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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear