On Monday evening, four days after her already-iconic underwear brand celebrated its first birthday, Parade founder and CC dropout Cami Téllez spoke with the Columbia Marketing Club about the worst advice she’s ever received, the death of boring brands, and how she’s “rewriting the American underwear story.” 

My enlarged face fills my Zoom square as I squint to make out the details of Cami Téllez’s apartment. I can’t see much: her laptop screen has been strategically angled towards a wall of big, airy windows. They allow the day’s remaining light to soak the poster behind her, a 1962 exhibition announcement reading “New Painting of Common Objects.” Other details—a checkered tile floor, a midcentury light fixture—reveal themselves as she shifts in her blush-colored chair. This hip, visually appealing sliver of Téllez’s life should be unsurprising to anyone who’s seen her Instagram page, or that of her up-and-coming underwear brand, Parade. As Parade’s founder, CEO and creative director, Téllez shares her brand’s aesthetic sensibility: bright and colorful, but with restraint and an underlying focus on functionality. Maximalist and minimalist at the same time. Sort of like a neon green-and-yellow thong photographed against a crisp white background. Parade has thrived during its first year of business, partly because of how well it has owned this technicolor aura, and partly because of how good it is at telling people they should want to own it too.

Téllez, 22, grew up in Princeton, NJ and Berkeley, CA with immigrant parents. “I’ve always, always loved fashion,” she says, “but my parents, because they’re immigrants, were like, ‘there’s no way you’re working in fashion—ever.’” So she went to Columbia to study English and art history, taking a special interest in 19th-century European novels and 20th-century American art. She describes her Columbia experience as centered around the romantic ideas of aesthetic and culture (she was an ADP member, after all) and her college years as when her “obsession with new, emerging aesthetics” first manifested. Téllez attended Columbia for seven semesters, studying color field painting and abstract expressionism by day and interning at venture capital firms on the side, until she dropped out to create Parade during her last term. She doesn’t regret the decision. The worst advice she’s ever received, she says, was to stay in school. Not because she didn’t like Columbia, but because it would have stopped her from starting Parade sooner.

Parade began as an alternative to the two existing spheres of underwear thought that Téllez (and most women 18 to 25) grew up seeing at the mall. The first is epitomized by Victoria’s Secret: hypersexualized, “hot pink,” and all about the male gaze. The second is desexualized, “nude,” and meant to be seen by no one, a style Téllez describes as “girl boss-y.” Parade thinks of itself as an antidote to this binary, a new answer to the question of how to represent gender and sexuality. In fact, its status as a for-profit apparel company doesn’t factor much into its corporate identity. Téllez usually refers to Parade as “a self-expression brand.” My understanding of brands, that they often enforce homogeneity by creating a narrow definition of what is cool, first made me think this was an oxymoron. But Téllez is confident that the nature of the consumer-brand relationship is quickly changing. She argues that members of Gen Z “think of brands as part of their personality,” and that social media can be used to create a world where a brand can be a core piece of one’s identity—or better yet, a tool for identity formation and self-expression. 

Parade’s marketing strategy puts this theory into practice. As opposed to the Victoria’s Secret “top-down” model, where the VS Fashion Show decides what is desirable and consumers try their best to emulate it, Parade takes a bottom-up approach. The company has hundreds of “ambassadors” with small Instagram platforms, who demonstrate to their followers how pairs of colorblocked Parade underwear fit within their personal styles and wardrobes. Téllez believes that “brands can have massive cultural impact,” and she’s hoping that Parade’s influence will be to help women and femmes celebrate their individualism and sexuality. “How do you change the cultural sphere enough to get people to post pictures in their underwear?,” she asks the audience. But the thousands of thirst traps tagged “#parade” on Instagram suggest that she’s well on the way to an answer. 

From a marketing standpoint as well a cultural one, the bottom-up approach seems to be working. Within its first year, Parade sold 500,000 pairs of underwear—a huge milestone. The company is on track to become profitable after 18 months of operation, a number that astounds when compared to similar brands like Away (four years) and Warby Parker (ten years). It has a cult-like following and nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram. “For too long, underwear has been about restricting us to a flat pink surface,” reads the company’s Manifesto. But “Sexiness isn’t one-dimensional—it’s a voice, it’s a feeling, it’s a technicolor mirror that reflects whoever is holding it.” If this message didn’t resonate deeply with its Gen Z target audience, Parade would not have sold half a million pairs of underwear in one year. Affordable thongs can be bought anywhere. What Parade’s customers are buying is the brand’s emergent aesthetic, its doctrine, and its attitude—and permission to post pictures in their underwear.

Header via Cami Téllez