American Apparel ignites controversy by displaying pubic hair on store window mannequins

US clothing chain American Apparel has sparked controversy by putting mannequins sprouting pubic hair in the windows of their shop in New York's boho Lower East Side.

Passersby stopped to gawk, take photographs, chuckle or raise a horrified eyebrow at the stick-thin plastic models decked out in see-through bras and panties, with bushy bikini lines.

Many people consider women's body hair a private embarrassment requiring painful grooming at beauty salons, and find the display shocking and provocative.

But American Apparel, which in the past has been accused of sexist and controversial marketing campaigns, said it was celebrating "natural beauty" in the run-up to the Valentine's Day rush.

"We invite passers-by to explore the idea of what is 'sexy,' consider their comfort with the natural female form -- and perhaps most importantly -- to come in and try on some of our favorite styles of the season," said creative director Iris Alonzo.

Layla Khabiri, who works in a wine bar and lives round the corner, called it a "cheap ploy" designed to drive up sales, but found it interesting for being a "little counter-culture."

"As someone who has some hair, it's nice. It's not earth shattering," she said.

The hairy mannequins are currently on show only at one American Apparel store in lower Manhattan, and there are no plans to roll out the look elsewhere in New York or in the United States.

Customers were divided on whether it would make them splurge on Apparel underwear -- either for themselves or that special woman in their life this Valentine's Day, which falls on February 14.

"It's not working for me but I did stop, and it did catch my attention, too. Maybe that's their point," said web developer Eric Chiu, 33, as he stopped to take some pictures.

Marc Mangano, 41, an insurance broker, was transfixed.

"I love it," he told AFP. "It's just awesome," a cigarette dangling out of his mouth as he stopped to take pictures.

"They're real-life looking to me. Although, most women today do shave a little more down there!" he added.

Minjung, a student out jogging, also stopped to take a picture. But would it make her buy the underwear? No.

"It's pretty cool, but it is kind of weird," she said, smiling.