I remember my first Brandy Melville purchase better than any of the other milestones I reached around the same time—first kiss, first period. It was a red baby tee shirt with the brand’s then-iconic alien decal. I was an NYC eighth grader who’d recently gained spending money and a student MetroCard, and my friends and I liked to utilize these new freedoms for trips to “SoHo,” by which we meant a three-block stretch of Broadway near Lafayette Street which boasted pretty much every store we cared about.
Before I became a Brandy customer, I spent hours lustily stalking the company’s Instagram to ogle its simple, all-American designs and the models who donned them. The girls I saw were cool without trying; they were thin and flat-chested, and they clearly never had to lie down to button their jeans. They were elusive figures who lived at the ever-blurrier border of “model” and “hot girl” on Instagram. They were often photographed faceless and captured in slices—a bony shoulder, a pair of long legs, decontextualized.
Brandy wasn’t the first or only company to promote this aesthetic, but its racks of ribbed tank tops and mini wrap skirts were most effective at making the West Coast, effortless teenage look feel within reach. And making my first purchase there was like commencing an initiation.
At the time, the Brandy look included a bunch of palatably quirky graphics—tops with moon-phase charts, beanies which urged their beholders to “stay weird,” and lots of merchandise emblazoned with the inexplicable motto “mermaids don’t do homework.” (Even at the time, the last one cracked me up. Was it trying to be rebellious?) These symbols and slogans circulated widely on Tumblr, where the brand amassed a following among preteens hoping to parlay their general angst into a cooler, more specific alternativism.
I’d chosen the red alien shirt as my first foray because it was recognizable, but a little different from its most classic iteration, which was gray. This was the approach I’d take for years as a loyal Brandy customer. Shopping there, I sought items which my friends could or would buy, but hadn’t yet.
The brand’s inventory makes such an approach highly feasible. It often reuses patterns and textiles, manufacturing the same sweater in three pastel colors, or printing the same florals onto a skirt, a scrunchie, and a tank top. And it sells nearly everything in one size (though recent years have seen the introduction of designated “SMALL” and “MEDIUM” items). This significantly limits the amount of choice shoppers are given, making the shopping experience much simpler and more automatic than it would be at, say, Urban Outfitters.
When Brandy Melville appeared in New York as a sartorial landmark, it did so seemingly out of nowhere. I had no sense of who owned it or who was designing for it. It appeared, partly, to be a homegrown, by-teens, for-teens operation, where the cashiers (famously mean and famously hot) were pretty girls from local high schools who sometimes photographed my friends’ outfits “for research.”
On the other hand, I sensed traces of an inscrutable corporate entity behind the DIY facade. The brand seemed to be split in two, with some of the clothes being inexplicably marked with the label “John Galt” (an Atlas Shrugged character). For years, there were two branches of the store in lower Manhattan, not five minutes apart by foot, which pedaled entirely different clothing: soft basics on Broadway, 23-inch “vintage” denim and plaid micro-kilts on Prince Street.
Sometimes, the brand’s cultural lexicon seemed just a little bit off-base; it invoked random calendar years (1995?) and vacation spots (Yellowstone? Newport?). And though mermaids don’t do homework, the SoHo store is decorated with pennants for American Ivy League colleges.
In writing this article, I learned that Brandy Melville originated in Italy in the ‘80s and migrated to the U.S. in 2009. Its product research team is composed of teenage girls, which I guess explains the weird photographs. I couldn’t find satisfactory information to answer the rest of my burning questions—what was the significance of the dates and locales referenced on the merchandise? What did any of it have to do with Ayn Rand? And why couldn’t they just churn out an XL every once in a while?
Instead, I found very worrying posts online detailing discriminatory hiring practices and unequal pay, which tracked with reports I’ve heard from friends who have worked there.
As for me and my now-college-aged friends, I’d like to think we are a little smarter than we were in middle school. We know that people of many shapes and sizes can be cool and sexy. We see the irony of a mass-produced, solid black sweatsuit emblazoned with the motto “stay weird.” We embrace the “avant-basic” maximalism of the moment, donning charm necklaces and puffy sleeves. We are trying to wean ourselves off of fast fashion, and we shop in places more interesting than Broadway and Lafayette.
Yet my closet is still full of Brandy Melville.
Mostly, it’s tops—basic, high-necked, sleeveless pieces, tees that are probably patterned from the same silhouette as my original alien shirt, a sage button-up with long sleeves. These are items which last me about a semester before they inevitably pill or stretch or pit-stain, and I throw them away and start all over again.
Some items I’ve held onto a little bit longer, like a graphic t-shirt printed with a pair of giant cowboy boots and the mystifying “Austin? I love it!” and a white sweatshirt advertising a midnight showing of Frankenstein.
In the years since I first discovered it, Brandy has continued to do what it does best—glomming onto the trend cycle and miniaturizing and simplifying whatever happens to be in vogue—asking, how would a hot, lazy person interpret this fad? With time, the visuals have become less outer-space and more sweater vest, less Tumblr and more Pinterest, maybe.
The brand’s constant thinness-as-fashion prevails: each item is meant to be punctuated with a concave abdomen or a sharp clavicle. In a marketplace that increasingly embraces some level of body inclusivity, Brandy’s monomaniac infatuation with skinny women feels more and more regressive.
My peers and I have surely outgrown the ideal of the Brandy Melville girl, too embarrassed to rep parts of California we’ve never visited. As my best friend Imogen noted, it’s no longer a “cultural touchstone” for us. Rather than the pride I felt when I wore my alien tee for the first time, I now experience a little dose of shame whenever I sport a recognizable Brandy item.
Still, I know no other place with as many shirts of the right length, shirts that cut off perfectly where high-waisted pants begin. No other store sells items with fabrics so soft and so cheap. We are dependent upon the product—spoiled, even, from the simplicity of buying all our wardrobe staples there, what with the ease of everything coming in a million colors and just one size. As Imogen put it, “When you just need a white tank top, you know you’re going to find one at Brandy.”
I wonder what would happen if Brandy Melville ceased to exist, or if it had never existed in the first place. Maybe my peers and I would all dress a little more differently from one another; we wouldn’t always find ourselves matching by accident. We might not style ourselves along the simple Punnett square of big/little shirt, big/little pants. Or maybe we would simply have found a different, equally oppressive norm to which we could conform.
If we ever do stop wearing Brandy Melville entirely, we will have a lot of unlearning to do. When I dress myself, I find it very hard not to notice the ways my own body is not waifish. Part of my subconscious still aches with the feeling of inadequacy which comes in knowing I’ll never fit correctly into the Brandy pants, that the oversized sweaters aren’t as oversized as they ought to be, that I’ll never be a sexy virgin with a thigh gap, staring chicly into a void in a white beach town. The voice of my impressionable preteen self is always going to be audible when I look in the mirror or dress myself.
The research suggests that a new generation of tweenage Brandy diehards has risen, who treat the brand much like we did back in the day, taking field trips to the store and grabbing as many free “Malibu” and “Chill Since 1993” stickers as their little hands can carry. I worry for these girls and wish I could intercept these transactions before it’s too late.
At nineteen, I can feel the arm-holes of my Brandy baby tees getting tighter, and I am more aware than ever that one size never fit all to begin with. My semester is beginning, and I am not sure I can justify another bulk order of tank tops. But after spending my whole young adult life in Brandy Melville’s clutches, I don’t even really know where else to look.
By Abigail Sylvor Greenberg