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How Brandy Melville Became a Badge of Honour in China

By thumbing its nose at almost every market entry convention, the teen brand has quickly gained cult status among local ‘BM Girls.’ Though its current level of buzz may be hard to sustain, the brand’s experience in China reveals a lot about the rapidly changing market.
Brandy Melville campaign shot | Source: @brandymelvilleusa
By
  • Casey Hall
BoF PROFESSIONAL

SHANGHAI, China — As China's physical retailers began their reawakening in April, most felt compelled to coax reticent shoppers back into stores with vouchers and discounts. One brand, however, managed to attract shoppers back without all the fuss.

On a small street in Shanghai’s former French Concession, an unassuming white storefront had a line snaking out its door every single weekend. Anfu Lu isn’t a major shopping thoroughfare; it is best known for its cafes and popular Western-style eateries. When there are lines in this neighbourhood, they are usually for a table at brunch time, not for a fashion store peddling crop tops and short skirts.

But that's exactly what dozens of teens are in line for, just before the store opens its doors at 10am on a Saturday. Young women and girls make the trek from all over the city to this lone physical outpost of Brandy Melville, the Italian-born, Californian-style fast fashion brand that famously and controversially caters to a one-size-fits-all policy, with waistlines measuring an itsy-bitsy 24 inches (61 centimetres).

Brandy Melville, or BM, as it’s colloquially known in China, has executed an incredibly low-key entry into the China market, somewhat typical of its entry into other markets. It only opened its first retail store in Shanghai in September last year and, unlike most other foreign fashion and beauty brands, Brandy Melville has no official presence on major e-commerce platforms. Selling online through its own Chinese-language site, it has also foregone official partnerships with a major Chinese celebrity brand ambassadors. (Brandy Melville did not reply to requests for comment on this story.)

Brandy Melville campaign shot | Source: @brandymelvilleusa

In spite of this unconventional approach, the brand has managed to make a huge splash on the Chinese internet, riding a wave of 90s style being popularised by youth style icons, such as Jisoo and Jennie from Korean girl group Blackpink, and singer and actress Ouyang Nana, all of whom are incredibly popular with teen girls in China.

For the post-95 and post-00 generations in China who are embracing 90s style through international cultural touchstones such as Monica from Friends or Clueless ingénue Cher Horowitz, the style isn’t nostalgic. Instead, for these consumers in their teens and early 20s, the short skirts, crop tops and denim cut-offs that Brandy Melville is currently known for represent a kind of self-confidence to wear more revealing styles of clothing than previous generations of Chinese consumers would have dared.

“I think they are less conservative when it comes to showing off their body than previous generations,” explained Lauren Hallanan, the head of marketing at WeChat management firm Chatly. “Super short skirts… [and] showing off your [midriff], these are things older generations felt awkward about and couldn’t accept, whereas the younger generation have grown up with [them] being okay.”

International fast fashion retailers selling skimpy clothes in China is not new. Hallanan points to Forever 21, which had a similar proposition when it entered the China market back in 2008. Unfortunately for Forever 21, the market wasn't ready for it and in 2019 the retailer shuttered its China stores and beat a retreat before filing for bankruptcy.

Brandy Melville is the brainchild of father-and-son duo Silvio and Stephan Marsan. Its first store opened in Italy in 1994, before launching in the US in 2009 and the UK in 2012. Today, the 3.9 million people who follow the brand on Instagram would most readily associate it with a typical “Brandy girl,” who is blonde, thin, and spends her time on the beach with friends. The brand’s popularity in the US has been driven by celebrity fans, including Kylie Jenner and Hailey Bieber.

With around 100 storefronts now open worldwide, Brandy Melville doesn’t release revenue figures. However, analysts cited in a Bloomberg Businessweek article published in 2014 placed its annual sales at around $125 million, with a growth rate (at that stage) in excess of 20 percent per year. Famously, the brand relies on social media, rather than advertising, for marketing. In the West, it leans heavily on Instagram to reach its young audience of teens and tweens.

Other fast fashion retailers, such as H&M and Zara, sell similar styles to the brand, but only as part of a larger assortment. Part of the appeal of Brandy Melville in China, however, seems to stem from its specificity.

Today, on sites such as Xiaohongshu and Douyin the terms “BM style” and “BM girl” have become trending hashtags — on Douyin alone, content tagged with the Brandy Melville brand name has 160 million views — and for those in this online club, being a “BM girl” is a point of pride.

“Not only is the style trendy, but the ability to be able to wear that style, it’s a badge of honour that you are able to pull it off,” Hallanan said.

Unlike most foreign brands, Brandy Melville has no official presence on major e-commerce platforms.

Brandy Melville may have made its way into the Chinese market in an unconventional way, but the cultural background that is attracting young Chinese women to its affordably-priced small-sized offerings (items generally range between 100 and 300 yuan, or $14 to $42), actually fits rather comfortably with China’s traditional ideas about beauty.

In China, as in much of East Asia, beauty norms of thin bodies and alabaster skin still run deep and the way in which people talk about weight and beauty is much more direct than it is in the West.

Take China’s breakout reality competition show of this year for example. Competitors in Chuang 2020 undergo a series of challenges each week in order to win a coveted place in a girl group. One recent episode saw contestants prove their thinness by walking between two poles horizontally placed at waist height. The gap between the first two poles was 30 inches (76 centimetres), and each successive pair of horizontal poles had a smaller and smaller opening, with only the skinniest contestants able to pass through the final gap between poles.

A body shaming challenge like this on a reality television show in the West would cause an uproar, but for a Chinese audience, it barely raises an eyebrow — so pervasive is the acceptance that thinness is a vital part of being considered attractive.

“Beauty challenges” pop up on Chinese social media with some regularity, often aimed at demonstrating how skinny (and therefore beautiful) girls are. One, for example, saw (predominantly) young women taking selfies with sheet of A4 paper in front of their waist, to show they were thinner than the 8.3 inch (21 centimetre) wide paper; another saw girls photographed with 100 yuan notes wrapped around their forearms, the two ends of the money touching.

Being a “BM Girl” and posting selfies wearing the Brandy Melville brand has essentially become the latest “beauty challenge” sweeping the Chinese internet ahead of a summer season in which skimpy dressing is likely to become even more pronounced as young people in China chomp at the bit for less restriction and greater freedom to be out on the street soaking up the sun after a long winter spent mainly indoors as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

However, whether the cachet that currently comes from being a “BM Girl” in China has staying power is another question. Fashion blogger Jiang Yanyi has more than 1.25 million followers on Weibo and a popular official WeChat account on which she has often written about the need for a broadening of Chinese beauty norms. She believes that young fashion consumers in the country are on a steep learning curve, one that will eventually lead them to discovering new notions around beauty.

"It’s no problem to pursue an image like white [alabaster skin] or [being] thin, everyone can have their own choices, but [we should also] let everyone realise that there can be other forms of beauty, let them have the opportunity to fully understand, and finally they will make their own decision,” Jiang said.

That choice may well still be the style epitomised by Brandy Melville, but as the online noise around the brand grows louder and the once rather exclusive club of “BM Girls” becomes larger, its current cachet may also lose some of its lustre.

Additional reporting by Irina Li

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China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our Shanghai-based Asia Correspondent casey.hall@businessoffashion.com.

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