American Apparel's CEO Dov Charney has been removed by the company's board. Photo: Getty
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Dov Charney, Terry Richardson, and the misogynistic truth about hipster cool

A bizarre double standard has emerged in the fashion world, where misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation.

“Can I buy clothes from American Apparel and still be a feminist?” goes the not-so-age-old question.

I can’t help being hyper aware of just having written that sentence while wearing an oh-so-soft American Apparel t-shirt. But now that the company’s notoriously misogynistic CEO, Dov Charney, is finally being forced out by the board, maybe I can stop sweating. A little bit, at least.

While the US hipster uniform merchant shrouds itself in ethical credentials – anti-sweatshop, pro-gay – Charney is cited in multiple sexual harassment lawsuits. But those sweet “legalise gay” t-shirts are enough to make many of us, myself included, turn a blind eye to everything going on beyond the cool, minimalistic storefronts.

An advert for a new American Apparel store in Amsterdam.

This has been a bad week for some of the fashion industry’s worst kept secrets. While the charming Mr Charney’s string of alleged assaults have finally had consequences for him, another fashion stalwart is under fire, yet again. That is, of course, photographer Terry Richardson. Known for his stark, overexposed pictures of (mostly) female flesh, Richardson has been accused of sexual harassment by a number of the women he’s photographed. Sunday’s New York Magazine profile piece on Richardson propelled him right back to where he seems to belong – that is, at the forefront of a debate about the fashion industry’s treatment of women.

Charney and Richardson represent an uncomfortable truth about our current conception of coolness. The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women. In the name of cool, we so often make allowances for men like these. With their 70s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines (sorry…) between sexism and chicness.

Now that Charney is out of the picture, we may feel slightly cosier in our American Apparel hoodies. But, we mustn’t forget all of the times we ignored the women who spoke out against sexist men in the fashion industry. Admittedly, ethical shopping is increasingly difficult. High street clothing chains, in particular, are rarely out of the spotlight for everything from the use of child labour to sexist ad campaigns. If we were to boycott every brand that comes under fire for generalised nastiness, we’d be left with few affordable options. What we can do though is be wary of the culture of misogyny creeping into our notion of cool. If it looks sexist, it probably is.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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