Smells Like Teen Spirit

This article reminded me of that theory. On Racked, Julia Rubin writes about both the success and secrecy of Brandy Melville, a brand of clothing that specializes in the “California cool girl, very young and very thin,” outfitting her “in short shorts and oversized sweaters.”

Despite its all-American teen dream aesthetic, Brandy Melville was actually founded some 20 years ago in Italy by retail vet Silvio Marsan and his son Stefan; the first U.S. outpost popped up in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a block from the UCLA campus, in 2009. As store owner Jessy Longo told the Daily Bruin at the time, “We love this location because it reminds us a little bit of Europe, where people walk on the street.”

Guess? is a good example of this phenomenon, particularly during their Anna Nicole era of advertising, but it’s not necessarily geographically-specific; I’m also thinking of people who are born as outsiders to mainstream American culture, like Ralph Lifshitz and Josephine Esther Mentzer, Ralph Lauren and Estée Lauder, respectively.

Brandy Melville has particularly narrow standards of beauty, which is really saying something for a mall-chain brand of clothing. As Rubin points out, their Instagram is their primary means of advertising, and their preferred model is young, extremely thin, blonde, long-haired, with conventionally Caucasian features when their face is actually visible (which isn’t often). The facelessness is almost definitely a marketing strategy that encourages Instagram followers to project their own face onto these de facto ads; when faces are seen, it’s presented as a photo you took of your friends. On the complete opposite side of Brandy Melville’s “this could be you” social media strategy are the actual clothes, which are almost exclusively one-sized-fits-all, a business plan that openly mocks the idea of inclusivity even more than a brand like Abercrombie does.

Rubin ends on a particularly intriguing note: Brandy Melville’s “brilliant” strategy of hiring teenagers to act as design consultants.

“Product research is made up of all teenage girls,” explains Kjerstin Skorge, a 16-year-old from Malibu. “There’s about 20 of us.” The girls work paid shifts in the back room of the brand’s Santa Monica store, where they brainstorm new concepts and consult on existing ones: “Let’s say there’s a cut of a T-shirt that’s doing really well, they’ll ask our opinion on it. Do we like it? Should we make more? If so, what colors? Should we do long-sleeve? Short-sleeve? Cropped? Not cropped? Would this T-shirt be better in this material? There’s all kinds of things that we get asked, and we give our honest opinion.”

“It’s a brand that has leveraged social media while still remaining intensely private,” Rubin continues, “a brand that manages to be aspirational but accessible. After all, it’s a brand teens built.” Yes. Sure. But it’s also a brand that sells the idea of what American teenagers want, with very little pretense of understanding the complexities or inherent weirdness involved in the idea of all-American beauty, the concept of what American fashion is or should be, who is considered an ideal customer and why, back to American teenagers, who are asked to consider not what they actually want to wear but whether they would like it to come in a cap sleeve. Clothing that understands a country’s values better than the people who live within that country. It’s something about the distance required to get close, I think.

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