Microinfluencers on Parade

The social-justice panties brand tries to go mainstream and still be cool.

Parade’s Instagram is full of everyday influencers. Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Parade

Sarita Cuervo always wanted to be an influencer, even as a kid. “I was that girl taking pictures of my unicorn strawberry Starbucks drink on my iPod Touch and posting it on Instagram with white borders circa 2010,” the 23-year-old recalls. “Even before influencers were a thing, I was always like, ‘Oh my God, I want to be like them.’” Cuervo moved to New York from Miami last year to pursue her online ambitions full time — the “networking” in the city, she says, is “insane” — and she certainly plays the part. Every day, she posts videos about picking out her outfits, wandering through Soho, and “pretending” to be Zoomer Carrie Bradshaw. “When I woke up this morning, I had lit-er-ally no idea how hard I was going to slay,” she recently told her 152.2k followers on TikTok. (She has 21.5k on Instagram.) So of course Cuervo, like plenty of this town’s plucky and ambitious not-quite-celebrity influencers, is also a Parade Girl. Meaning, she’s one of a whole legion of femme-presenting spokesmodels for the Gen-Z underwear brand Parade, whose tagline is “The internet’s favorite underwear.”

Cuervo really believes in these panties, and not just because they are cute, comfortable, and inexpensive, which they are. She thinks wearing Parade aligns with her values of inclusivity and body positivity. “I want you to come to my page and leave feeling like you’ve just had a breath of fresh air,” she says. “That’s why I work with brands that do the same thing; I just want to make people feel happy. ” No, it doesn’t bother her that she’s basically doing low-cost advertising half-naked for a $200 million company. That’s just how things work in influencer-land. And she thinks it’s been good for her personal brand as well. This is what sets Parade apart: a cult of panty posers like Cuervo, but often with far smaller followings than she has (and never huge ones), eager to ally themselves with the company for its feel-good, socially conscious aesthetic and help it move some of its cotton-candy-colored product. In return, they get free underwear.

Since the brand launched in October 2019, right before the pandemic stuck us all at home shopping online and upping our selfie game, Parade has dominated many of our feeds. If you’re under 30 and the algorithm deems you demographically appropriate, you’ve likely scrolled past someone you know posting selfies in their Parade underwear. As TikToker Tiff Baira, says to me, “They’re the cool-scene underwear. Everyone in Dimes Square had them, and now friends I grew up with are getting boxes from Parade.” As another TikToker once remarked, “We’re all one degree of separation from a Parade Girl.” I was both surprised and not to find out not long ago that the most popular girl in my Tennessee high school — beautiful, quirky, and voted “friendliest” senior year — also moved to New York and now posts for Parade. The Parade Girl is even a meme. On a list of “Cutest Instagram Comments a Guy Can Leave a Girl”: “That’s my lil Parade microinfluencer.”

Parade has recruited an army of them. “We’re seeing the rise of the ‘micro-influencer’: people you know in real life who have a relatively normal following on Instagram, and post photos of themselves wearing a pair of Parade underwear,” comedian Sophia Wilson Pelton observed in an essay posted to Medium in September of 2020. Who doesn’t love free shit? “We’re not a celebrity brand, we’re a community brand,” one former employee told me. With the exception of a few campaigns featuring real celebrities like Julia Fox, Lourdes Leon, and Chloe Cherry, Parade girls are normally not TMZ fodder. They are usually just a cute young “creative” who, you’d imagine, orders oat milk in her coffee. Parade-world is full of smiling young people of just about every skin color, body type, and femme-ish gender expression, posing playfully in 37 different styles of undies, all more comfy than overtly sexy, that come in 190 different colors with names like “gingersnap,” “pixie dust,” “sunshine,” and “caviar.”

The question now is: Where is this parade heading? Parade says it’s sold 6 million pairs of this underwear and recently added bras to its roster. Last week, it announced plans to sell it in Target stores — a move that many other “disruptive” DTC brands have made in an attempt to become more mainstream. Is that what the Parade Girl wants? When they’re stuck on a plastic hanger, unfiltered in the harsh light of a Target, will they be anything other than a commodity rather than a rousing generational statement? Certainly, no one will be trying them on and posting selfies in a Target changing room.

I always tell my team if we get this right, Parade becomes ubiquitous,” says Parade’s CEO, founder, and creative director, Cami Téllez, 25. “We have an opportunity to change the way an entire generation sees itself … Everyone has an underwear story.”

Téllez is in many ways like her Gen-Z customers, but she exudes the unmistakable girlboss spirit of a millennial — think the Emily Weiss of underthings. Sitting on a sleek sofa in the spacious loft in Tribeca where she lives, she vibes youth and success. The gold trophy on the bookshelf beside us, she tells me, is a Femmy Award, apparently the intimates industry’s equivalent of an Emmy, which is, curiously, a nude Venus de Milo. Téllez, like her product, has also become ubiquitous: I see her at fashion shows and all of the right parties, and she’s been named in the “Forbes 30 Under 30” and WWD’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Fashion.”

She is unquestionably impressive, discussing her business in semi-revolutionary terms: It’s a “vehicle to create cultural change” at the “nexus of sex and gender and politics and coming of age.” She’s always on message and careful to not talk too frankly about her own success or the thousands of Parade Girls who’ve helped her get there. Her pitch is mostly start-up speak about the product — all stuff I can find on the company’s website.

As Téllez and her brand never tire of telling you, these panties are political: sustainable, body-positive, and gender-inclusive. Parade has relentlessly marketed itself as a socially conscious alternative to the underwear of generations past with product descriptions that promise its undies are “good for the planet,” “made for everyone,” and, somehow, a conduit to “free-wheeling, unapologetic self-expression.” When you’re ready to check out on the website with that bubble-gum pink G-string that reads AQUARIUS across the ass, for example, you can donate one percent of the purchase (12 cents) to a progressive cause like planting trees or Planned Parenthood. (Last year, the company claims, those donations paid for “12 weeks of free therapy for Black women” and “4,000 bus tickets to abortion and sexual health services,” among other things.)

Téllez’s go-to talking point is Victoria’s Secret; it stands for everything that she hopes Parade does not. For decades, the market was dominated by those tiny, breast-y mall Angels in black-and-pink lingerie (and wings). When it was announced, this week, that a “new version” of the brand’s annual fashion show — watched by 10.3 million at its peak back in 2011 — would soon return, Téllez took to Instagram and called it “an almost medieval display through the false shareholder strategy of woke inclusivity to protect market share.”

“I grew up in New Jersey, going to Quaker Bridge Mall and seeing those blown-up Victoria’s Secret Angels and the add-two cups bras. I felt like that cultural script had come to an end,” Téllez says. “I wrote a manifesto that sort of presented a new narrative: the end of the Victoria’s Secret Angels, the end of the bombshell bra, the end of this idea of one-note sexiness.” It also seemed like a promising business opportunity: “I realized our generation was coming into spending power, and nobody had built brands for us.”

Cami Téllez, founder of Parade. Photo: Julien Sage

All of this began as an Ivy School project. At the time, Téllez shared the manifesto she wrote, along with a survey about underwear, with college social media groups, and overnight, it went viral: Before there was even a product, there was a list of 70,000 people who wanted in on it. In January of 2020, just one semester from graduation, Téllez dropped out of Columbia, and alongside New York University student Jack DeFuria, she used their good pedigrees to secure funding for the idea from celebrities like Shakira and Karlie Kloss and other direct-to-consumer mavens like Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal and Away’s Jen Rubio.

“I knew the category from being a teenage boy and having Victoria’s Secret speak more to me than its target customer,” says Blumenthal. Jason Stoffer, a partner at Maveron, Howard Schultz and Dan Levitan’s venture-capital firm, who led Parade’s Series A funding after being cold-emailed by Téllez, explained part of his initial interest. “Every generation has its own brands, and no one wants to be associated with the brands their parents were associated with,” he says. “Parade is interesting because it’s not something that’s outwardly visible to people… But if Cami’s successful, it will integrate into people’s identity.”

Conveniently, it was an advantageous time to get into the women’s-underwear market, with Victoria’s Secret, in the years of Trump and #MeToo, becoming something of a relic of a different era, in addition to the founder, Les Wexner, being exposed for his close associations with Jeffrey Epstein. Edward Razek, the chief marketing officer of the brand’s parent company, was accused in the New York Times of stoking a “culture of misogyny, bullying, and harassment” (Famously, in 2018, he told Vogue he wasn’t keen on putting plus-size or trans models into the annual fashion show; the Parade team set up a Twitter bot to tweet #boycottVS.) According to Coresight Research, an advisory firm specializing in retail, Victoria’s Secret, previously the most successful purveyor of women’s underwear, lost 7.3 percentage points of its market share between 2016 and 2021, even as it tried to update its image with new faces like Naomi Osaka, Priyanka Chopra, and Megan Rapinoe. Meanwhile, celebrities like Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and Lizzo got into the underwear game. Per Coresight, the brands that are currently succeeding are pivoting to size-inclusivity, less traditionally “sexy” looks, and younger customers (one promo email-subject line from Parade: “Replace your underwear from high school”).

The New York photographer Sophia Wilson, who was contracted by the company in its early days, recalls compiling lists of hundreds of Instagram accounts to send underwear to. Inclusion on that list, she says, didn’t require anything more than a couple thousand followers and being “active on social media, in the scene, cool, and connected.” “If you’re sending underwear to thousands of people, it’s going to catch on because these are people who post,” Wilson says. “People love posting gifting, especially if you’re not a big account. It makes you feel like you’re a celebrity.” It also probably helped the product’s proliferation on social media that the photos the Parade Girls post are sort of thirst-trappy. As one former employee politely put it, “I think the algorithm really favors the type of content people were creating, which is content that shows your face and shows more skin.”

Téllez told me she didn’t know how much underwear the company has given away over the past couple of years, beyond “thousands!,” though that is very likely an understatement, considering one model who’s worked with the brand told me, “I do my laundry once every month, or sometimes longer, because I have so much free Parade underwear.” There are many different types of Parade Girls now: Those who work for the company officially as brand ambassadors, those who model in its campaigns, those who just receive the product and post about it unprompted. Those influencers who work as brand ambassadors also get the opportunity to make some spare change. Two who do told me they get $15 for a TikTok, $10 for an Instagram post, and $3 for a Story.

There’s some social cachet in the game too. Being a Parade Girl is a kind of rite of passage for the influencers building profiles off Get Ready With Me and Outfit of the Day videos. What’s it like being posted on the brand’s page? “It makes me feel really happy, honestly,” says one proud panty poser. Cuervo described the Parade Girl as “the Parade Cool Girl. Whenever I see a girl modeling for them on socials or making organic content for them, I think they know what’s up. If you know you know … You’re in this special little community. It’s almost like you adopt the brand’s principles yourself.”

And the influencers appreciate Parade’s social-justice orientation as much as the freebies and the clout. Many of those I spoke to stressed their appreciation for the company’s inclusivity. As of this January, Parade offers sizes up to a 5XL. Jordan Underwood, a Flatbush-based influencer who was featured as one of the faces of the expansion, said it’s something they’d been waiting for. “If you’re going to say you’re an inclusive brand, you owe the consumer honesty. It’s dishonest to say we carry up to a 3X; we’re inclusive,” they say. “I’m short, I’m a larger plus size person, I have tattoos, I’m trans, I present relatively butch. People want to see difference, and they want to see things that are edgy.”

Nís McKenzie, a 22-year-old aspiring teacher and content creator with only 1,280 followers, told me it was refreshing to come across advertising in which Black women are shown in such a wide range of colors — Téllez, in part, thanks her art history major at Columbia for this — and not just nudes or blacks. “We don’t get a lot of representation in colorful lingerie … I think it’s about a desire to hide things that society says shouldn’t be seen. When you’re talking about plus-size people of color, there’s this idea that no one should know what you’re wearing under your clothes.” Baira says, “I’m a size 10-12, and prior to Parade, there was not a lot of products that fit me comfortably. Parade had the right circumference to give me coochie coverage.”

Téllez explains she dropped out of college because she thought the world needed Parade now: “I felt a push to the Zeitgeist.” Sometimes, talking to her, I think that it might be nice if she had something more nuanced to say about her come up — about how she used influencers to her own commercial ends and the idea of whether you can consume your way to a better world — but she’s a marketing genius, not an intellectual.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been occasional slip-ups. In building a brand with such grand intentions and a savvy customer base with social-media accounts and social-justice sensibilities, Parade has courted some controversy. Its sustainability creds — it says it’ll be “climate positive” by 2025 — and do-good-by-shopping image came under fire in December when it announced a collaboration with Coca-Cola, which, in addition to being blamed for the spread of diabetes, is one of the world’s leading plastic polluters. Irene Vasquez, a poet and editor in Hoboken, told me it encouraged her to quit posting for the brand. “I thought about it and was like, Okay, I have to make a decision for myself and what my values are,” she says. (She still drinks Diet Coke.) “This was a fun little experiment, but now it’s over.” My old classmate posted a selfie in the collab anyway, only to find her comments section filled with accusations of greenwashing. “I do kind of feel like there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, or whatever, but they have good prices, and what’s the average girl gonna do?” she asked me. “None of us have enough money to be as sustainable as we should be.”

Téllez now says she regrets the line: “Having a community is a double edged-sword, and having a group of people who are committed and engaged and excited to share their opinion, to me, is a great honor. We made a mistake.” She pivots slightly. “We tried to put a Parade spin on it – we cast the first trans prom queen and did it in our sustainable fabrics – and I think we realized we made a mistake.” Her former employee snarked, “I wouldn’t want a consumer base of socially conscious people.”

When you see Parade Girls with their heaps of underwear, it’s hard to not imagine that it doesn’t suffer from the overconsumption flaws of most fast fashion. And there are plenty of murmurs out there about Parade’s quality. “Any of their mesh stuff is a whisper in the wind honey. v fragile,” one Brooklyn TikToker DM’d me. Molly Logan, founder of the Gen-Z think tank Irregular Labs, who says she’s talked to many Parade Girls over the years, posits that no critique really matters to the wide swath of its customers: “A Gen Z said to me, ‘Yeah, I buy Parade, it gave me a yeast infection, but I still keep buying it.’ That’s the power of brand, no question! It’s like the Mickey Mouse ears,” she says. “They’re ears, but they’re also something more. It’s a souvenir. The product is not just a product anymore.” One model told me, “There’s no real prestige to getting gifting from them anymore… It doesn’t feel exclusive, but that’s a good thing. Their brand ethos is: Everyone’s welcome.” Plus everyone says it’s comfortable — “buttery soft,” to use the cliché I’ve read in reviews online.

Not that you asked for it, but I have some followers too, so here’s my review: Last summer, Parade’s expansive vision for underwear took up another cause: selling “gender-inclusive” underwear. Admittedly, when I went online to buy a pair, I struggled to figure out what on the website would … Well, let’s just say I wasn’t sure if “boyshorts” meant boyshorts or boyshorts. When I called an AMAB nonbinary model who worked on one of the campaigns, they told me they had been particularly worried about their bulge showing through the underwear. Turns out the gender-inclusive collection is called, without further explanation, “New: Cotton.” Téllez tells me the company didn’t want to make it seem like there was just one line of gender-inclusive goods, because how inclusive would that be? “It was definitely one of our proudest moments,” she says. “I’m happy just thinking about it.”

I won’t blame her for it, though, because it’s just underwear you can buy at Target or on Instagram — three pairs for $30, after all. How inclusive could such a gendered product ever be? I’ll admit the one pair that worked for me is what I’m happily wearing now, though I’m not sure I’d post a selfie in it.

Do Those Free Panties Make You Feel Good About Yourself?