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Black to the Future: American Apparel Gets Biblical

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? "Hassid."
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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? "Hassid."

True, this offense is mild by contemporary standards and most tweenies who feel the need to "Go Goth" don't know Hassid from birdseed. But Jews know. And yes, we actually buy nail polish! As a matter of fact, as someone with a four-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 who firmly believed in Yankee Doodle Dandy U.S. fashion, is one of the most colorful, controversial, successful and "out there" entrepreneurs in the world. He started the company in 1989 at age 20, and makes clothes in the heartland of the U.S. -- downtown L.A. Moreover the company proudly boasts that each employee gets health benefits and incentives.

Charney, who is himself Jewish (not that you can hide it with a name like Dov), does have a particular relationship to the Hassids. His company was successfully sued for five million dollars by another Israelite, Woody Allen, over a billboard of his Annie Hall character in the famous Hasidic garb dream sequence.

How ironic then, that Charney should use the term "Hassid," especially when his
company was under fire from critics for using suggestive Polaroid photo-billboard ads capturing young (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 using the term 'Hassid,' his marketing is far from kosher. The term Hassid 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 but another they also reveal the inner self.

The Hebrew word for "world" (olam) is etiologically related to the same root as "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 whilst modest clothing may cost more to produce, it does produce benefits by creating a private space without fear from external objectification where we can truly be our true self.

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

About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known
best-selling author whose first book, "Up, Up and Oy Vey!" received the
Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications
including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He
was recently voted New York's Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs
the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book
is "The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better."