Lolita's Revenge: The Reign Of Nymphet Alumni
With the Nymphet Alumni podcast, fashion and culture are approached with an unapologetically feminine, intellectual rigor.
On Tuesday, Sept. 12, during the final stretch of New York Fashion Week, I meet Biz Sherbert, Sam Cummins, and Alexi Alario at the Metalabel offices in Lower Manhattan. Their podcast, Nymphet Alumni, debuted in March 2021 with a two-episode deep dive into the rise and fall of the American Apparel empire. Much ink has been spilled about the marriage of high and low culture, but the girls are in a league of their own, naming and analyzing digital trends as they emerge using the lens of critical theory — thinkers like Mark Fisher, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault are suddenly in conversation with aesthetics like “Russian Bimbocore” and “The Xandemic.” Debuting in a crowded landscape during the post-pandemic podcast boom of the early 2020s — years after Red Scare had created a cultural appetite for young, intellectual women saying the word “daddy” — the three friends set themselves apart with their sincerity, style, and new way of seeing consumerism and mass-culture.
The trio met on Instagram during the early days of lockdown. Sherbert was writing about fashion and the internet for various magazines and on her cult Instagram account, markfisherquotes. Alario was finishing her critical and visual studies degree at Pratt Institute, feeling demoralized by the slog of attending art school online. Sherbert and Alario had mutual friends from South Carolina and began exchanging DMs about fashion, beauty, and their shared love of Madison Beer. Cummins was living in Texas working as a waitress, desperate to find an outlet for her thoughts about critical theory and fashion. When Sherbert connected the two with the pitch of starting a podcast, Cummins felt skeptical to embark on this endeavor with two women she’d never met in real life, but when they started brainstorming in a Google doc, “sparks flew.”
Alario is the youngest of the three and the only one currently living in New York — Sherbert and Cummins have flown in from London and Texas, respectively. The occasion for their meeting is the launch of the inaugural issue of NUTS, Richard Turley’s new 400-page fashion biennial for which Sherbert served as a commissioning editor. In our email correspondence, where Turley suggested that a live podcast kick off the magazine’s launch party, he referred to them only as “the nymphs.”
Squeezed onto a small couch on an elevated stage in the sunny Metalabel loft, the girls look at once ethereal, elegant, and approachable. Sherbert is wearing a long black dress, Frye riding boots, and stacked cross necklaces. Cummins is dressed in a red boatneck top from Los Angeles Apparel, torn denim jeans, and tattered red ballet flats which she later tells me are from Amazon Essentials. Alario looks characteristically sophisticated in her signature, so-basic-that-it-transcends-basic style — she wears a black Lululemon jacket, a pinstriped Urban Outfitters skirt, and black Wolford knee socks. When I step into the loft, they set down the Zoom mic they’ve been fretting over and greet me with so much warmth and charm that I almost forget I was unpopular in high school. This is the magic spell of Nymphet Alumni: the chemistry between these three is inclusive and contagious, not a whiff of the dismissive, disinterested It Girl persona one is trained to expect in these interactions.
In preparation for our meeting, I revisited dozens of hours of early episodes. A canonical holiday special from December 2021 is “Sugar Cookie Consumerism,” in which the girls consider the American mall of their early adolescence. Alario points to the sublime scale of chain malls before e-commerce rendered these mass shopping centers economically obsolete.
“It’s not just the physical scale of the individual mall’s structure, but the pseudo-religious feeling that you’re part of a larger cultural institution,” she says. “What made malls unique from other historical experiences of shopping like bazaars and markets was that you knew there were thousands of teen girls across the country roaming identical malls with identical shops, and that they had identical desires and identical insecurities.”
Sherbert points out that the mall “activates our hunter-gatherer instincts.” “That’s probably why stealing is so prevalent,” Cummins muses, “I don’t feel the impulse to shoplift from Target, but when I’m in the dressing room at Victoria’s Secret, something ancient in me demands that I put on three layers of panties and run out of there.” Sherbert says that stealing from the mall is easy in a “geopolitical way, because once you’re out of the territory of one store, you’re in the clear and you feel the desire to conquer everything… whereas Target is more of a panopticon.”
In an era of terminal uniqueness and hyper-specific sponsored ads calibrated to each consumer’s niche micro-demographic, this nostalgia for the mass culture of the recent past hits hard. The girls possess a reflexive and critical gaze as they interrogate their own consumer impulses, but they also take these impulses seriously. Speaking of the 2021 Victoria’s Secret runway show in the same episode, Cummins says, “All of the comments were about whether or not the show empowered women. The reason why Gen Z is so materialistic is because they believe they’ve hacked capitalism when they’ve really just been duped by it. They think that the point of marketing is to empower you or represent you. All they’re doing is giving consumer brands the tools they need to sell them stuff.”
They have a penchant for historicizing the recent past, but in the last year, the podcast has pivoted to a more forward-looking scope. These days, the girls are more interested in newness than in nostalgia. But what is newness in an era where all consumerism feels driven by nostalgia?
“Nostalgia has always influenced fashion. Always,” Cummins says. “Nostalgia is how history is built.” Sherbert adds, “If anything is new, it’s fashion that was made for a small screen. You see it in a brand like Prayingg that uses text in the same way as a post or a meme."
Nymphet Alumni bills itself as “a podcast about culture and fashion brought to you by three opportunistic one-time nymphets.” But they’re not opportunistic. For the better part of two years, they’ve put out one research-heavy episode per month. Only in the last few months have they monetized the podcast on Patreon, seemingly at the insistence of their audience, who couldn’t survive on 12 episodes a year.
Previous incarnations of trend-forecasting collectives — K-hole, 8Ball, even the French collective Tiqqun, which put out the viral Semiotext(e) book Theory of the Young Girl — feel like spiritual predecessors to the podcast in some ways, but the magic of Nymphet Alumni is that they seem to be determining aesthetics rather than merely remarking on them. They engage in a kind of teen-girl hyperstition that allows them to will trends into existence. Like Andy Warhol, they see something in the culture before the culture sees it in itself.
Their ability to simultaneously embrace their own girlhood and to treat themselves and each other as serious academics gives them unrivaled insight about the present moment. In an era where young women are seizing control of cultural production through new social media, their desires are essential to any rigorous form of social analysis. “Technology has stunted people’s growth,” Cummins says. “It eliminates friction from your life and prevents the difficulties that might have helped you grow into your adult life.”
The girls command a relatively small cult following, but their influence on popular culture is undeniable. In recent months, they coined the now-ubiquitous style term “blokette,” tracked the rise of dandyism, an exaggerated and androgynous approach to masculinity, and analyzed the dominance of textual clothing. The girls have a talent for distilling aesthetics down to their most essential components: Olivia Rodrigo is “institutionally hot,” Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is “a really foundational text on mall theory,” and Disney “gentrified being emo.”
In this sense, the nymphs are wielding a new kind of influence. It’s evident that they have thought critically about the responsibility associated with being role models. “Initially people were skeptical of us and our ‘Tumblr credentials,’ but as time has gone on we’ve proven ourselves,” says Alario. “It feels amazing to be accepted by this subset of young girls, because being rejected by teenage girls is a really harsh thing.” Cummins agrees: “We look up to them as much as they look up to us. We constantly court their input on our work.”
In spite of the fact that the girls are in their early 20s, they almost always refer to Gen Z in the third person. And it’s true that they seem to have turned a retrospective eye. Sherbert says that one ambition of the podcast is to “tie Gen Z to a grander historical narrative and use our combined knowledge of cultural analysis and fashion history to show how emerging trends evolve out of things that have already happened.”
Biz says, “The word that keeps cropping up on TikTok is girlhood. People are trying to codify that more than ever before.” Speaking to the aesthetic proliferation of ribbons, bows, and ballet flats, Sam says, “Everything is pointing toward feminine aesthetics.”
A consistent theme on the show is the democratization of knowledge about fashion history, the way that lockdown-era unemployment benefits enabled young people to purchase archival fashion, the idea that these status symbols are being redistributed. There’s something very American about this sentiment, the notion that everyone can own a little piece of luxury, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with these desires. This is ultimately the project of the show: demystifying aesthetic codes and making cultural analysis interesting to a new generation of young women.
When I look back on my adolescence, I find myself wishing that I’d had Nymphet Alumni. Sherbert, Cummins, and Alario model a rigorous and unapologetically feminine intellectual approach. By embodying the archetype of the young girl — wide-eyed, optimistic, and unafraid — they seem to re-enchant the desolate post-capitalist landscape. I think about this way of seeing all the time, and I try to remind myself that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
When the Roman Empire meme exploded a few days after our interview, all I could think was: “How many times a week do I think about Nymphet Alumni?”