The Legacy of Mall Brands

Y2K fashionistas unite!

“Don’t walk, RUN!”

Truthfully, how often in a day do you scroll past this catchphrase? If you’re like me, that figure should be the mathematical equivalent of how many times you log into Instagram. If you’re on TikTok – well, then God help you. Of course, there might be times when you’re genuinely interested in whatever miscellaneous merchandise is being paraded behind so bold a pronouncement. There are also times when it simply makes you want to pull your hair out.

And if you belong to the latter, today we’re throwing it back to what might possibly have been the favorite pastime of your teen (and tween) years – hitting the mall. If you weren’t splurging your babysitting bucks on Von Dutch baseball caps and Abercrombie miniskirts in the mega-malls of middle America, what were you even doing?! Well, thanks to fashion’s Sisyphean cycle of idiosyncrasies, these mall brands seem to be back at it again, and you don’t have to drag yourself to a physical mall anymore to get your hands on them!

Feel old yet?

The Mainstay of the Y2K

A staple of the early-2000s scene, the mall was perhaps the closest real-life semblance there could be to the extravagant existence championed by the likes of Paris Hilton in her popular show, The Simple Life – in that it not only allowed you to dress like her but also feel like her. Sporting blowouts and tans, hot-pink tracksuits (bonus if they had Juicy scrawled across their derrières), and the occasional chihuahuas, the mall was the ultimate hangout. And this is what mall brands banked on.

In theory, a mall brand is exactly what it sounds like a brand with outlets in various shopping malls dotted across the country. What’s so special about them, you ask? Well, my dear Gen-Zer (because anybody older wouldn’t be asking this question), mall brands were the first to bring Fashion (with a capital F) to the masses. In fact, early entrants, such as Ann Taylor, J. Crew, and Calvin Klein, were the first to realize the market’s gap for quality clothing at reasonable prices, similar to what we’ve now dubbed accessible luxury. And if you couldn’t afford to drop serious cash on Multicolore Louis Vuitton – a far-off reality for much of suburban America – you could always get yourself a pair of quintessentially cool Gap jeans.

Thus, without social media to amplify trends to the point of exhaustion, mall brands became the go-to for an entire generation of tastemakers, from it-girls pairing the high with the low to Cher Horowitz disciples living their fashionista fantasies and even making it onto the cover of Vogue!

Vogue Cover November 1988
A 1988 Vogue cover featuring a Christian Lacroix top with Abercrombie Jeans image via Fashion Week Daily

Bargain Prices, Bargain Quality?

However, the bulk of their audience were still teens who had to be home before their curfew, and there are only so many pairs of jeans one can own! Clearly, mall brands needed to have not only a means of keeping buyers continuously hooked – buyers who were savvy of the latest trends as seen on the pages of tabloids and magazines – but also keep the competition at bay, as several newer names – Guess, Miss Sixty, Bebe, American Apparel, American Eagle, Zara, H&M and more – infiltrated the scene. A new phenomenon was on the horizon: the dupe culture.

Originally, dupes existed solely within the realm of beauty products, specifically from M.A.C., a brand that was consistently sold out. Post-recession dupes, however, were more catch-all in character – spawning everything from Lululemon’s leggings to high-end jewelry and, nowadays, even toilet paper! At the same time, the earliest bloggers and influencers had already begun using YouTube to showcase their finds. Suddenly, it seemed, dupes were everywhere, including at the mall.

In fact, with faster trend cycles, mall brands struggled to maintain design and quality standards, and as they raced to duplicate the latest runway styles, fashion became disposable – fast fashion just got faster! The consequences piled in quick succession: online shopping fast replaced brick-and-mortar, footfall dwindled, and stores, and eventually, entire malls, were shut down.

American Apparel Closes 2016

Get Thee to the Mall!

What the trend forecasters did not anticipate, however, was a pandemic. And apparently, that’s all it took to get people back to the mall again!

Bal Harbour Bags August 2022 4 of 11
A shopper at Bal Harbour with a Chanel Deauville Tote.

With TikTok burgeoning into a full-fledged fashion vehicle of its own, propelled by a year of isolation, eager shoppers, and coming-of-age Gen-Zers, the Y2K resurgence took a turn towards its era of indie sleaze as Rihanna, Bella Hadid, and Kendall Jenner stepped out in their Guess Jeans, Esso trucker hats and Miss Sixty ensembles. Since then, vintage lovers on the platform, both out of concerns for the environment and as an expression of individual style, have been hunting coveted mall brand pieces from the early aughts – Abercrombie cargo pants, Gap sweatshirts, and Baby Phat Baguettes, some reselling several times over their original retail!

And with this nostalgia for West Coast glam infiltrating our collective conscience, the brands themselves took the opportunity to stage relaunches. Abercrombie and Fitch, once voted America’s “most hated brand” in 2016, now trends with nearly 200 million views on TikTok, working in partnership with several micro-influencers, while Juicy Couture in 2020 restarted online operations with an improved web interface. Blumarine hard-launched its nostalgic baguettes on the Spring 2023 runway. Banana Republic took a luxe turn in its Fall 2021 collections, with elevated cashmere, leather, and suede pieces fit for the quiet luxury trend.

Miami Design District 22 of 24
Miami Design District

Even the shopping centers have now made a concerted effort to re-introduce buyers to shop-tainment, providing hash-taggable experiences harking back to simpler times. And this comes at a moment when people are tired of the dupe trend in general, as a recent article on The Cut states, “I spent more time and money on trying to find the most perfect dupe than I did if I were to just buy the real thing.” Maybe the coolest new TikTok obsession is, in fact, already sitting in your closet!


1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

An interesting read!