Inside a Brandy Melville store, you’ll find clothes that are all one size, teen employees who have an innate ability to bully you with their eyes and an aesthetic that appears to be styled after the fantasy of a Christian horse girl in the early 2000s who vacations on Martha’s Vineyard and can’t help but exude sexuality. The Italian brand’s offerings are demure, yet erotic — low-rise cargo pants paired with dainty pointelle tanks, and oversized hoodies to be worn with thin, floral print miniskirts. In a moment where Abercrombie & Fitch is reckoning with their exclusionary past and pivoting to a more welcoming era, all of Brandy Melville’s 97 locations cling to a strict, extra-small-only regime.
If this all seems a bit fascist, you wouldn’t be wrong, though the real inspiration is libertarian. Brandy Melville makes this no secret, running a sub-brand called J. Galt. John Galt, for whom the brand is named, is a character in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a beloved libertarian novel. Were this not message enough, the owners of Brandy Melville are affiliated with three companies, per Business Insider: Bastiat USA (named for French libertarian economist Frédéric Bastiat); Thomas Aquinas, Inc. (named for the medieval Italian theologian and philosopher whose works were fundamental in the development of libertarianism); and Laissez Faire, Inc. With such overt liberatarian leanings, this places Brandy Melville in the company of Lululemon, whose founder is similarly a fan of Atlas Shrugged and previously had “Who Is John Galt?” printed on the store’s shopping bags.
As with any brand whose politics are central to their company, consumers of Brandy Melville tend to fall within three camps: 1) Those who don’t know; 2) those who don’t care; and 3) those who actively like their positions. I, like many other young women, tend to fall into the middle category. As The Cut wrote in 2019, “There’s a growing cult of genuinely stylish, slightly abashed 20- and even 30-somethings turning to the brand for nostalgic, low-commitment (hardly anything is priced over $35) spaghetti-strap dresses and tube tops that would look as natural on Bella Hadid today as they would on Simple Life-era Paris Hilton.”
In fact, I’m wearing a Brandy Melville baby tee as I write this. It’s one of about five items from the brand I have purchased over the last four years. It’s not necessarily a “no ethical consumption under capitalism” stance, but it’s hardly as if other non-libertarian fashion brands are without their sins.
In any case, those who fall into the “actively like their positions” category are probably worth considering the most. The brand was cited in James Pogue’s recent Vanity Fair piece about the burgeoning “new right” and its youthful New York City ties. “Women wear clothes from Brandy Melville, which you can hear described ironically as fashion-wear for girls with ‘fascist leanings,’” he wrote. Meanwhile, on the most recent episode of Red Scare, a podcast similarly cited by Pogue as affiliated with the movement, the hosts joked that they were both wearing head-to-toe Brandy Melville.
Beyond clothes that seem to perfectly embody a sort of “trad” chasteness while still being hot, the appeal appears to be the brand’s steadfast refrain from the usual theater of social good and inclusivity that other brands wrap themselves in, often inauthentically. Brandy Melville does nothing for Pride Month and neglected to send out emails voicing support for Black Lives Matter in June 2020. By some estimates, 68 percent of American women wear a size 14 or above, and yet, Brandy Melville continues to offer just one size.
Shopping at Brandy Melville, then, can feel like belonging to an exclusive club, even if it’s one that you didn’t ask to join. But, again, there’s an entire world of young women who likely don’t even realize their position in this “club” at all. Instead, they just continue to shop the brand because it’s cute and it fits, not because it broadcasts some bizarre libertarian agenda they all ascribe to.
The question, of course, is whether there’s really anything wrong with this. How much actual good does it do to choose to shop at H&M, instead? They might offer nearly the same clothes with a wider range of sizes and a hypothetical commitment to equality, but what does that really mean if their items are sewed for less than a dollar per hour by Chinese and Bangladeshi garment workers? My Brandy Melville top says “Made in Europe,” but according to The Iris NYC, a significant amount of their products are also made in China. This is too ambiguous to ascribe much meaning to, but the same basic logic applies — who cares about a company’s external politics when their internal landscape is messy, unequal and opaque?
Either way, when we buy fast fashion, we’re participating in a cycle of exploitation that isn’t necessarily our fault, but would behoove us to avoid. We shouldn’t throw up our hands and doom ourselves to the idea that none of our consumption matters, but a clothing brand’s libertarian ideological alignments isn’t the true enemy, here — it’s worker exploitation and capitalism that merits real concern.
For now, at least, I’ll leave my baby tee out of it.