We Need to Stop Buying from Brandy Melville: Here’s Why
Illustration: Mallory CK Taylor
Ask anybody who came of age in the 2010s and they can describe to you the experience of being in a Brandy Melville store. That distinct, musky-yet-clean linen smell, the hangers wrapped in clothing scraps, the muted florals and lace trims, the feeling of inferiority to the workers. This was a time when the dominant aesthetic was the effortlessly beautiful and skinny, cut-off shorts and ugg-boot wearing Tumblr Girl.
I remember scrolling through Tumblr with my friends, giggling at quirky cartoon drawings of baked goods and admiring photos of girls who were not much older than me yet unattainably beautiful, posing with their tongues out in a way that didn’t look awkward or forced, and with thighs that didn’t touch (thigh gaps were worshiped in a cult-ish way). The Tumblr Girl was so frustrating because she was not your teen pop star or actor; she seemed to be just like any other girl you would find at school, just slightly elevated. Not too far off from you, but someone you could never be.
An offshoot of this aesthetic is the “Brandy girl” of the retail chain Brandy Melville. The Brandy Girl never had an issue fitting into the store’s one-size clothing, her hair never got frizzy at her beach photoshoots, and she made you want to spend $20 on a plain white tank top just for the chance to look like her, or more accurately, to feel like her. While body ideals may have changed from the gaunt figure of the nineties and early aughts to an equally unachievable curvaceous, Kardashian-esque figure, Brandy Melville continues to aid in the perpetuation of this exclusivity. What they sell is not just clothing, but a lifestyle, a sort of club membership, and from their marketing it is clear that to be a “Brandy Girl” you must be tall, white, skinny, upper-middle class and able-bodied.
Brandy Melville is most infamous for its “one size fits most” clothing, most of which does not fit larger than a small. The brand supposedly carries sizes small, medium and large for their denim, but upon checking their website, six of the twenty six listings had sizes small and medium, while every other pair of jeans is only made in a size small.
Illustration: Mallory CK Taylor
The sizing was not always like this, though. According to a Business Insider article titled “Brandy Melville Employees Describe Racism, Hitler Memes, and Sexual Exploitation at the ‘Evil’ Cult Teen Brand” by Kate Taylor, when the store was opened in the nineties by CEO Stephen Marsan, a (semi) wide range of sizes was initially carried. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Marsan ordered the sales associates to manually remove all clothing above a size four from the floor. Business Insider spoke with Franco Sorgi, owner of the Canadian branch of stores, who said that Marsan preferred to sell his clothing to “good-looking rich little girls.” Sorgi further reported that Marsan did not want Black or overweight women shopping at his store, as the CEO worried that their patronage would hurt the “delicate” image he had cultivated for Brandy Melville. This became even more clear to me in the process of writing this essay, as all the current and former workers I was able to find to talk to me are white, a reflection of the brand’s hiring practices.
“It’s fairly obvious that they aim to hire skinny, pretty girls,” one current worker (who preferred to stay unnamed) told me. “If I wasn’t the size that I am, I probably wouldn’t have gotten hired.” She went on to describe the application process, in which she went in one day and asked if they were hiring and was given a slip of paper asking for her availability, contact information and Instagram handle. Within a few days she got an email offering her a job. Karly, an ex-employee who worked in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, described a similar process, although she was called back for an interview. “It was definitely very looks-based from the beginning,” she told me. “When we applied they took photos of us, and it’s kind of weird…because you don’t really know where they go.” Another past employee I talked to, Jess (whose name has been changed for anonymity), told me she was hired after going into the store as a customer and being asked by an associate if they could take a picture of her for “store style.” She then received an Instagram direct message from the employee offering her a job. She came in for an interview in which she was asked “maybe two questions about whether [she] qualified for the job,” and from there was hired. The kicker: Jess was fourteen at the time.
Employees having to submit pictures of themselves does not stop after the application process. In fact, it continues daily in the form of “store style” and “staff style” photos. Workers are instructed to take full-body pictures of themselves and send them to the manager daily, as well as ask to take pictures of customers who are “on trend.” From Karly’s understanding, this was done in order to create new products. “Basically I was told that if I saw somebody with a trendy outfit to take a photo of them [with permission], ask for their Instagram, and then I sent it to my manager…then those photos would go to higher up management, and those photos are used for inspiration to create new clothes.” Although, from what she later described to me, it seems that they were looking less for inspiration than for pieces to copy. Karly added that workers sometimes noticed that their outfits had been recreated and sold by the store. “There were instances where coworkers would be like, ‘Oh I wore that and sent it in a few months ago’,” she said.
These photos were used for more than just style inspiration, however. In leaked screenshots from 2019 between Marsan and Luca Rotondo, a former senior vice president, Marsan said that one store was “only hiring pieces of shit” in response to one employee’s staff style picture, and instructed Rotondo to “kick her out.” When I told Jess about this, she said, “I had no idea. I was like ‘Cool, they’re taking pictures of me!’ I was excited about it.” It’s disheartening to hear that employees didn’t even know that their photos were being used for such intense judgment and, at times, to determine whether or not they would keep their job.
The shopper’s experience is no better. Customers often report an intense feeling of judgment and the need to “prove themselves” when they enter the store. I myself have had many discussions with my friends about the discomfort of the in-store experience. For example, one time in high school my two friends and I were planning to go to the mall and stop into a Brandy Melville, but we decided to go home first because we all felt our current outfits wouldn’t suffice in the Brandy environment. As I said earlier, the brand is not just selling clothing. The clothing is just the ticket you buy to have a chance at the “Brandy Girl” lifestyle. The absence of signage on Brandy Melville store fronts and the plain, unbranded brown or black shopping bags mimic the secrecy and exclusivity of an Ivy League secret society, increasing the pressure for customers to fit in.
To be able to fit into their clothes is to maybe be able to fit into their brand, and to be hired is the ultimate acceptance into the “Brandy Girl” lifestyle. “I was really young so I really looked up to the older sales associates working there. I really wanted to fit in and I wanted them to think I was cool and fun,” Jess explained. But despite the validation of being hired, working at Brandy was not the romantic lifestyle it was touted as.“I was surrounded by people who were on calorie counting apps and telling me that fruit was bad for me…it was super toxic and really unhealthy,” she said. “The girls there would compete all the time to see who ate the least amount of food or who consumed the least amount of calories. So I thought that was the end-all-be-all: just trying to be the most beautiful.”
“It was very clique-y,” Karly added, recalling that some of her coworkers cultivated large social media followings in the tens of thousands. “It was very based on societal status.” Karly went on to say that “growing up as somebody who wasn’t that classic look,” she had always felt insecure in comparison to her peers who could wear Brandy Melville clothing. “The day that I could actually fit into their clothes was such a happy day, and I look back at that and it’s so sad. The day that I got hired there, it was such a happy day. I was like, ‘Oh my god I finally fit the standards of Brandy Melville?’…It took me so long to get past that point to be like, ‘Oh my god I’m worth so much more than this.’”
To be clear, I do not blame the workers for the culture that is perpetuated by this brand. Stephen Marsan and other members of upper management are responsible for the creation and perpetuation of this toxicity. I think that many (if not all) of these workers were groomed into participating in this cycle of exclusivity that they felt uncomfortable with –– especially because it is one of the only retail stores that starts hiring at fourteen, making this many of the girls’ first work experience.
Brandy Meville causes harm not only to individual customers and employees, but also on a broader, ethical scale. While the brand has not commented on the ethics and sustainability of their product manufacturing (from what I could find), we can assume that the labour conditions and environmental effects would be negative due to it being a fast-fashion company. The brand seems to have found a loophole for this, however. Brandy Melville is known to be an Italian company. According to Ruby Belt’s article “Brandy Melville’s Consumer Contradiction” in The Iris, Italy has “relatively safe labor laws,” which make the company appear to be more ethical than other fast fashion stores. But this is not the case: in fact, most of Brandy Melville’s clothing is actually manufactured in China, a country with little-to-no protection for garment workers. As Belt writes, “Of all their dresses on their website, 18 of them are made in Italy, while 21 of them are made in China (as of September 3, 2020).”
I checked the websites of the brand’s fast fashion counterparts Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch, all of which have a statement about their sustainability and ethics practices for manufacturing. Although obviously any fast-fashion brand will have inadequate ethical or sustainable practices, Brandy Melville doesn’t even have so much as an “about” page, let alone any statements on their manufacturing processes, and I could not find any other articles besides Belt’s on the subject. They do, however, have a customer service function on their website in which you can chat with a representative, and so I signed on and asked where the clothes are made. The customer service rep I was connected to responded, “Most of them are from Italy then a few from China and the U.S.” I then checked more than one hundred of their listings. While I did see a few articles of clothing that were made in Switzerland and others listed as just “Europe,” I did not see a single listing across all the categories that was made in the U.S. There was a decent amount manufactured in Italy, but most were made in China. This information Brandy Melville provides is misleading and just another example of the lack of transparency and ethicality of the brand.
In her final thoughts, Jess explained that “ultimately [Brandy] informs, especially female-identifying people, that their bodies are something to be condemned, and their bodies are projects, rather than just moving, working things that you exist in.” She went on to conclude somewhat bluntly, “I think Brandy Melville sucks and no one should ever spend any money there.” I couldn’t agree more.
“It was all a learning experience,” Karly told me. “I grew a lot from it, [but] I would not recommend anybody work there. I would not work there again. I would hope that younger girls…invest more time in themselves than [in] trying to be a ‘Brandy Girl.’”
I was reassured to hear that Karly and Jess were able to find a silver lining to what sounds like a very toxic first retail job experience, and to see that they are moving forward and accomplishing what they had always hoped to. That being said, my hope is that future generations do not have to experience these exclusionary, discriminatory conditions to find their self-worth and feel confident. There is nothing wrong with liking the clothing that Brandy Melville sells, but there are ways to buy it without monetarily contributing to the company’s perpetuation of fatphobia, racism, ableism and environmental and ethical harm. Buying Brandy second hand is very accessible (and more sustainable!): eBay, Depop, Vinted, ThredUP and Poshmark are all great options. There is power in taking a stand against discrimination while still finding ways to wear what makes you feel good.
About the author: Ruby Condon (she/her) is a student from the West Coast and attending school in New York, pursuing a degree in the social sciences. She is honoured to be a part of the Shameless Team!