meat fashion
Pinar Yolacan
a virtual Pillow Book
China's clothing industry
Louise Brooks in Kimono
More Women Seek Vaginal Plastic Surgery
our vaginas, ourselves
A Western Geisha
More Japanese court ladies diaries
geisha on stylenotes
Oscars moment: Memoirs of a Geisha
calendario pirelli
Shoes the video
dragon robes
labor and garment in China
sweat shop watch website
clean clothes campaign
free the slaves
Costume changes decipher China's century-old social changes, People's Daily
Lolita clothing
this site sells Lolita clothing, Japanese school
uniform, Cosplay costumes, etc. These outfits appear frequently in Japanese anime and have become an important feature of Japanese culture.
Interestingly, most of the clothes are made in China.
And You Thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?
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And You Thought Abercrombie & Fitch Was Pushing It?

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Published: April 23, 2006

Dov Charney's office, in the corner of the top floor of American Apparel's factory headquarters in downtown Los Angeles — like American Apparel retail locations around the world, like Charney's house in nearby Echo Park and his apartment on the Lower East Side of New York, like Charney's mind itself — is a colorful, cluttered, retro-themed and stimulating place. Strewn around the vintage 1970's couches, you're likely to see an assortment of fabric scraps and prototype T-shirts beside samples of unusual light bulbs that Charney wants to test for store displays. On his desk sit copies of Playboy from the 1980's, their pages carefully annotated and tabbed with colored stickers denoting their depiction of socks, pants, T-shirts, electronics, car designs and other markers of style from the period. Next to these is a stack of come-on letters from television and film casting directors hoping to get Charney to supply them with the kind of fresh and unusual faces on display in American Apparel's provocative print ads. Further over you'll find some books that Charney has been consulting, including a collection of Andy Warhol's early hand-painted works; "The Concise 48 Laws of Power," by Robert Greene; and "The Medium Is the Message," by Charney's fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan. Pinned to the rear wall is some classic National Geographic-style cheesecake: pages ripped from a 1975 "Girls of Polynesia" calendar. It's an element echoed in a handful of the American Apparel stores, which feature displays of original covers from erotic magazines from the 70's and 80's, including Oui and Penthouse, and also sell paperback photo collections of the work of Yasumasa Yonehara, a Japanese photographer working in the erotic snapshot tradition pioneered by Nobuyoshi Araki.
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Matthias Clamer for The New York Times

Dov Charney thinks business and pleasure should mix, and he is counting on his Young Metropolitan Adults to agree.
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Matthias Clamer for The New York Times

Made in the U.S.A.: In downtown L.A., to be exact. And not only that, but with subsidized health care, meals and English lessons, plus free massages.

One morning this past winter, a dozen or so youthful American Apparel managers, nearly all of them women, were gathered in Charney's office for a meeting. Charney, a scrawny bundle of nervous energy, is a stream-of-consciousness C.E.O. There are no regularly scheduled reviews of marketing and production issues or strategic planning and the like; instead Charney deals with everything as it flows to him. And so, in the midst of evaluating the possibilities for a third production shift in American Apparel's factory in downtown L.A. so that clothing could be manufactured 24/7 and of Charney trying to whip his team into a frenzy about introducing a new gift card to lure people into their stores, a phone call came in from Burlington, Vt. Charney put it on the speaker so that the entire room could hear. The caller was one of those middle-aged men whose efforts to sound hip wind up making them seem slightly more square than they actually are. Hoping to interest American Apparel in advertising on his Web site, he was first eager to establish his bona fides with Charney.

"I have a great collection of 3-D — I guess you'd call it erotica," the man said. "But it's certainly vintage, and it's from the 50's, privately done. And I also have a whole bunch of Bettie Page. Well, that's not why I'm calling, but I just wanted to tell you I thought it was very cool when I walked into your store and saw the.. . ."

As the young women sitting around Charney's desk rolled their eyes and stifled giggles, Charney listened patiently. The man's Web site, a broadband venture, aimed to report and disseminate news about the environment.

"Now, me, I'm an old activist," the man explained. "And I really enjoyed your Web site and your mission statement. Because in Burlington there's this peace and justice association, about paying fair wages in the U.S., and you're doing righteous work. I want to congratulate you on that."

Grinning, Charney shouted, "It's a pervert with ethics!" More laughter.

"I've lived in London," the caller said. "I've lived in Europe. Murder, bombs, poison: now that's offensive. Naked people are beautiful, and—"

"God bless America!" Charney exclaimed.

"Absolutely," the man said. "Absolutely."

Dov Charney proudly refers to himself as a "Jewish hustler." But he is quite possibly the most unorthodox Jew in the history of the shmatte business. A complicated, charismatic and occasionally controversial figure — he is currently facing a sexual harassment suit — Charney is so acutely in tune with the cultural moment that he is somehow able to use the plain blank T-shirts that he sells to convey potent messages concerning contemporary sex and politics.

Charney, who is 37, originally made a name for himself as a designer and wholesaler of artisanal T-shirts made from softer, more finely knitted cotton than the commercial standard and cut for a snug, body-accentuating fit. (Alex Kuczynski, the Critical Shopper columnist for The New York Times, has written that they are "as close to the Platonic ideal of T-shirt as you can get.") In the past few years, however, he has become a peculiar sort of retail king. In the summer of 2003, when Charney rented a storefront gallery in Echo Park for an exhibit of photographs taken by his friend Luca Pizzaroni, it only occurred to him as an afterthought to offer some T-shirts for sale as well. The next day, when he discovered that he had rung up $1,500 in sales, he began signing more leases in hip neighborhoods in other cities. As of January, Charney had established more than 110 American Apparel stores in Los Angeles, New York, Montreal, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Seoul, Tokyo and Tel Aviv, with plans to open another 40 by year's end. Sales of American Apparel goods in 2005 totaled approximately $250 million, and the company's L.A. factory, which now employs more than 3,500 people and turns out more than 9,000 separate items, is the single largest garment factory in the United States.

By the looks of American Apparel's colorful array of basic clothing, it would be easy to conclude that the company is the Gap with a social conscience: two of Charney's key ideological concepts are "sweatshop free" and "vertical integration." All of American Apparel's clothing is made in downtown L.A., by workers to whom Charney pays an average of almost twice the minimum wage (and sometimes much more) and to whom he offers subsidized health care, meals and free English lessons, as well as regular massages. Charney says he believes that he can have a greater degree of quality control and quicker responsiveness to the marketplace by keeping everything in house.

But it's not just on the factory floor where American Apparel does not play by the rules of the Gap. While the Gap's imaging exemplifies the kind of sandblasted, bland notion of good-looking young Americans who have been the standard since long before "Dawson's Creek" or "The O.C.," the models in American Apparel's print ads challenge conventional notions of beauty. Before the ballyhooed Dove soap campaign, Charney embraced the notion of "real" advertising, photographing young ethnic and mixed-race men and women with asymmetrical features, imperfect bodies, blemished skin and visible sweat stains on the clothes they are modeling — the kind of artsy, latter-day-bohemian, indie-culture-affiliated young adults who live and shop in the neighborhoods where American Apparel stores are located.

The ads are also highly suggestive, and not just because they are showcasing underwear or clingy knits. They depict young men and women in bed or in the shower; if they are casually lounging on a sofa or sitting on the floor, then their legs happen to be spread; frequently they are wearing a single item of clothing but are otherwise undressed; a couple of the young women appear to be in a heightened state of pleasure. These pictures have a flashbulb-lighted, lo-fi sultriness to them; they look less like ads than photos you'd see posted on someone's Myspace page.

Accompanying the pictures is some text, another anomaly in fashion advertising: "Chanaye, an 18-year-old self-professed hippie of Afro-Cuban descent," one begins, "is taking a year off school to 'work, travel and experience all the [expletive] that [she] would not have had time for."'

These aren't ads that you'll see on the side of a bus or in famous magazines. American Apparel places advertising in the blogosphere, linking from pop-culture sites like to photo essays and copy on its own Web site; on the back pages of alternative newspapers like The Village Voice, L.A. Weekly or The Onion; in slightly obscure art-hipster publications like Purple Fashion and Fantastic Man; and in the profane, anti-P.C. lifestyle magazine Vice, whose louche tastes and attitudes run in close concert with Charney's. The full-page ad that American Apparel takes in that magazine every month represents the company's single-largest advertising expenditure. "Vice is our Vanity Fair," says Iris Alonzo, American Apparel's creative director and one of Charney's closest creative collaborators.

There's an old Chicago blues song called "Back Door Man," a canonical piece of pop music braggadocio written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin' Wolf, in which an aging satyr boasts of his subterranean allure: "Men don't know," its refrain goes, "but the little girls understand." In his own way, Charney has mastered a similar subliminal lingo, capturing and retransmitting, with subtle amplification, the casual polymorphous perversity of today's youth culture.

The first-movers of culture, whom Charney refers to as Young Metropolitan Adults, have embraced an aggressively sexualized world, a continuum that includes the hip, subversive and degenerate aesthetic of Charney's friends at Vice magazine, Web sites like Suicide Girls and photographers like Terry Richardson, more stupidly raunchy phenomena like the "Girls Gone Wild" video series or Paris Hilton and, increasingly, the actual intersection of pornography with mainstream entertainment. In this context, the adjective "pervy," a word that often appears in accounts of Charney, is itself a perverse sign of approbation.

One day this winter while I was visiting Charney's house in Los Angeles, he pulled a DVD case off the stack near his television. "Look at this," he said. It was an adult film, and the cover art featured a buxom girl in a short red tank top sexily eyeing the camera.

"What about it?" I asked.

"She's wearing my underwear!" Charney bellowed, and indeed she was — a bright red pair of his boy briefs. He's proud of such things, and perhaps he should be: Charney's deft ability with signs and signifiers has brought him to the point where professional purveyors of purely sexual imagery are taking their cues from him. Certainly it's no accident that a recent story in Adult Video News, a trade magazine for the porn industry, admiringly cited American Apparel's Web site, which features a gallery section with slide shows of its various models, as "one of the finest soft-core Web sites going these days."

Charney is equally savvy about his social mission. His efforts to provide a humane environment for his workers and to pay them well are laudable, but Charney also understands the way that political gestures and activism have become yoked to certain modes of consumerism. We now live in a time when buying a rubber bracelet is considered enough to make you feel as if you've made a meaningful contribution to the fight against cancer and when shopping at Whole Foods is sufficient to affirm your commitment against industrial agribusiness. As if in winking acknowledgment of this, Charney once published an American Apparel ad featuring a young guy in one of his T-shirts, sitting on a sofa next to a copy of the anticonsumerist magazine Adbusters.

Charney's grasp of various erotic and political energies currently at loose in the culture and his relationship to contemporary American sexuality are reminiscent of Hugh Hefner in the early days of Playboy. Hefner's vision made Playboy more than just a magazine: it was an entire world and a business based on cult of personality, presided over by an eccentric and charming control freak. And like Charney, Hefner embarked on a program to expand the definition of sexiness: in contrast to Hollywood standards of glamour (and more underground standards of smut), the Playboy Playmate was meant to embody "the girl next door." In an updated 21st-century way, the American Apparel ideal is Charney's Young Metropolitan Adult, the hottie (male or female) from the 'hood, whom you might see walking down the street, at the local coffee shop or working behind the counter at an American Apparel store.

Hugh Hefner also carried on sexual relationships with several of his Playboy Playmates — and in the early years he marked his territory via subtle visual clues in the magazine's pictorials, like his shaving brush and comb on the bathroom sink or his tie hanging in the background. Charney, whose love life usually includes several women at once, does the same thing. The messages being conveyed by American Apparel about sexuality are also about Dov Charney's sexuality. He sometimes photographs the models himself, and when they are pictured in bed it may be in his bed or on his couch. On occasion, he has put girlfriends in ads, and the photos seem to suggest that they were taken while getting it on: his bare chest and a pair of sky-blue gym shorts beneath a woman straddling him or his face partially visible on the pillow next to a happily disheveled young woman.

Charney is pushing boundaries, and knowingly so, and he maintains that your response to his boundary-pushing determines whether you count as a young person or an old person in today's society. "Look historically at how the baby boomers changed the course of culture," he told me a few weeks ago over the phone. "Well, the same thing is happening now. The skepticism of the Eisenhower generation toward how the boomers were behaving in the 60's is the same. These things take place when there's a population bulge. The boomers basically defined everything at one point because there were so many of them. But the boomers are getting older, so they are less liberal."

Charney draws no distinction between work and leisure; there is always some part of the company that needs his attention. Late one Saturday night in mid-January, Charney was seated in front of his laptop at his dining-room table, studying photographs e-mailed to him by young women interested in becoming American Apparel models. Dozens do so every week, he says, from which maybe 1 out of 10 has some appeal for Charney. If they make the final cut, they receive $50 an hour for catalog and advertising photo shoots and $150 per day, plus transportation and lodging, for working the American Apparel booth at trade shows.

Charney's taste is fairly eclectic, but there are certain things at which he draws a hard line. Makeup is one. Plucked and trimmed eyebrows are another. To my surprise, short hair is a third. Looking over some fetching snapshots of a pixieish U.C. Santa Cruz student, "half-Japanese, half-white," showing herself off in a polka-dot bikini and biting into a strawberry, Charney nixed it on account of her Audrey Hepburn haircut. "You never see a girl we shot with short hair," he said. "That's unnatural."

Tattoos and piercings, generally speaking, are also out. But as I started to catalog these criteria, Charney took issue with my attempts to pin him down. "Don't try to simplify and sensationalize it," he snapped. "I could fall in love with a girl with a tattoo. But to send a picture of yourself for a modeling audition tattooed out, that's very 2001."

What Charney is seeking is an elusive quality he can refer to only as "style." When you have it, it's immediately evident; you're "on point." Among other things, people with style are good at sussing out other people with style, and Charney counts on a small style council to keep him apprised of good locations for his stores, to scout models and to help him know when and how to introduce new clothing items or modify existing ones.

Charney likes to promote American Apparel as a "next-generation business," a company driven by young people's energy, young people's values and young people's style. But the question remains whether its success can be duplicated, for American Apparel is a deeply personal project, a reflection of Charney's own idiosyncratic tastes and obsessions.

Charney was raised in Montreal by artsy parents: his father, Morris, an architect, and his mother, Sylvia Safdie, a painter and sculptor (and also the sister of Canada's renowned architect, Moshe Safde) raised him in an environment that encouraged creativity and social activism. Childhood friends say that growing up Dov was hyperactive and attention-hungry. Surrounded by art and design, he developed a voracious, magpie attraction to minutiae, urban clutter, signs and streets and building detail.

Growing up in Canada in the years before Nafta, Charney noticed a large disparity between certain consumer goods available there and those that could be bought across the border, and he became infatuated with the comfortable casual clothing that he discovered on vacations in Florida to visit his grandmother: he could feel the difference between basics like Hanes cotton T-shirts, socks and underwear and the poorer-quality polyester blends that were for sale at home. He began a fixation that continues to this day on what he calls American commodity manufacturing: clothing items and other goods that defy fashion and stand outside of seasonal requirements, things that are simple, well made and possessed of such innate organic style that they become iconic: Levi's 501's, Sperry Top-Sider deck shoes, Russell Athletic heather-gray T-shirts.

As a teenager, he began buying Hanes T-shirts in the U.S. and bringing them back to Montreal to sell. He kept the business up when he left to attend Tufts University near Boston and was ultimately so successful that he dropped out to enter the rag trade full time, taking on the name American Apparel simply because of the mythic status that American-made goods had assumed for him. When Hanes and Fruit of the Loom moved their production offshore in the 80's and 90's, Charney felt that knowledge of quality garment sewing was being lost. He also rebelled against the boomer tendency for a shapeless, boxy "husky" fit rather than a more tailored cut for shapely young bodies. By 1997, Charney was producing his signature styles, which quickly acquired a following.

While American Apparel is a company that produces and sells mass-market goods, Charney has from the outset organized and maintained it like a traditional atelier. A small circle of people, primarily but not exclusively women, function as Charney's creative brain trust and can be counted upon not just to refine and execute his ideas but also to add their own to the mix. Charney tends to hire them on little more than a whim or vibe, based on a random encounter or a funny conversation. Twenty-seven-year-old Alexandra Spunt, a senior content adviser at American Apparel, was interviewing Charney via phone for The Montreal Mirror, an alternative weekly in which he bought ad space, when he asked if she wanted to come to Los Angeles and work for him. "It was a conversation where Dov talked for about an hour and a half, and I spoke for maybe 10 minutes," she says, two years after the fact and alternately bemused and bewildered by it all. Marsha Brady, a 38-year-old New Yorker, was a former handbag designer and manufacturer working in a vintage furniture store that Charney used to frequent near American Apparel's store on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. After exchanging various ideas with her about design history and aesthetics, he hired her to supervise the décor and arrangements of a handful of his most important locations around the world.

Iris Alonzo is perhaps Charney's most important creative partner. He says that her fashion sense and style antennae are so acutely sensitive that he relies on her to know what's coming next. Recently, Mexico City has taken particular hold of Alonzo's imagination, and she has focused much of American Apparel's advertising and promotion around it. This is another perfectly calibrated move for the company, seizing on the coolness quotient that Mexico City had already attained and then using American Apparel's own resources to create an additional level of hype. Not only did Alonzo, who is 26, establish an American Apparel store in Mexico City (a store in which the local staff is paid just under $7 an hour), she started and continues to edit a monthly bilingual newspaper, Mexico City Monthly, featuring a kaleidoscopic blend of articles, photos and artwork spotlighting Mexican culture and street style. Currently in its fourth issue, The Monthly is available free at all American Apparel stores worldwide.

Charney has instilled his crew with an evangelical fervor: they work long hours, and for less money than they would get working for other hip clothing companies. But it's a convivial, youthful and artistic environment. Input on things like the print ads is collective, with various versions being e-mailed or instant-messaged back and forth for comment and refinement. Job definitions are fairly fluid. Spunt may technically be responsible for supervising American Apparel's written material (in ads, on the Web site), but she found herself one morning admiring the "rad" vintage T-shirt worn by a customer in her local coffee shop, talked him into lending it to her and brought it to the factory, where it was copied and subsequently produced as the company's popular Henley shirt.

This kind of retro-pastiche lies at the heart of American Apparel's aesthetic; in a very deep sense, it simply represents Charney's attempt to enshrine that time in the late 70's and early 80's when he first became aware of style and how it was expressed. From a fashion standpoint, surely one of Charney's most impressive achievements has to be the vogue he has created for the "tighty whitey" style men's brief, which had long come to signify all things dorky. Charney's version, available in bright colors with contrasting piping, has become one of the the company's best-selling items, at $12 a pair. Its origin lies in Charney's longtime attachment to the Hanes brief (size 32) of his young adulthood.

Slowly but surely, Charney is moving his reference points closer to the present. If his cotton gym shorts were pure mid-70's throwbacks, then his nylon ones have everything to do with the 80's. On a recent visit to the factory, I noticed in the hallway outside his office that he had hung a giant enlargement of a photo of Jane Fonda in an aerobics studio from the early 80's; in another recent conversation, he mentioned Woody Allen's mid-80's film "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Ultimately, though, the originality of Charney's vision lies less in any particular aspect of American Apparel than in the deftness with which he is able to appropriate disparate energies from elsewhere — Benetton's multiculturalism, Araki and Nan Goldin's eroticism, the art-gallery ambience of Agnès B. — and recombine them. Weronika Cwir, a 31-year old law-school dropout, who writes Web site copy and functions as the company's house theorist and intellectual, likes to describe the American Apparel aesthetic by quoting an old Polish phrase: "Na pograniczu kiczu i absolutnego piekna," which roughly translates as "On the brink of kitsch and absolute beauty."

Following Dov Charney's idea of a win-win business, clothing that's made by workers who are well paid and happy is very likely to be higher quality clothing. And a company staffed by good-looking people, where people are free to get it on with one another, is going to be a place where people are motivated to come to work every day. If erotic energy drives the fashion business, the logic goes, then why shouldn't that energy be able to spill over into the lives of the makers? Conversely, why shouldn't the erotic energy generated by good-looking young people who are involved with one another spill over into the goods? "Sex is a way to bring people closer," Charney says, and he hews to an ideal in which people who are intimately involved with one another can also work together creatively.

Of course, this ethos can get him in trouble, as it did two years ago while he was being profiled for Jane magazine by the writer Claudine Ko. When journalists are around, Charney's natural sense of theater can shift into a higher gear: he knows what makes good copy, and he is happy to exaggerate his outrageous antics if it will get people talking. But during the reporting for Ko's piece, Charney did something he now regrets. Within the context of a flirtatious conversation about sexuality and the pleasure Charney derives from masturbation with a willing partner, he decided to demonstrate for Ko, and it became a repeated motif in their later encounters. The article left a lasting impression of him as a boss who can't keep it in his pants.

Last year, three former employees and an independent contractor filed three sexual-harassment lawsuits against Charney and American Apparel, two of them in Los Angeles and one in Chicago. Notably, none of the suits accused Charney of untoward sexual behavior but concentrated instead on things like the sexualized workplace environment and the language that Charney casually uses. In November, the Chicago suit was dismissed, and one of the Los Angeles suits was settled out of court. The third case is pending.

Charney's persona and the image he has worked to create for the company open him up to charges of exploitation and sexual harassment. But he is eager to defend himself against what he perceives as sexual shame tactics. "I'm fighting for my life!" he told me. "It's inhumane to cast my sexuality in a negative light. It's the same as poking fun at a homosexual or a transvestite or a woman who sleeps with many men. How can you watch Tony Soprano and the next day be so antiseptic? You can't expect people to operate in a vacuum outside of popular culture."

One result of the lawsuits is a document that all American Apparel employees are now required to sign, which declares: "American Apparel is in the business of designing and manufacturing sexually charged T-shirts and intimate apparel, and uses sexually charged visual and oral communications in its marketing and sales activities. Employees working in the design, sales, marketing and other creative areas of the company will come into contact with sexually charged language and visual images. This is a part of the job for employees working in these areas."

Legally, of course, Charney cannot dictate what is and isn't sexual harassment, but given that his company is already worth $250 million — and that an investment group is currently considering lending him $60 million to expand into new ventures — it is not hard to see why he is trying to inoculate himself.

Charney harbors many intriguing ambitions. He plans to add to the amenities for his garment workers by establishing a check-cashing facility on site, as well as a gym and subsidized day care. Alonzo is in the process of setting up a dedicated Internet radio station, which will provide the soundtrack for all American Apparel's stores. Charney also wants to design and run a boutique hotel. He wants to establish a new kind of store that he alternately envisions as a "Sharper Image for 25-year-olds" or a "7-Eleven for hipsters." Either way, it will be an urban purveyor of staple goods and useful electronics. He talks about financing film production. And then there is "Jacques-Charley," a pet project of his and Alonzo's. While some at American Apparel laugh at the mention of it and claim that the syllables "Zhac-Sharlee" are merely something Charney enjoys repeating in an exaggerated French accent, "Jacques-Charley" would be a Dov Charney-style magazine — colorful, hectic and stimulating, mingling social issues, fashion, art and erotica and featuring photos that go a little further than his advertising does.

The last time I spoke to Charney, he had just flown to Miami Beach. Concerned about the sales volume in his stores there, he was walking up and down the boardwalk handing out his new $5 gift cards to bring traffic into the store. Talking from his cellphone, he was adamant about the rightness of his cause. "American Apparel is the new normal," he said. "It's fun to say, 'He's wild and crazy,' but I'm not wild and crazy. This is the way the adult generation is going to live. They're not preoccupied by monogamy. Exciting things can happen. They're mobile; they can travel; they're willing to take chances; they're open-minded and ready for change. That's what the boomers presented for America, and that's what this new generation presents for us. I want to be in business with them."

Jaime Wolf last wrote for the magazine about the disc jockey Nic Harcourt.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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