The XX Factor

The Very Popular Store That Only Sells Clothes for Skinny Girls  

Girl buttoning pants
Not most girls.

Photo by iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If you’re a teen girl, or have shopped with one lately, you’ve probably heard of Brandy Melville, the Italian brand that came to the U.S. five years ago, and has lately enraptured teens’ hearts and wallets with its social media savvy, targeted product research, and very special niche: They only offer one size, small, under the banner “one size fits most.”

A quick look at Brandy Melville’s Instagram will tell you most of what you need to know. With more than two million followers, @brandymelvilleusa predominantly features white girls with long, blonde hair wearing cozy, loose-fitting clothes, worn-in and distressed to perfection. The girls have something else in common: Without exception, they are very, very thin.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes this brand strategy. Browsing Brandy Melville’s online store, where most pants come in sizes 00 to 2, one has to wonder, “‘One size fits most’ of whom?” A store has the right to sell to whomever it pleases, and Brandy Melville certainly has the right to only make clothes for the select few to whom every other store in the country already caters. But in the words of my mother and probably yours, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Though Brandy Melville is extreme, it is not alone in its skinny-only mindset. Abercrombie and Fitch drew criticism last year because of its refusal to make clothes for bigger girls. Many stores don’t bother carrying above a size 18 (and that’s being generous) despite the fact the average American woman wears a size 14. In other words, women up to seven sizes below average can find clothing, but women more than two sizes above are told to, “eat less.”

And teen girls are getting the message loud and clear: More than half of them use unhealthy weight control methods, including skipping meals and purging, in obsessive pursuit of bodies that Brandy Melville implies “most” people already have. In an ideal world where body size, character, and worth were not conflated, perhaps a store like Brandy Melville could coexist with the department stores and plus size stores. But we do not live in that world, and girls above a certain size are already taught they’re not good enough.

While there’s plenty of criticism, Brandy Melville has its defenders (not to mention customers—Business Insider says it’s “ranked No. 1 among brands that teen girls say they are starting to wear”). The most prevalent defense I’ve seen is, to paraphrase, “if plus size stores exist, so should tiny size stores.” As one Huffington Post commenter put it, “I don’t complain Torrid is ‘shaming’ me because they don’t carry my size… I just go shop somewhere else.”

But this misses the point. Yes, girls larger and smaller than the idealized body both can face challenges and insecurity. But Brandy Melville isn’t a specialty store for the girls who are so skinny they can’t find clothing at an average department store. Sizes 00, 0 and 2 can be found in most teen stores. (You may have seen them on the rack, after all the 6s and 8s have disappeared.) Plus size stores emerged out of necessity—for girls who couldn’t find any clothing because stores won’t make and carry their size. Plus size stores are what prevent girls above a certain size from being forced to wear the few, often unsightly or ill-fitting items department stores do carry. Size zero teenagers just do not have that problem.

Brandy Melville is very good at catering to its target audience. The brand’s product research strategy is smart: According to Racked, by employing a team of roughly 20 teen girls to brainstorm new concepts and offer feedback on existing designs, the store manages to stay completely in tune with what their customers want—and launches some girls’ careers in the process. But on the flip side, this strategy can create an echo chamber that ignores how exclusivity, experienced from another perspective, is exclusion. The company’s social media-heavy marketing, in lieu of paid advertising, also shows that it knows where its customers are and how to speak to them. If only they would recognize that there are so many other girls worth reaching.