Maybe Periel Aschenbrand’s name is indicative of her incendiary character. One thing is for certain, she doesn’t mince words. Statements such as “I despise this administration, it makes me sick what goes on in this world,” are just a foretaste of the vehement politics and outspoken views contained in her new book, The Only Bush I Trust is My Own.
The 28-year-old writer and designer will be making her first visit to Seattle this month to give a reading and book signing.
“In a refreshing nonfiction debut that’s never sanitized or slick, Periel delivers raunchy and hilarious truths about sex, politics, and how best to inspire the youth of America,” is how one reviewer at Amazon.com described the book.
Aschenbrand lives in both New York and Los Angeles and divides her time between writing and running her t-shirt company, Body As Billboard. She grew up in Queens with an Israeli mother and an American father and holds passports for both countries. She speaks both English and Hebrew. She says that while she only spent summers in Israel growing up, the dominant culture of her home was Israeli, and she feels more comfortable with Israeli culture than American.
Aschenbrand attended the University of Arizona and studied communications, literature and philosophy. After a year teaching English in Southeast Asia, she returned to her alma mater to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts in creative writing.
Her involvement with the clothing industry started when she taught contemporary philosophy to high school students enrolled in a summer arts program at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Aschenbrand had her students create political posters and matching t-shirts displaying their ideas. As an active participant in the classroom exercise, she made herself a t-shirt which bore the statement that later became the title of her book.
Aschenbrand says the slogan doesn’t necessarily relate to the current administration, but “it seemed to be the right slogan at the right time, people related to it and liked it.”
She walked into a clothing store wearing her shirt, however, and the people there got so excited they wanted to buy it from her. So she made more t-shirts. Then, shortly before the 2004 election, she gave them to all her girlfriends and requested they send her pictures of them wearing the shirts, which she turned into a poster. As political tensions built, her shirts became a hot commodity and her poster was plastered all over New York City as political propaganda. The slogan, however, explains Aschenbrand, is about how women’s bodies are objectified globally.
“For me there is value in using our objectified bodies to convince people to do something besides buy shoes. If you are a woman with breasts, and you leave your house, people will stare at your breasts,” she said. “For me, if people are going to stare, they may as well stare at a useful message.”
Aschenbrand’s shirts are not all about women. One of her shirts, which says “Drug dealer,” benefits the Keep a Child Alive AIDS charity, which raises funds a to buy AIDS medications for children in Africa. Other slogans include “Does Date Rape Mean I Also Get Dinner,” and “Marriage is So Gay.”
“The mission of the company is to engage ordinary citizens to become socially involved,” said Aschenbrand, “The idea is for every shirt to be attached to a particular issue. Instead of saying ‘I’m with Stupid’ or advertising some heinous companies with odious politics, my shirts encourage us not to be retarded.”
Until now, Aschenbrand has been making the shirts herself, but she says the company has grown beyond her abilities. She has worked out of her living spaces and run nearly all aspects of the business on her own. Her father, who spent 30 years working for the Jewish National Fund, has been serving as her chief financial officer. Aschenbrand has recently formed a partnership with some old college friends, however, which will take Body As Billboard to the next level.
While she had previously bought her shirts precut, from American Apparel, a sweatshop-free clothing label, Body As Billboard will now be assembling the shirts. The company will also open an office and hire a receptionist. She will also be launching a full line of clothing instead of just the t-shirts.
Aschenbrand says she never planned on having a t-shirt company.
“I have no interest in being a fashion designer, the t-shirts and posters happened very naturally,” she says. “I never thought, ‘hmmm, how can I become a t-shirt company owner?’”
She was working on her book the whole time the t-shirt business was taking shape. She says the title grew naturally out of her work.
In between flying back and forth between her Los Angeles and New York residences, running her company, hanging out with her family and shopping compulsively for high-end items made in Italy, Aschenbrand is also working on a second book and freelancing for Paper magazine, a pop culture publication based in New York.
“I do what I do because I am surrounded by 16-year-old girls running around half naked in t-shirts that say ‘Abercrombie,’” she said. “They seem wholly unaware of what they are promoting. They take no responsibility over the fact that they are wearing clothes promoting odious sweatshops and underpaid workers with no health insurance. I think it’s obscene to do advertising for companies. If they want me to wear their slogan across my chest they should be paying me!”
Aschenbrand wears no kid gloves when it comes to speaking her mind. She speaks, and writes, with the vulgar passion of a social revolutionary, yet can often be seen sipping a double espresso with a splash of 2 percent milk. Her parents, she says, have given up on her. Her publicist, Ken Siman, says she is hilarious.
“I fell in love with her, but it’s safe because I’m gay,” he said.