Op-ed: Am I a fashion Karen?

At a Brandi Melville store in Sydney, fashion editor, writer, literary agent and mum Nadine Rubin Nathan reckons with the comfortable truth

I am a proud 50-year-old ‘Karen’. I don’t see the moniker as an insult. It’s a reality. With age comes the wonderfully freeing ability to give zero fucks. Now, I realise that not caring what other people think isn’t a particularly New Zealand quality. But I am not particularly Pākehā. As a South African with a decade in New York as an adult under my belt, I tick the ‘Other European’ box. And as a South African by way of New York, I’m also a proud Tall Poppy. Admittedly this has not served me terribly well in the nine years I’ve lived in Aotearoa (I will forever scratch my head at the poor Kiwi attitude to the work experience of immigrants that’s taken place outside of the motu).

Still, for the purposes of this column, you need to know that early on in my career I created a scandal in the South African media when, at age 26, I was appointed editor-in-chief of ELLE Magazine. Four years later, burned out from editing that magazine with a calculator in one hand thanks to the weak Rand, I moved to New York wanting to experience making magazines with large Dollar budgets (this was in 2004, four years before the financial markets crashed). I got a dream job – full-time freelance editor at Harper’s Bazaar, a position that kept me busy and highly entertained for three years at fashion’s so-called coal face. And I’ve continued to freelance as a fashion writer ever since, which is, oh, about 15 more years.

So it’s fair to say that when it comes to fashion, I know of what I speak. At home, however, my bravado has begun to falter. You see, I am also a mum to an almost 12-year-old and my darling daughter can cut her Tall Poppy mum down with just one dismissive shrug of her shoulders when I point out the latest feature I’ve written for Fashion Quarterly.

Sometimes when my dd is getting dressed to go out, I gird my loins before suggesting any additions to her look. When I get it right, she turns to me with an incredulous look – amazed that I would know how to style, well, anything. In those moments, I find myself biting my tongue because if I said what I really want to say – “Excuse me! Do you know who I am?” – she’d look at me blankly. To her, I’m a stay-at-home mum who somehow manages to magically publish a few stories in the local fashion media while sitting at the kitchen table wearimg my pyjamas. (OK that last part is true: I do write from the kitchen table).

Now that she’s in Year 7, my dd has started to care less about following fashion trends no matter where she finds them and more about wearing the ‘right’ fashion labels. ‘Right’, for her, is currently Lululemon, Lorna Jane and Brandy Melville. Now, since Brandy Melville isn’t available in New Zealand and I’ve heard this name mentioned so often in the last six months, I’ve started to feel like she’s someone I need to know. So, on a recent family holiday to Sydney, I was happy to postpone my favourite Bondi to Bronte beach walk to finally find out more about the mysterious Brandy Melville.

As my dd raced around the store trying to decide between several seemingly identical ribbed white tanks all in size extra small (Brandy, I discovered, only makes clothing in this one teeny size – the worst message possible for a growing tween), I turned to one of the skinny, blonde disaffected teens working in the store. I wanted to ask what, in her opinion, the brand’s must-haves were. But what came out instead was this: “I don’t get this brand. Once you walk out of this store, these clothes would look like they could’ve come from anywhere.” She looked at me as if I’d spat in her boba tea. “No,” she sniffed. “People know when you’re wearing Brandy Melville.”

Not wanting to embarrass my dd any further, I found a bench outside the changing rooms and googled ‘Brandy Melville’ instead. Yikes! It turns out ‘Brandy Melville’ isn’t even a real person, and certainly not a woman (I should’ve known – a woman would never be so fascist with the small sizes). It’s a name that was made up in the 1980s by Italian father and son owners, Silvio Marsan and Stephan Marsan (the current CEO). The pair came up with some meet cute story about an American girl called Brandy and an English guy called Melville who fall in love in Rome.

Then, I read a little further. Double yikes: It was like reading about American Apparel all over again. Marsan allegedly asks his high school age, preferably blonde employees to send in full body photos of themselves with their CVs. Young girls have allegedly been fired for being too fat, too black, or just not on brand according to a 2021 Business Insider report which also detailed antisemitism in addition to the blatant sexism and racism.

I didn’t stop my dd from getting a couple of the tiny tanks she wanted, but we did have a good chat about what I’d found out about Brandy Melville. And I took the opportunity to school her about a 90s fashion designer who managed to align more appropriate values with his fashion brand: Kenneth Cole. He famously said: “To be aware is more important than what you wear.”

This column was written with my dd’s express permission.