Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion: Four main accusations made against the retailer

Brandy Melville has fed stockpiles of single-sized clothing to young girls since 2009, featuring an inventory of plain “baby tees,” low-rise denim, tight thermals, and micro shorts.

The brand, reminiscent of a California-girl aesthetic, has fostered a cult following of tweens and twenty-somethings by selling its basic style items for no more than $40. Brandy Melville gained notoriety from free advertisements of A-list style icons Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber wearing its clothing, as well as streamlining close-ups of thin, long-haired “Brandy girls” gallivanting in front of the brand’s signature white brick wall.

But hidden amid the effable praise lies the cold underbelly of a fast fashion company that’s been promoting toxic workplace practices from the start, according to a 2021 report from Business Insider. Through conversations with former executive members and over 30 store workers, Kate Taylor – a senior correspondent – found serious allegations of racism, antisemitic behaviour, and sexual exploitation under the control of CEO and founder, Stephan Marsan.

Now, in collaboration with Oscar-winning director Eva Orner, the findings from Taylor’s investigative piece are brought to light once again in HBO’s new documentary, Brandy Helville: The Cult of Fast Fashion.

The film pieces together first-person accounts from a handful of old employees, a previous senior vice president, and a store owner who managed 11 locations. Both the previous senior vice president and former store owner are plaintiffs in their own respective lawsuits against the company for discrimination. In tandem with the claims against Brandy Melville, an exploration into the realm of fast fashion and its subsequent environmental abuse – specifically in Accra, Ghana – is conducted.

Here are the four main accusations made against Brandy Melville in the documentary.

Wrongful hiring practices

Unlike other retailers, Brandy Melville didn’t hire its store associates based on a standard application. The retail store’s job application was an outfit or an Instagram, according to former employees across eight cities, and in some cases young girls weren’t even aware they were “applying”.

Based on the accounts of young women who worked for the brand as early as 2013, an employee in the store would approach a shopper, “sugar them up,” ask to take a picture of their outfit to potentially use for the store’s Instagram and for “market research,” and sent it to the company’s top executives – most notably Marsan. The photos had to be full body and if higher-ups thought they fit the mold of a “Brandy girl” – described by former employees as typically thin, pale, red hair or blonde with blue eyes – they were asked to work there.

“The employee who worked in California and New York said the executives would text yes or no on the spot ‘and give us a rate that that person would be hired at,’” Taylor wrote for Business Insider. “She said she watched co-workers use Facetune to edit the appearance of a qualified applicant, making her taller and skinnier and erasing blemishes on her face before sending the photo to executives.”

The former store owner featured in the film confirmed these hiring practices were implemented and enforced by Marsan. He remembered being told to pay girls more money if they fit his vision, regardless of their work experience or ethic. These girls had to “attract elite” – their popular, trendy peers – according to the former store owner, and he was told to hire “attractive white girls.”

Willow – a photographer who worked directly with Marsan and Jessy Longo, the CEO’s “right-hand man” – was contacted by the brand after a photo she took of her friends in the apparel landed on the Brandy Melville Instagram without her permission. In the documentary, Willow remembered barely being able to tell that the email she got was from the brand. The message instructed her to let “them” know if she’d like to work together.

“One day I came into work and there were these clear buttons with sort of an electrical system set up next to every register,” said Marta, a former employee at Brandy Melville’s flagship location in New York City. “It was a system that Stephan used to inform the person at the register that they should take a photo of the girl that’s checking out.”

“The red button goes off and you’re supposed to take a photo, and offer them a job. We had to,” Marta explained.

“Store style” and discriminatory closures

All the former employees who worked for a Brandy Melville store remembered being subjected to the practice of “store style”.

“Store style” was enforced among all retail workers, according to the documentary. Every morning, young girls aged 15 and up would take full body pictures of themselves in their outfit that day. These pictures would then be sent directly to Marsan and Longo, former employees said. When Cate, a former employee from Newport Beach, questioned where the photos were going, she was shut down.

“One of the older girls said, ‘We’re not allowed to talk about it,’” Cate recalled. “And that’s when I’m like, ‘Oh no, something’s going on here that I don’t know about, and I don’t feel safe here anymore.’”

Afterward, Cate promptly put in her two weeks and left Brandy Melville.

“We were kind of told, ‘Oh, the photos are potentially for if we want you to model for us,’” Sheridan, an ex employee of Brandy Melville’s Honolulu, Hawaii, location said.

Emily, a former employee in San Jose, California, said these “store style” pictures started as a full body image, but they were soon asked to send “chest and feet pictures.”

“For each store, we had a group chat for the managers, myself, and Stephan,” the former senior vice president said. “We received the pictures from our girls, and if Stephan didn’t like some of them, he would send it back to me privately, and say, ‘Fire her.’”

One of the former employees Taylor spoke to, who worked at the flagship store in New York, told her that she had approached Marsan from behind one day and saw a folder of all the photos she’d sent to him over the years for “store style”.

The featured store owner, who opened Brandy Melville’s first stores in Canada, also claimed that he was instructed to close his store in Ontario after executives were sent to the location and found that the clientele was mainly “Indian and dark people”. In the court documents filed, the store owner recalled Marsan’s brother – who works for the Swiss company that owns Brandy Melville’s trademark – calling the location “ghetto”. Marsan’s brother, Yvan, demanded he shut the store down or he would no longer send merchandise over.

A manager at a different store was described by Marsan as a “communist” because of her piercings. The former senior vice president recalled Marsan telling him, “She’s going to destroy the f***ing store,” before telling him he had to fire her.

Faux product research

Kali, an employee who left her post at the flagship New York City location, and Natasha, who previously worked at a Brandy Melville in Palo Alto, California, claimed the company mimicked the clothing styles of other companies.

Natasha remembered seeing an off-the-shoulder white blouse come in with a shipment, weeks after she’d worn a similar top made by a different brand to work. Kali remembered a fellow employee telling her that Marsan had paid her $100 for the sweater she was wearing “so they could copy it”.

When Kali wore a pair of pants the higher-ups had liked, they questioned where she got them and asked her to show them the online link. According to her, they immediately bought the pants but never paid Kali for them.

“In some cases, the names of these things on the Brandy website, they’ll be like, ‘Josslyn’s shirt’. It’ll be because the shirt was literally purchased of Josslyn’s back,” Taylor said.

In addition to allegations of mock styling, Brandy Melville would send select employees to their warehouses in China and Italy for “product research”, treating them like royalty so they would model the new inventory and choose what they like. According to both the former senior vice president and the store owner, credit cards were given to “product research girls” for $1,000 shopping sprees that encouraged them to go out and buy what they wanted from other stores. This was how Marsan could produce what his “top clientele” liked, the former senior vice president said.

Racist, antisemitic gags groupchat and libertarian advertising

Business Insider had previously obtained over 150 screenshots from a groupchat titled, “Brandy Melville Gags”. The former store owner said “everyone” was in the text chain, specifically more than 30 men and members of the company’s senior leadership. The outlet found a string of “pornography, photos of Hitler, and memes featuring the N-word” sent in the group by Marsan.

“Holocaust and Nazi references appeared frequently. Hitler was mentioned 24 times in the more than 150 screenshots Insider viewed,” Taylor noted in her article.

Executives speaking with Business Insider described Marsan to be outwardly “libertarian” with “strong political views”. The former store owner claimed Marsan would talk to his store employees about his beliefs.

Libertarian bumper stickers were plastered around the store in California, former employee Willow said, which advocated for former US presidential candidate Ron Paul and denounced taxation.

Taylor recalled talking to other store employees from the “early days” who told her Marsan would hand out his personal copies of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a notorious libertarian novel, to place around the store. This book was remembered as the “bible of Brandy Melville” by store employee Marta.

One main character in Atlas Shurgged is named John Galt. John Galt is also the name of Brandy Melville’s private label sub brand.

Stephen Marsan and other executives did not respond to the filmmaker’s request for comment.

The Independent has contacted Brandy Melville for comment.


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