both inside and out.
In case you're wondering, this is me. According to the Los Angeles-based agency Photogenics that were the culprits behind the disrespectful casting call email, as well as the new American Apparel CEO Paula Schneider and Cynthia Erland, I am not good enough. The dozens of beautiful and stunningly diverse models I once worked with are no longer acceptable.
The women (and men) I've worked with at American Apparel are far from deserving of being called a "hoe." We embraced the brand, because they once embraced us. Not the airbrushed, censored, "Barbie-fied" us -- the imperfect skin, natural faced, birthmarked us.
There was a special kind of beauty in the real world woman that American Apparel was once open to embracing. Whether one partook or not, a woman's sexuality was free, her imperfection was free -- hell, even the nipple was once free. After over 15 years of establishing a truly unique brand amongst the dime a dozen of overly tanned, lanky blonde girl look, I thought that perhaps someone out there who looked more like me would find solace in knowing that at least one major American retailer understood that there is more than just one image of a woman out there.
To American Apparel, I thank you for once giving me and countless other customers the courage to believe that we are beautiful even without makeup and just as the sizes we are. May that valuable lesson live on -- far beyond the future American Apparel brand.