Saturday, September 7, 2013

American Apparel Has Tapped the Wrong Trend

       It started with the simple plan to invest in stock, specifically a stock from a company that was undervalued, so I could buy it for cheap and maybe make a couple of bucks as the stock appreciated on the company's turnaround. My 14-year-old daughter said I should look at companies that teenagers like, such as American Apparel, which she shops now and then, with my money. Not one to waste advice, I decided to check it out.
       And what do you know, American Apparel indeed is in turnaround mode, its stock trading for less than $2 a share, as the company revamps its operations and sales strategy. They have lost money in the last seven quarters or so, but have had good sales lately and expect to make a profit in fourth quarter of this year. What's more, investor extraordinaire George Soros last year gave the company an $80 million cash infusion, so confident is he about its prospects. So I took a few dollars from my savings and bought some shares.
       Last night, I decided to check American Apparel's website, to get a feel if their website seems to be up to the turnaround task, although I don't know exactly which criteria I was going to use to evaluate that. In any case, I start clicking to look at their clothing, and I run into this:

       I click some more, and with few exceptions, the images that followed were equally suggestive. All their models are girls no older than high school, sticking their butts out, lifting their skirts, lowering their bikini bottoms, lifting their shirts, lying down in come-hither poses, you get the idea. (If online porn is your thing, all you have to do is go to the AA website.)
        As I started to stay rational in my reaction to the images, I decided to look at the website's images for men's clothing, which, for the most part, look something like this:

        Slightly different approach, don't you think? Doesn't he look like a clean cut guy who still has some growing up to do, while he explores science and technology and sports and age-appropriate social interaction? And aren't we just happy to let him do so?
         But what are the ads saying to his female classmates?
        As I read more about American Apparel, it turns out that its racy ads have repeatedly been  criticized by the British Advertising Authority, for, essentially, using young women in pornographic poses. Here in the U.S.?  Nothing. Not an ounce of criticism, never mind outrage.
         And as I ponder the whys and wherefores of how and why I am shocked and offended and outraged, I come accross an article a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page. (Thank you Maria Aurora.) The article (link below) delved into how our society has come to play so loosely with girls' ages, when it comes to sexuality.
         That women are exploited as sexual symbols is as old as Moses, so it doesn't exactly qualify as a trend. What does constitute a disturbing trend, especially in this country in which we boast of advancement and freedom, is at the much younger age this exploitation of girls is now beginning.
         The American Psychological Association has taken notice, and in 2007 it commissioned a task force to look into the consequences of this trend. None of them are good.  Surprise, surprise. To learn more about the APA's work on this, click here.
          To be sure, smart girls and girls who are allowed, encouraged and nurtured to be the full persons that they are, can see through the message and know that those images have nothing to do with who they are and who they will become. Certainly, the girls in the panel shown in the video below are all smarter and more insightful than top management at American Apparel. It is just a pity that they have to constantly wade through the barrage of degrading messages, just because they happen to girls.
          As to American Apparel stock, of course I'm selling it, ridding myself of my tiny ownership of the company with a big teenage "eeww".
         Wish George Soros would do the same.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Have You Hugged a Physicist Lately?

        I first saw the TV show Big Bang Theory in passing, while surfing with the remote. I watched it for a few minutes, got the gist of a story line about nerdy college roommates, and then moved on, thinking, "Hmm, that looked strangely familiar."
        Having gone to a school near MIT, science nerds were part and parcel of my social life, such as that was in an all-girl school.  So my second thought was, "Is this possible, a show all about the MIT types I met while in college?" And the title was intriguing, for sure.
        Weeks passed before I landed on the show again, and something made me stop and pay attention, like a regression compulsion. And so I got to meet Sheldon, the clueless uber nerd; his roommate Leonard, the balanced nerd; Howard, the self-delusional nerd; and Raj, the foreign nerd. Now I'm just hooked on everything that is happening to them. Will Sheldon ever sleep with Amy, who possibly outdoes him in intellectual nerdiness, but is more socially curious? Will Leonard get to keep the interest of their pretty and street-savvy neighbor Penny? Did Bernadette really accept Howard's live-with-mom situation? Who will Raj hook up with?
        I'm not alone. The show, now in its sixth season, reached the 20 million viewers mark in January, a milestone that puts it in the same category as Seinfeld and I Love Lucy.
       How is it that that a cerebral but socially inept group of physicists at Cal Tech has managed to elicit a response from so many people?  I know as viewers we always will relate to dysfunction, a typical element of sitcoms, including Big Bang. It makes us feel like we're not the only ones.

        But consider that Big Bang's dialogue contains regular references to actual science, for which the show uses as consultant David Saltzberg, a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, who in his free time does some very scientific work in Antarctica. And that the sex in the show is pretty innocent, even wholesome. And that there's no display of obscene wealth, or even ordinary wealth. And that we also look to find better versions of ourselves in TV characters, be it the sexy one or the successful one or the compassionate one or the common-sensical one or a combination.
       Who is it we're identifying with in Big Bang? We are talking physicists -- not lawyers or doctors or private investigators or police officers or school teachers or single parents or married couples, or any of the other more common professional or family roles usually presented in sitcoms. And who are these other 19,999,999 viewers? (Not my 13-year-old daughter. She likes American Horror Story and reruns of Desperate Housewives.)
         As it turns out, one of them is a long-time friend of mine who graduated from MIT and several other places after that, and now teaches and researches artificial intelligence in Wisconsin. I asked him what he liked about the show. He told me, but asked me to identify him by his middle name, William. I think that's because it might feel kind of incongruous to be published in respected scientific journals and also be quoted in a friend's silly blog. I get it. Anyway, here's what Dr. William said:
         "So why do I like Big Bang Theory? For one I find it funny, but that isn't a very interesting comment. Maybe a bit more specific is that in the male characters I see aspects of personalities of current and present friends and acquaintances from the world of science and technology - each of the four main characters remind me of one or two people I know. And guess I identify with Leonard a bit."
         I say to William: You are definitely taller than Leonard, but indeed, you and your friends all could probably identify with him a little bit, which isn't to say there isn't some of the other three in you as well, although, for the record, none of you lived with his mom. Leonard is the more normal of the bunch in that he gets the rest of humanity, despite being highly intelligent and applied in his scientific pursuits. His on-and-off girlfriend Penny, an aspiring actress who works in Cheesecake Factory and is gifted with common sense and street smarts, jerks him around as her hormones dictate, with Leonard playing the unwitting dork time and again.
        But in one episode in which Penny decides to try and have more respect for Leonard, she shows up at his lab, where he shows her what he's working on. The Big Bang Theory - 06x05 The Holographic ExcitationUnpretentious Leonard, seemingly out of thin air, produces beautiful holograms before her eyes. Penny falls quiet, genuinely wowed, and says tenderly: "Sometimes I forget how smart you really are." Leonard beams and seems to grow six inches taller.       
      Similarly, the "romance" between Amy and Sheldon -- a fastidious boy-man whose put downs would be insulting if the source wasn't so clueless and neurotic -- is reassuring in portraying that there is someone for everyone. 
        So I don't know if we've had enough of characters defined by little more than sex appeal, or if we are secretly hungry for more intellectual accomplishment and get it vicariously through these characters, or both, but whatever the reason, I'm pleased that the show is 20 million strong. There's a world of intense intellectual activity functioning along with the one of celebrity and wealth obsessions, thank God, and maybe Big Bang reminds us.
        And William, I've never forgotten how smart you really are.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hair Grooming at the Bar

        It was a Saturday afternoon, I was driving back from the beach and my cell rang. I got an invitation to dinner for that evening, which I accepted. Short notice, to be sure, and a girl has her pride, so I said to pick me up at nine. I wanted to get ready at my leisure, including transforming my beach hair into something kids wouldn't stare at and giggle. It was past four already.
        I got home, took a shower, went straight to Supercuts, and asked to have my hair washed and blow-dried. They looked at me quizzically, "That's all?" they asked. "Yeah, just want it to look nice, I'm going out." Some thirty minutes later I was all set to go. My date -- who had warned me he'd wear jeans and sneakers -- gave me a look-over glance and commented, "I like your hair." (And neither here nor there, but he started seriously grooming for subsequent dates, and the restaurants kept getting nicer.)
        Try as I might, I don't get the same result when I do my own blow-drying. (Exhibit 1: my picture on this blog.) The power of professionally dried hair can go a long way. Somehow, it makes us look more together. Yeah, it's all appearance, only skin deep. But sometimes, that's all we can control. And here I have to quote recently deceased writer Nora Ephron: "Twice a week, I go to a beauty salon and have my hair blown dry. It's cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting." Ah, the wisdom.
       And not to make psychoanalysts or therapists nervous, but the hair salon industry is catching on, with the creation of so-called "blow-dry bars" or "dry bars" or even "blow bars". With names like Blow&Go and MyBlow, these salons are dedicated to the sole service of washing and blow-drying your hair. Set up assembly-line style, you can walk in without an appointment and in thirty minutes get rid of the demons in your hair, if not in your head. For $35, that's not a bad deal.
         In South Florida, I've just learned of one dry bar opening this fall in Boca Raton, and one recently opened near downtown Miami. Reportedly, women are going before work, at lunch and between work and happy hour. Men have been sighted in them too. The LA Times just reported the trend here:,0,6376602.story. The Wall Street Journal, ever so alert, picked up on it earlier:
         My rush-to-Supercuts date was before any of these articles, so maybe the trend is catching up with me. As soon after a dry bar opens near me, I'll be updating my blog picture. Until then, thank you for reading me with bad hair.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Store-Shelf Medical Care

       Observing the health care industry is about as much fun as getting the bill for a medical procedure. My latest one was some very minor outpatient surgery, the bill for which totalled $28,000. Thank God for health insurance.
        But trends happen where they happen, including health care. ("Mom, that's why you only have like eight followers," my daughter says, when I tell her what I'm writing about.)
        Be that as it may, while doing my job of tracking shopping center vacancies (hey, I get paid), a funny thing began to happen. First, about two years ago, video stores began closing -- Blockbuster, Hollywood Video. First a few of them, eventually all of them, as Netflix conquered the world. Then, some of those former video store spaces began filling up with new takers: Baptist Urgent Care, Kendall Regional Urgent Care. Since then, urgent care centers have become an increasingly common tenant in shopping centers throughout South Florida. 
       And throughout the country, it turns out.
       Urgent care centers have been proliferating nationwide to the tune of some 300 new ones opening every year, according to the Urgent Care Association of American. These facilities  provide less intensive services than a hospital's emergency room, but more intensive services than a physician's office. They're open longer hours, usually seven days a week, and you don't need an appointment. They're suitable for conditions that need immediate attention but which aren't life threatening, such as minor fractures, cuts, infections and dehydration.  Many are equipped with x-ray machines and labs. Most of them take insurance. For self-pay patients, they will cost lest than a visit to an ER.


        By all accounts, urgent care centers are a cost-efficient alternative to the ER for many conditions, not to mention a more convenient one. Pick up your dry cleaning, get a few groceries, and stop in to check that sore throat. There is a growing body of literature from all manner of stakeholders concerning the role of urgent care in the health care conundrum, but what fascinates me is how this very consumer un-friendly industry is now taking a cue from the retail industry, which is all about making the shopping experience easy, convenient, pleasant, practical, one that accomodates itself to the rest of your life.
        This new marriage of health care and retail doesn't stop at the shopping center. An interesting parallel trend is the emergence of in-store clinics at drug stores such as CVS and Walgreens and general merchandisers like Walmart. Talk about one-stop shopping: shampoo, vitamins, mascara, beach chairs and antibiotics, because that ear ache your daughter was complaining about turned out to be an infection, the in-store clinician just confirmed after taking a swab.

       I think payment allocation in the health care industry is a quagmire in which no one has reason to be happy, except maybe health insurance executives. I don't know that urgent care centers and in-store clinics will make any headway in improving the situation. I also think it is more fun to go to the shopping center for a movie rental and a new pair of sandals than for cystitis.
       But I'm beginning to warm up to the idea of medical services getting broken down to the store- shelf level. Some urgent care centers, it is reported, display prices for their procedures on a board, menu style. With any luck, as urgent care centers start popping up in even more shopping centers, there soon will be daily specials and loyalty rewards programs.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Light Feathery Touch

       One fun thing about looking for trends is that you can ask anyone for a clue, because almost everybody is always on to something. Of course, one person's trend is another person's passe. But somewhere in between is the nut of the trend, if you allow room for subjectivity and loosely calibrated trend meters.
       And so it was that sometime this past September, while driving around for a work-related survey, I stepped into a new local store, and decided to ask a young customer if there was anything in fashion that was trendy right now. She showed me a pair of bead necklaces, with a kind of Indian or hippy-ish look to them, in the accessories section. These are trendy, she said. The necklaces reminded me of the flower-child look of the sixties, and I left it at that. Fashion snippets from past decades resurface now and then, and I can't decide whether to call it a trend or a lack of originality. So I sent bead necklaces to the same  ambivalent file where I put cork-platform shoes.
        But the young, friendly woman at the Miami store, with a strand of bright green hair and a feather weaved in, sure was pointing me to another trend.
        Yesterday, while on my annual post-Christmas trip to Manhattan with my daughter, 12 going on 15, we naturally had to step into the five-level Forever 21 store in Times Square. Forever 21, in case you don't know, is this proliferating chain of clothing stores that is taking the retail market by storm for its endless production of cheap and cute clothing that passes for fashionable and wearable for the young set, and anybody else who can get away with it. It's kind of like the Ikea of clothing. And what item dominated the front-and-center accessories rack? Feathers, feathers, feathers. Feather earrings, feather necklaces, feather headbands, feather clips. All color feathers, all size feathers. And not in boas -- that's so twenties, no. Earrings, necklaces and hair. That's where the feathers are going.

         Understated feathers is not how fashion designers would have had it. For at least the past couple years, designers such as Robert Cavalli and Salvatore Ferragamo have been using feathers, lots of them, in the creation of dresses and skirts, so that fully-feathered models have been walking the runway for a while. And there's the famous Ferragamo pheasant handbag  worn by Carry Bradshaw in one of the Sex and the City movies.  But from there to mass market? Unless I've missed something, feathered dresses and skirts haven't made the leap.

           Feather hair extensions have caught on more, to the point that they have jacked up the price of feathers, according to this article:, and the anger of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, according to this article: Neither one of those bode well for any mass market trend.
          Which is why I think Forever 21, the ultimate mass marketer, is pointing us to where the feathers will ultimately land, synthetic ones of course. It'll be one here, a couple there, and maybe feather prints in clothing.
          It's about an earthy touch in the look, without becoming some other species.