“Brandy Hellville” Is Shocking, But Not Surprising

Brandy Hellville

“I was shocked, but I was not surprised at all,” one former Brandy Melville employee says of discovering the extent of her boss’s racism in Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion. I could say the same thing about the documentary, released exclusively on Max.

The feature-length production posits itself as a deep dive into the controversial Italian clothing brand, which became a household name after founder and CEO Stephan Marsan decided to open stores in America and pivot to a “Malibu cool” image. The brand’s popularity skyrocketed even after backlash against fast fashion began to creep into the zeitgeist – and after two lawsuits were filed against Marsan by former employees.

Brandy Hellville’s mission is noble, but director Eva Orner would have done well to venture deeper into the raging fire that is the company’s business model.

Admittedly, Brandy Hellville caught my eye because I used to count myself among Brandy’s clientele. My feelings toward the brand can be mapped on a bell curve. As a teen, I was turned off by its infamous “one size fits all” policy and tendency towards basic styles – then, when I moved to Los Angeles as a young adult, the ubiquity of Brandy apparel began to gnaw at me. When I ventured into the iconic Santa Monica shop, I was tempted by the opportunity to try on clothes without worrying about which sizes to bring into the fitting room, embodying an ease that seemed distinctly Californian in spirit.

Of course, this notion of ease is ultimately a false promise: no matter what your body type is, you’ll eventually land on a tank top that’s too roomy, a pair of jeans that fit too snugly, a dress that’s too long. Similarly, the young women interviewed for the documentary initially believed that working for Brandy might confer some special graces upon them before discovering the uncomfortable company culture behind the scenes. The Brandy uniform might lend an air of superiority to its wearer at first, but after a while, the fabric begins to chafe.

Although Brandy Hellville’s subject matter is immediately compelling, its tone can be grating. We’re introduced to the brand(y) via a montage of filtered fit pics and vlogs from gorgeous teen employees and customers, overlaid with a flurry of emojis and adjacent animations, all aiming to indicate social media’s seductive influence.

The documentary’s on-the-nose approach made me feel as if I was being talked down to at times, leading me to wonder if the target audience was the age of the average Brandy consumer – yet it simultaneously exoticized the Internet in a way that felt geared toward older adults. Like a disgruntled shopper holding up a pair of shorts that seem more appropriate for a toddler than an adolescent, I found myself asking, “Who exactly is this for?”

That’s not to say that I didn’t find the documentary informative, even as someone who’s been familiar with Brandy since high school. The film was most insightful when it delved into the “cult” aspect alluded to in the title. Marsan might be a despicable boss, but he’s also an evil genius when it comes to marketing, and the doc expertly illustrates how corporations at once humanize and mythologize themselves.

it isn’t exactly jaw-dropping that a multimillionaire CEO of a brand that relies upon imagery of slender, blonde fourteen-year-olds might feel inclined to declare, “Make America great again.”

Brittany Menjivar

The featured former employees, who come across as earnest and thoughtful, describe wanting to court the attention of Brandy’s Instagram account, designed to encapsulate the essence of the ultimate cool girl, and feeling cheated when they realized a middle-aged man (Marsan himself) was behind it. They talk about the way Brandy encouraged them to offer employment to customers with “the right look,” offering them the keys to the kingdom based on appearance alone – a responsibility that initially excited them but eventually made their stomachs churn.

They also elaborate on the company’s emphasis on maintaining a teenaged workforce, both on the retail and creative fronts. Although Brandy corporate touted this as a display of “girl power,” the practice also allowed Marsan to work with employees who were vulnerable and malleable, all while granting them relatively little money and recognition. The promise of being a Brandy girl – skinny, sunkissed, hair perpetually blowing in the wind – was enough.

Alas, the doc misses its mark when it moves into more sobering subjects. One of its objectives, established early on, is to expose the impact of fast fashion on the environment and under-resourced communities around the world – but this proves to be too tall of an order. While it’s important to show the tangible effects of Brandy’s unsustainable production model, the documentary’s awkward and frequent transitions (at one point, we go directly from a segment on influencer marketing to footage of women carrying packages of clothing on their heads in Ghana) distract from this crucial issue, which might be better served by a separate, more in-depth documentary.

The way the doc handles the corporation’s toxic and bigoted workplace culture also feels misguided. Before delving into instances of discrimination and sexual misconduct, the documentary hints at Marsan’s dark side by slowly unveiling his right-wing political beliefs. We see a selfie of Marsan in a Trump hat, sent in an employee group chat. We learn that John Galt, the name of a Brandy Melville sub-brand, is taken from the novel Atlas Shrugged, penned by conservative-libertarian author Ayn Rand.

Brandy Hellville
“Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion” tries to explore the environmental impact of their business model

Although these anecdotes provide some insight into Marsan’s character and willingness to impose his personal ideologies onto the workplace, the documentary lingers on them for too long, as if waiting for the audience to gasp before moving on. Maybe I’m jaded, but it isn’t exactly jaw-dropping that a multimillionaire CEO of a brand that relies upon imagery of slender, blonde fourteen-year-olds might feel inclined to declare, “Make America great again.”

Brandy Hellville could have devoted more attention to Marsan’s numerous documented offenses against employees, including instructions to send daily photographs of their chests and feet to Marsan, hiring discrimination based on employee appearances (especially concerning given that Marsan had a distinctly Aryan concept of beauty and would send memes about Nazism to his colleagues), and a sexual assault that occurred after an employee was flown out to a company apartment in New York City. We catch glimpses of legal documents from lawsuits against Marsan, but the cases aren’t discussed until the very end of the documentary – and unfortunately, they feel glossed over. Instead of spending so much time building up Marsan as a bogeyman, the documentary could’ve gotten into the nitty-gritty of his crimes – but, it seems more interested in provoking an emotional response than providing details.

Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion is an earnest attempt to defang a company that preys upon girls and women through both its corporate practices and the ideals it projects. Yet the documentary doesn’t shed enough light upon the issues of exploitation it sets forth, its scope alternately too broad and too narrow. Hopefully, rather than being tossed in the metaphorical donation bin, it will encourage viewers – especially those in Brandy Melville’s target demographic – to do their own research into not only Brandy, but the fast fashion industrial complex at large.

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