American Apparel is moving on up with its "They O.K." campaign

Written with contributing reporting and editing by Devin Nonnenman

In an era where baby boomers are just getting hip to “the singular they”, American Apparel rolled out its "They O.K." campaign this summer. Just as Urban Outfitters partnered with GLSEN for its Pride collection and American Eagle with It Gets Better, all proceeds from AA’s rainbow-minimalist capsule go to the Trevor Project. Founded in 1998, the Trevor Project seeks to provide mental health resources to LGBT+ youth through hotlines, digital chats and in-person workshops.

“They O.K.: All pronouns welcome” shirt, $24

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Sabina Weber, AA’s director of brand marketing, explained that "They O.K." is simply another act of solidarity in the brand's long-standing relationship with the LGBT+ community.

"I think that we live in a very challenging time," Weber said. "Where there’s an opportunity to support each other, we should."

From hits and misses — related to the LGBT+ community and otherwise — AA is moving ahead in a brighter, more thoughtful direction. Love the brand or hate it, AA’s growth is evidenced in its evolutions from Pride campaign past and the intentionality with which “They O.K.” came together.  

Isaac Sterling shot the campaign, Karina Vega styled hair on set and Monica Alvarez did the makeup.

When it came to the “They O.K.” shoot itself, Alvarez, the shoot’s makeup artist, said, “I feel very touched by each of the talents and the subject they casted in that campaign. It was such a wonderful, beautiful day. The energy, the camaraderie, the solidarity was contagious. It was palpable.”

“They O.K.” isn’t AA’s first time around the queer block: as far back as 2009, AA sold “Legalize Gay” shirts and “Repeal Prop 8” tees. In fact, AA’s Pride campaign for this year has its origins in AA’s 2012 slogan: “Gay O.K.”

Trans model Isis King was the cover girl and 15 percent of the proceeds went to queer media advocacy group GLAAD. Herndon Graddick, GLAAD’s president at the time, lauded AA for its “bold leadership” as one among few companies to include a trans model in its campaign.

2013 traded sans serifs for serifs and 2014 simply celebrated coming “OUT!”

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2014 brought a wave of visibility with AA’s cross-platform support of three former “Rupaul’s Drag Race” contestants. Willam from the 4th season, Courtney Act from the 5th season and Alaska Thunderfuck of 6th season and future All Stars 2 glory teamed up for a drag girl group called The AAA Girls.

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The group’s song “American Apparel Ad Girls” amassed more than 3 million view on YouTube. It sparked a tour spanning 15 cities and the release of the 2017 EP “Access All Areas.”

By the time 2016 rolled around, LGBT+ consumers were demanding more than just visibility. The fashion retailer traded GLAAD for the Human Rights Campaign and Rachel and Jack Antonoff’s Ally Coalition and AA reminded us that the personal is political with its “Make America Gay Again” merch.

(The hats make a guest appearance in Troye Sivan’s video for “Youth.”)

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The HRC was looking to boost its efforts on behalf the Equality Act (H.R.2282; S.1006), which would give LGBT+ folks more protections against unlawful termination, eviction and other kinds of discrimination. At the time, HRC Senior Vice President of Communications and Marketing Olivia Alair Dalton said, “We are excited about our partnership with the Ally Coalition and American Apparel, which empowers people to subvert the politics of hate and division by creatively speaking out for the equal rights and dignity of LGBTQ people.”

Going into this year’s Pride season, Weber explained, AA’s entire marketing team worked to develop the campaign. LGBT+ staffers were the "primary voice" from the creative side. One of the queer staffers on board, Matt, suggested the Trevor Project as AA’s partner for this year — based on real, positive experience with the outreach organization.

“They O.K.: All pronouns welcome" bag, $30

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Alvarez, explained how working with AA was a matter of chance. A friend of hers was unable to take the job and, belonging to a tight community of makeup artists and hair stylists, reached out to Alvarez.

“We are often relying on each other to help out, whether that’s an extra hand or a gig you can’t do. And that’s how I landed that particular campaign,” Alvarez said. “Of course, I was stoked, because 1) as an ally of the community, I wanted to be involved with the project,” Alvarez said. “But also, 2) I was interested to see how American Apparel as a brand was evolving.”

And evolving is a necessary for a company AA has been mired in its fair share of controversy: its former CEO, Dov Charney, trails behind him a string of sexual harassment allegations. On the production side, AA caught heat about its shift from a “Made in the USA” ethos to questionable garment manufacturing overseas. In hiring, Charney requested full body photographs of employees to ensure they fit the “AA aesthetic."

Regarding LGBT+ issues, where the caps and shirts of Pride 2016 were a big win, the totes did not go over so well. “LGBTQIA” was spelled out as “Lesbian / Gay / Bi / Transgender / Queer / Ally” — effectively erasing asexuals from the broadened picture.

The 2012 “Gay O.K.” campaign also received flack for erasure; the company’s lack of inclusion for the rest of the LGBT+ acronym in their shirts while featuring an openly trans model failed to properly exercise the inclusivity the campaign claimed.

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As far as casting goes, Weber said the call was, of course, specifically LGBT+ inclusive.

“We had an open model call, which is what we do in general. We put a posting out on social [media] saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking for real people to be apart of the campaign,'" Weber said. "And we just found people within the LGBT+ community that wanted to be models."

After doing test shoots, the American team narrowed the pool down to the final models that made the cut.

"We were just really proud that we could take the time to showcase real people — these are not famous people, right? These are everyday people that have a story to tell! — and make them feel like they’re part of something, part of a family," Weber said of the casting call.

"Still here, still queer" shirt, $24

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That concept of authenticity drove how Alvarez crafted looks for “They O.K.,” in both the end product and her approach.

“The specific creative direction for me — for my department, being makeup — was, ‘Let’s bring out who they are. We don’t want to make it heavy glam or anything like that.’ I think that’s kind of been an aesthetic that’s been consistent throughout the American Apparel campaign,” Alvarez said. “They wanted to keep it natural and raw."

In order to do that, however, Alvarez didn’t charge on with a subject idea of what a “natural” or “raw” face means. She took time to speak with the models and get a sense for how they beat their face on the daily.

“With some, it’s like, ‘A brow, a little bit of contour.’ It’s a little bit of consultation and a little bit of feeling the energy. Knowing in the back of my head what we’re going for, but also being true to the subject and who they are and what they feel comfortable in,” Alvarez said.

“It’s something so personal. I’m touching your face!” Alvarez said, laughing. “I’m in your face! Like, let’s get to know each other a little bit, shall we?”

This warmth is apparent throughout the “They O.K.” campaign and it has to be. A certain degree of consciousness and tenderness is critical for pulling off a LGBT+ fashion campaign on this scale. That combination should be the gold standard for big brands celebrating LGBT+ identity.

Independent of AA, queer folks often voice concerns about “pink capitalism” and corporations carelessly making a profit off of the community come every June and July. “They O.K.” shows us that even if the campaigns are seasonal, brand’s can perform allyship by doing the research, practicing inclusion and giving back to the community in a way that benefits queer folks year-round. 🍒