Brandy Melville: Selling the Dream, but at What Price?

Content warning: this article makes reference to sexual assault, eating disorders, fatphobia, and racism.

Squeeze through the notoriously narrow doors of Brandy Melville and find yourself in an alternate dimension, where the garments try people on for size and employees act like they earn bonuses for being nonchalant. Brandy Melville is not designed for an optimal consumer experience. Rather, its unapproachable and aspirational brand, not unlike Victoria’s Secret in the early 2000s, forms the basis of its appeal. Its armada of shoppers, most of whom are teen girls and young women, can only find Brandy Melville or their sub-brand John Galt in 40 shops in the United States and at sellers like Nordstrom and Pacific Sunwear. Brandy Melville exists on a plane of its own, never offering sales, free shipping, or engaging in marketing of any capacity, in stark contrast to exuberant department stores. A new documentary from HBO, “Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion,” has injected fresh details about the mysterious fashion sensation into the public consciousness. Though the brand has had its share of controversy since its first American location opened in Los Angeles in 2009, it has maintained a subtle and consistent popularity. 

The brand is infamous for its practice of only offering clothes in one size: Small (or a US 0-2). In her short form, satirical mockumentary about Brandy Melville, Instagram creator Jenna Lu, posing as an ex-employee of the clothing brand, jokingly said, “We were instructed to lead anyone in the store over 120 pounds to the jewelry wall in the back.” In 2024, where size inclusivity is the norm, a one-size store is highly controversial. However, the backlash towards Brandy Melville has not been reflected in its sales: Global Data’s Neil Saunders reports, “Annual sales totaled $212.5 million in 2023, up from $169.6 million in 2019.” This is because Brandy Melville has developed a business model that makes it nearly immune to backlash: by serving as an exclusive club for those who meet the beauty standard, it builds a loyal base of consumers who get their in-status re-affirmed every time they shop. This model is the brainchild of its founders, Italian businessmen Silvio and Stephan Marsan. Stephan Marsan, who has served as the CEO of Brandy Melville since its inception in the early 80s, has been accused of being racist and antisemitic by former employees. According to People, Marsan “allegedly had a specific image for the employees at Brandy Melville, and the store developed a reputation for exclusively hiring ‘skinny White girls.’” Brandy Melville’s website is filled with almost exclusively young, thin, blonde models. Marsan also allegedly said that Brandy Melville is for “good-looking, rich little girls,” according to Franco Sorgi, who formerly owned the brand’s Canadian locations. The brand has been criticized for promoting a culture of eating disorders through its nonexistent range of clothes sizing and homogeneously skinny models.  Brandy Melville executives have also been alleged sexual harassment by employees at the notorious “Brandy apartment,” of which only a few select employees and executives have access, in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. The Cut reports that a “21-year-old alleged victim, who, in a hospital report, said she went out with a middle-aged Italian man who was unexpectedly staying at home, having two drinks and remembering nothing else from the night. She woke up in the Brandy apartment naked. Her hospital records stated that she was ‘raped by her boss and didn’t want to report it’ to the police for fear of losing her job and being forced to leave the country.” 

What sets Brandy Melville apart is that they hardly try to hide the prejudice seemingly baked into the company’s ethos. Rather, they unabashedly uphold the standard as aspirational. When every other major clothing brand is spouting socially conscious inclusivity campaigns, Brandy Melville is steadfast in their message that they are not for everyone. Besides clothing, the brand sells additional merchandise like stickers and pins, which are extremely popular. They adorn countless water bottles and backpacks, subtly dog-whistling that their owner is a member of the exclusive “club” at a frequency only the trained, in-group ear can hear. But this doesn’t necessarily mean every Brandy Melville shopper is “in the club,” per se. Brandy Melville’s clothing is generally on-trend and reasonably priced for its quality, which helps it appeal to a wider audience. For example, a 100% cotton crop top that their website lists as “made in Europe” was priced at only $16, whereas a search for a comparable crop top on a competitor’s website like Urban Outfitters or Hollister would yield results averaging over $30. The brand is not exempt from the discussion of fast fashion, though, with the HBO documentary delving into the environmental impact of the company in great detail. Brandy Melville hauls are a popular category of content on social media, where customers embark on a mega-shopping spree, often for a video or post. Though the quality of Brandy Melville clothes is unanimously better than more notorious fast fashion offenders, such as Shein or Temu, the culture of overconsumption is still rampant among their customers and exacerbated by the rate at which new garments are released.  

Brandy Melville has made an irreparable mark on pop culture. Only time will tell if this manifests in continued success for the company, in memes, in knockoff “dupes,” or some combination of all three. The image of a “Brandy girl” is not random: it represents what our society has deemed the most aspirational. Until that standard is redefined, it’s safe to bet that Brandy Melville will continue to be wildly popular despite whatever controversies it may find itself entangled in. After all, who would pass up the chance to be a Brandy girl – even if it comes at a price? 

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