Black to the future

Black to the future

Picture it. The 1960s ad market. Cigarette boxes danced and kids colored with “Flesh” crayons straight from the Crayola Caucasian collection – assuming you were either anemic or came from Flekkefjord.

And then, Alevai! PC pummeled in. Ciggies were out and Crayola got the memo. “Flesh” was renamed “Peach” in 1962, “Indian Red” eventually became “Chestnut,” and even earlier “Prussian Blue” turned to “Midnight Blue” in case Kaisers started goose-stepping during the Cold War.

We’ve come a long way – or have we?

Recently, Dov Charney’s American Apparel introduced a “kewl” new addition: A nail polish collection free of formaldehyde – but clearly not free of the company’s signature chutzpah.

The color? Black. The name? “chasid.”

True, this offense is mild by contemporary standards. Most tweenies who feel the need to “Go Goth” don’t know chasid from birdseed. But Jews know. And yes, we actually buy nail polish! As a matter of fact, as someone with a 4-year-old daughter who has recently taken a particular shine to the shiny stuff, I feel entitled to some free samples for PR testing purposes on behalf of American Apparel – and MOTs.

American Apparel CEO and founder Dov Charney, born a Jewish Canadian in 1969, is one of the most colorful, controversial, and out-there entrepreneurs in the world. He started the company in 1989, when he was 20, and makes clothes in the heartland of the United States – downtown L.A. Moreover, the company proudly boasts that each employee gets health benefits and incentives.

Charney does not have any particular relationship with chasidim. His company was successfully sued for $5 million by another Jew, Woody Allen, over a billboard showing the filmmaker’s Annie Hall character in the famous chasidic garb dream sequence.

How ironic then, that Charney should use the term “chasid,” especially when his company was under fire from critics for using suggestive Polaroid photo-billboard ads capturing young (or very young-looking) models in moments of vulnerable candor. But then, this was a boy whose first venture, according to the New York Times, was selling rainwater he had collected in mayonnaise jars to his neighbors.

Despite Charney’s word use, his marketing is far from kosher. The term chasid means piety or loving-kindness, and has become synonymous with a dress style known as tzniut, loosely translated as modesty. Whilst contemporary culture has convinced us all to become obsessed with size, complexion, fashion (and nail polish), a mystical approach to fashion shows that clothes don’t just cover the external self. They also reveal the inner self.

The Hebrew word for world – olam – is related to the root for hidden (ne’elam). When discussing why the divine is not more obviously manifest in the world, the Talmud notes “that God wears the world like a garment.”

I would argue to Dov that while modest clothing may cost more to produce, it does produce benefits by creating a private space, without fear from external objectification, where we each can truly be our true self.

To my mind, in a world where the human body has been reduced to tacky billboards, have we have not only become overexposed, but have we gone “black” to the future?