When she spots one of the painted wooden signs outside a Brandy Melville store, filmmaker Eva Orner stops in her tracks. “Since I started doing the documentary, I always sneak in and check out how many people are in there and what they’re selling,” she tells Vanity Fair. What she sees, she says, is “horrifying. I think ‘cult’ is a word that is bandied around a lot, and we were very careful when we decided to use it.”

Orner is referring to the name of her latest documentary, Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion, which debuts on HBO on April 9. In it, the Oscar winner (Taxi to the Dark Side) unspools the dark inner workings of a fast fashion company that targets teens and has been worn by the likes of Kaia Gerber and Kendall Jenner. According to the doc, beneath soft baby-tees emblazoned with sayings like “Stressed, Depressed, But Well Dressed” is a shadowy operation that both preys upon and profits off female insecurity. The words “antisemitism,” “racism,” and “sexism” are tossed out within the first three minutes of the film regarding certain executives, a harbinger of dark deeds to be revealed. Brandy Melville did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Most companies maybe do one bad thing,” says Orner. With Brandy Melville, “something bad happens, and then something worse happens. And it just keeps going. By the end, your jaw is on the floor.”

Orner, an Australian who drives an electric car and has adopted a vegetarian diet, was introduced to Brandy Melville by Oscar-nominated producer Jonathan Chinn (Black Sheep) and Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn (Searching for Sugar Man). As the film shows, the store presents itself as less of a label than as a lifestyle. Brandy Melville hires beautiful girls who seem popular—typically thin, white, and under the age of 18—who are often recruited while shopping in the store, the doc claims. Candidates are asked to submit full-body photos and offer up their social media handles in the place of any skill-based qualifications, said one former employee that Orner interviewed. 

Staff members of color are hired but are often relegated to working in stock rooms, ex-employees told the filmmaker. Those who work at a store’s entrance—all of whom must fit the “one size fits most” clothes the company carries—are required to take daily “store style” photos that are sent to Brandy Melville’s enigmatic founder, former workers in the doc explained. Employees could be—and reportedly were—hired and fired based on such images. “They’re like 16-year-old girls. You can find, like, 700 different reasons to fire them,” one anonymous company employee says in the doc. “Like, it’s too easy. It wasn’t even fair.” 

All of this information was unearthed before Orner began working on her film through lawsuits brought against the company and reporting by Kate Taylor, an investigative journalist at Business Insider. (Brandy Melville denied all wrongdoing in a 2022 class-action lawsuit brought by ex-employees. The company settled for $1.5 million.) But the revelations haven’t made much of a dent in Brandy Melville’s revenue. “There has been an exposé on this company. A lot of young girls know that the company’s not great, but they still shop there,” Orner explains. “And I find that really disturbing. There comes a point in your life where you have to [decide], What kind of person do I want to be? When a brand’s been exposed as being really shit, you can get clothes elsewhere. The fact that people are so locked into this brand is really surprising.”

Orner set out to make a film that would contextualize the company’s ethical issues within a larger environmental landscape. Her cameras traveled to the far reaches of Prato, Italy—where Brandy Melville’s clothing is produced in crowded factories—and Ghana, which has become a dumping ground for heaps of unwanted garments. In the documentary, former staff members said that higher-ups would buy the non-Brandy shirts off their backs so they could replicate and mass produce their design—a practice that has led to copyright infringement suits against the brand. (After being sued by Forever 21 in 2016, Brandy Melville’s parent company settled out of court.)

“The level of exploitation against women is staggering,” says Orner, especially when it’s further enabled by social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and TikTok. “You are being exploited by companies and doing their work when you make videos promoting them and [don’t] get paid,” she explains. “There are these armies of young girls advertising for these evil companies who are just laughing all the way to the bank.” 

Atop the chain of command is Stephan Marsan, CEO and son of company founder Silvio. Unlike his brand, the younger Marsan doesn’t have much of a digital footprint. “He has no online presence at all.” Orner tells VF. “I mean, there are literally three photos of this man online, and they’re all in our film—and all pretty terrible. This man does not want to be known. He’s very comfortable, though, hanging out with young girls in his store, looking at photos that he makes them take and send to him and senior management of, not only their full bodies, but also their chest and their feet. So there’s something really, really wrong here.” In the documentary, a former employee claims to have seen Marsan save such images to his phone.

Marsan, who declined to participate in the documentary and has yet to publicly address allegations of wrongdoing at his company, prefers to keep his inclinations to himself—that is, when he’s not displaying his personal copies in stores of Atlas Shrugged, which one talking head referred to as “the Bible of Brandy Melville.” Marsan’s favorite book inspired a sub-brand called John Galt, named after Ayn Rand’s Objectivist hero. “He’s an avowed libertarian,” says Orner. “Nothing wrong with people’s political choices, but when you have a massive, hundreds-of-million-dollars global business, and you constantly say you don’t believe in tax, I would say, Well, somebody should investigate that. They are screaming out to get in some serious trouble.” In the film, an anonymous source alleges Marsan talked about not paying taxes. Then again, she states, “They are racist, sexist, antisemitic. They exploit young girls. And that’s really just the tipping point.”

The most insidious aspect of Marsan’s alleged toxicity lies within “Brandy Melville gags,” a group chat among top senior executives reportedly filled with vile, racist, and sexual jokes, as well as an image of Marsan photoshopped onto Hitler’s body. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Orner. “It’s disturbing and dangerous and disgusting and juvenile.” Deciding how much of the text chain to include in the doc was a delicate matter. “We went pretty hard, pulled back a little bit,” the director explains. “We were working with HBO and at one point I was like, ‘But I don’t want it to be so people aren’t shocked.’ And they were like, ‘It’s so shocking.’ I was a bit immune to it because I’d seen so much.”

Larger questions linger about Marsan, whom one former employee compares to Mussolini, and the company as a whole. “There are pending lawsuits. The two Italian men who spoke anonymously in the film revealed a lot about [Marsan]. I knew he would say he wouldn’t respond to our request for interviews. That’s their style—they don’t talk, they hope it just goes away. With someone like that, everything they do is indefensible, and I feel like they would just lie.”

Given the chance to pose one question to Marsan, Orner knows what she would ask: “What does he think his teenage daughter is going to feel growing up in this environment? Because from what I’ve been told, she’s not a Brandy girl. She wouldn’t fit into their clothing. She’s not that vibe. How tough would it be for a teenage girl to grow up in that environment and not be a part of it?”

Given how low of a profile Marsan keeps, Orner says she initially struggled to find young women eager to share their experiences with the company. “I’ve done films in war zones with refugees, and this was the hardest film to find participants [for],” she explains. “I reached out to hundreds of young women, and a lot of them didn’t want to be a part of it. The main thing they said was that they’re scared of retribution, they’re scared of Stephan. So the young women who are in this film are the absolute heroes of this story.”

The documentary has made a splash since its SXSW premiere, with TikToks featuring the documentary’s key art earning more than 3.6 million combined views, according to the filmmaker, and opening the floodgates for other accounts of mistreatment at Brandy Melville. “I’ve been getting a lot of Instagram messages from ex-employees of Brandy,” says Orner. “Obviously it’s too late to be in the film, but it’s fantastic that these women who are in the film have now emboldened other people to talk about it. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of making TikToks about wanting to buy stuff, which is what a lot of young girls do, if they turned it into, Let’s tell stories about my experience at Brandy Melville? They should create another wave of this conversation.”

The film acknowledges that we’ve largely become comfortable with the reckless nature of major corporations, and thus immune to the scandals that can ensue. But Orner hopes her documentary will cut through the noise. “It’s a bit like climate change—you can’t fix it overnight,” says the director. Though she points to organizations like Remake as resources, the easiest way to fight places like Brandy, she continues, is obvious: “Just buy less. The consumer has all the power.”

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