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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."
Longo helped bring the family-owned brand Stateside, and there are now 11 Brandy stores in California, six on the East Coast, and one in Hawaii, as well as a healthy e-comm business. The press-shy company (that, after initial contact, ignored repeated emails and phone calls from Racked) is notoriously tight-lipped, which means you've probably never read about them and definitely haven't seen any advertisements. Social media, however, is another story.
"I heard about them online actually, through my newsfeed on Facebook. They'd always pop up," explains 20-year-old Maddie Peake on a recent Sunday afternoon. "And I love their Instagram—it's very cool." The Princeton junior is shopping at Brandy Melville's newest New York City location in Soho, mom in tow. Standing at 5'9" with long blonde hair, she looks just like the girls on the brand's obsessively followed social feeds.
Inside, the store itself looks Instagram filtered, all bleached wood and muted color palette: cream, dusty blue, dustier rose, maroon. Everything from the faded denim to the vast crop top selection is shockingly soft, a selling point every Brandy girl notes. The piped-in music fits with the vibe, but not the demo: Do teens really listen to Beck?
Regardless, the 8,000-square-foot space is teeming with girls, some with their credit card-wielding moms, others in BFF pairs. One group walks in talking about the upcoming SATs, another is led by a high schooler who proudly proclaims, "I already have so much stuff in here!" Two of the youngest girls there that day exit the store, brown shopping bags in hand, and get into a hulking black Escalade parked on Broadway.
"This is the easiest place to shop," one shopper enthuses, echoing a sentiment that's repeated again and again. Why? Because almost everything comes in exactly one size. "You can pick and choose what you want," Maddie says. "It makes it easier to decide if it looks good because you can't get another size to try. You just ignore it."
Inside, the store itself looks Instagram filtered, all bleached wood and muted color palette.
While some pieces, like a $28 sweatshirt with a square of floral print or a $21 deep green pocket tee, are explicitly labeled (the sweatshirt only comes in XS, the tee only in small), most just say "one size." A small selection of the more fitted bottoms have two or three size options.
"It's really easy to shop in there," says Caroline Hickey, a 17-year-old high school senior who took the train in from Long Island to go shopping with a friend. "You can just pick something up and not look for a size, but it kind of sucks if it doesn't fit you. You don't have another option even if you like the shirt."
And this is where Brandy has taken some heat. "One size does not fit most," wrote Rini Sampath, a USC undergrad, in an op-ed headlined "Brandy Melville fuels body dysmorphia" in the campus newspaper. In an open letter to the brand that was published on the Huffington Post, high schooler Lani Renaldo wrote: "After all, what girl from the age of 12, and even older, doesn't include Brandy in her wardrobe? I mean, that's just unheard of. Unthinkable! It just wouldn't occur unless...none of the shirts fit over your chest, or you couldn't squeeze your curves into the tiny-sized jean shorts, that quite frankly never cover your rear end."
This exclusive image is perpetuated via the brand's mega-popular Instagram; the official @brandymevilleusa account has just under two million followers, and features Brandy girls, long-haired and overwhelmingly white, showing off the latest in-store offerings, though rarely showing their faces. They have large Instagram followings themselves, due in part to the fact that every photo is meticulously tagged—even the girls behind the camera get credit with a digital tout.
While some appear to be professional models repped by agencies, many are part of Brandy Melville's product research department, which may very well be the most brilliant part of the company's business strategy. Brandy Melville has assembled a teen army to tell them exactly what to do.
Brandy Melville has assembled a teen army to tell them exactly what to do.
"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."
"We also come up with ideas and images that we think would sell well," she continues. "It's fun because we just come up with cool things that we like and then put them on a T-shirt. For the Instagram, the marketing team will send us out with clothes and have us take pictures with a photographer and then they'll decide what to post."
When Kjerstin started working for Brandy, she had 3,000 Instagram followers. Now she has 22,000 and is recognized by fans: "I've had girls come into the store and ask to take pictures with me. They're also all super, super sweet on Instagram, and I always try to respond. It seems kind of silly, but you end up making their day—it's nice."
Emma Sims, 15, was recruited into product research because of her Instagram. A friend who worked at the store introduced Emma to her boss who recognized her from Brandy Melville photo shoots she staged with her friends and posted on her personal account, tagging the brand. He had the aspiring photographer start working the next day.
"I love working there because not only do I get paid for shooting photos for the Instagram, I also get to share my ideas on the clothes," she says. "I wear Brandy Melville clothing all the time, and I think that's one of the reasons why they hired me. They want feedback from their customers and people who have been shopping at Brandy for a while."
"They really loved the long hair look. They thought that was really cool and beachy and different."
Some of the older girls, like 24-year-old Alex Centomo, have used their work with Brandy as a career stepping stone. In March of 2013, she was working at the brand's store in Montreal while studying at Concordia University when she started helping out with social media with her friend Catherine Belle. Their photos on the Brandy Melville Canada Instagram piqued the interest of the U.S. team.
"They really loved the long hair look," she says. "They thought that was really cool and beachy and different. They started sending us stuff and reposting our pictures a lot. They were like, 'Oh, if you could take a bunch of pictures in this clothing, we would love to promote you more.' It turned into something way bigger than I could have imagined."
That something bigger is a burgeoning YouTube career. Her full-time job has become building her own channel, which currently boasts almost 80,000 subscribers, while also interacting with her 195,000 Instagram followers. "Brandy definitely got me started," she says.
While not everyone who starts out working as a sales associate ascends to social media fame, the stores are still staffed with girls who fit the Brandy aesthetic. Back in the Soho location, 19-year-old Angelica Tilton folds T-shirts to make some cash while studying to be a ballerina at American Ballet Theater.
"I grew up in California, and I remember shopping there when I was younger," she says, a pair of sunglasses hanging from her gray T-shirt. "When I came to New York, I found out there was a Brandy, so I shopped here and eventually got a job."
Though there are only Brandy stores on the coasts and in Hawaii, more than 500 PacSun outposts across the country sell a selection of its goods, making it the only Brandy Melville wholesaler in the States.
Not everyone who starts out working as a sales associate ascends to social media fame.
"We brought on Brandy about three years ago, when we realized there was just so much synergy between our two brands," says Brieanne Breuer, VP of women's design and the acting head of women's merchandise. "They're Italian but with such a clear California filter, and we thought it was a really great opportunity."
Breuer emphasizes that the PacSun shopper isn't fazed by Brandy's sizing: "Our customer has responded wholeheartedly in a very positive way to the brand in its entirety, and there really is no issue with the one-size-fits-all aspect. I think our customer really loves it."
What Breuer and her customers like about the brand is what everyone—Angelica, Emma, Maddie, the Brandy girls in your own life—likes about the brand: the ease, the comfort, the casual cool. It's a brand that has leveraged social media while still remaining intensely private, a brand that manages to be aspirational but accessible. After all, it's a brand teens built.
"They are so incredibly relevant," she adds. "They aren't following anyone else—they're setting the trends themselves."