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‘Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion’: 5 Takeaways

The clothing store Brandy Melville is known for selling diminutive, single-size pieces popular among Gen Z: linen short shorts, heart-print camisoles and sweatshirts printed with the word “Malibu.”

Behind its Cali-girl aesthetic is a business that mistreats teenage employees and cashes in on young women’s insecurities, according to “Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion,” a documentary released on Tuesday on HBO.

The documentary intersperses former employees’ accounts of racism and size discrimination while working in its stores with a broader look at the labor and environmental costs of the fast-fashion industry. The filmmakers said Stephan Marsan, the company’s mysterious chief executive, did not respond to several requests for comment.

Eva Orner, the documentary’s director, said in an interview last week that it was a challenge to get former employees on camera because so many were fearful of the company. Those who were included were identified by only their first names. “I’ve done a lot of stuff in war zones, and with refugees and really life-or-death situations, and people have been more comfortable being on camera,” she said.

Ms. Orner, an Australian who won an Academy Award for the documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” had not heard of Brandy Melville before producers mentioned the company to her in 2022 as a potential subject of investigation. The more she learned, the more she was disturbed by the brand’s cultlike following among teenage girls, who see it flaunted by celebrities like Kaia Gerber and Kendall Jenner.

“These are the values that are in this T-shirt: It is racism, it is antisemitism, it is exploitation,” Ms. Orner said. “I’m hoping parents watch this and are horrified.”

Here are five of the major claims made in the documentary.

In some respects, Brandy Melville is similar to Zara, H&M and other retailers operating in the fast-fashion industry, which puts a premium on low-cost clothing manufactured on quick trend cycles. But its corporate structure is unusually “chaotic, messy and unclear,” Ms. Orner said.

Each Brandy Melville store is owned by a different shell company, while the trademark for Brandy Melville is owned by a Swiss company, Kate Taylor, the author of a 2021 Business Insider investigation into the company that informed much of the documentary, said in the film. And despite leading a brand that built its success in large part on Instagram, Mr. Marsan has next to no online presence.

Former Brandy Melville staff members said in the documentary that executives would sometimes ask to buy the clothes the employees were wearing so that the brand could replicate them. The company has been accused online of stealing designs from independent designers and was sued by Forever 21 for copyright infringement in 2016. (The case ended in a confidential settlement, according to court documents.)

The company offers the bulk of its clothing in just one very small size, which it describes as “one size fits most.” Mr. Marsan saw the policy as a way to keep the brand exclusive, according to former executives interviewed in the documentary, and criticism of the policy as confirmation that the strategy was working.

The film includes social media posts from customers saying they lost weight to fit into the brand’s clothing. Multiple former employees described struggling with eating disorders while working at Brandy Melville, and several said the pressure to be thin while working there affected their self-esteem.

One former employee said in the documentary that working in the store made her hate her body and feel generally insecure.

The company went out of its way to hire thin, white women who were often recruited on the spot while shopping in its stores, employees said in the documentary. Some said they were required to take daily full-body photos that were sent to Mr. Marsan, who sometimes fired them if he did not like the way they looked.

White employees were more likely to be assigned to the sales floor, while people of color were placed in less visible roles in the stock room, according to three former employees.

Former executives of Brandy Melville filed two lawsuits containing “serious allegations of racism” that were denied by the company in preliminary court filings, said Ms. Taylor, the reporter. One of the executives said in the documentary that his store in Toronto was closed by Mr. Marsan because it was frequented by people of color.

Senior leadership shared Hitler memes, pornographic images and racist jokes in a group chat called “Brandy Melville gags,” according to Ms. Taylor and two former executives interviewed in the documentary. One screenshot shown in the film features a skeletal woman wearing a sash that reads “Miss Auschwitz, 1943.”

Mr. Marsan, his brother, store owners and members of the company’s production team in Italy were all in the chat, according to one former store owner.

The group chat featured heavily in Ms. Taylor’s Business Insider article. “The evil genius of Brandy is that when this exposé came out, they didn’t do anything” except for briefly disable comments on their Instagram page, Ms. Orner said. “They just went on, business as usual.”

Ms. Orner argued that Brandy Melville was also a case study in the way fast fashion can exploit workers and contribute to environmental waste.

The company’s supply chain is opaque, but much of its clothing is manufactured at a factory in Prato, Italy, that employs Chinese immigrants, Ms. Orner said. Prato is home to several factories for fast-fashion companies, some of which have exploitative labor practices, Matteo Biffoni, the city’s mayor, said in the documentary. (He did not comment on whether this was true of Brandy Melville’s factory.)

The filmmakers also traveled to Ghana, where unwanted clothing items from the United States and Europe pile up in heaps and clog waterways. Brandy Melville’s business model involves churning out inexpensive, trendy items that are likely to be discarded in this way, Ms. Orner said, and shipping them out to influencers in bulk, in exchange for free promotion.

“You can’t make a film about fashion without showing the exploitation of pretty much everyone, from the workers, through to the models, through to the retailers to the consumers,” Ms. Orner said. “Everyone’s being exploited.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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