"Exploitation is just so rife:" HBO's "Brandy Hellville" rips open the seam on fast fashion's woes

Salon interviewed the director behind HBO's explosive documentary "Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion"

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published April 9, 2024 10:45AM (EDT)

Showcase of Brandy & Melville store in Fuencarral street in Madrid, on 5 April 2017, Spain. (Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images)
Showcase of Brandy & Melville store in Fuencarral street in Madrid, on 5 April 2017, Spain. (Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images)

One size fits all. Tiny tank tops. A prevailing image of whiteness and beauty tailored for young, rich teenage girls. These elements encapsulate the brand of Brandy Melville, a trendy, bohemian fast-fashion clothing company.

While the Italian brand has been operating since the 1980s, it hit its stride in America with its presence in Los Angeles in 2009. But really, Brandy Melville is known to women under the age of 30 for its peak Tumblr and Instagram influence. The brand capitalized on the beginnings of online influencer culture across social media, using teenage girls posting online about its clothing to advertise super soft, one-size-fits-all baby T-shirts and beach aesthetic to other plugged-in teen girls. They would then recruit young, beautiful girls to work and model for its stores across the country.

Almost instantaneously the brand became a cult favorite of teen girls with an eye for trendy fashion. Despite its popularity — the company amassed an Instagram following of 3 million — Brandy Melville has also been controversial since the late 2010s. As a teenager, I saw socially aware people on the internet banding together to boycott Brandy for its lack of size inclusivity, but attempts were unsuccessful.

But in 2021, a bombshell article by Business Insider reporter Kate Taylor reported on allegations of fatophobia, racism against Black and brown ex-employees and odd and inappropriate behavior with underage teenage girls. Then, a group chat between Brandy Melville CEO Stephen Marsan and other company employees leaked, revealing a number of antisemitic, anti-Black and misogynistic messages. This has led to two discrimination lawsuits against the brand and Marsan.

The HBO documentary, "Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion" — which debuts on HBO and Max at 9 p.m. on April 9 — rips open the seam that holds together the loosely woven story that lucrative fast fashion brands like Brandy Melville tell to exploit young, female retail workers all the way down the supply chain. 

Salon talked to director Eva Orner about whistleblowers, the global impact of fast fashion and how "the power is with the consumer, but they're being duped." 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I also grew up in the age of Tumblr, so I knew a lot about Brandy. What did you know about Brandy Melville before you took on this documentary and did you know about its cult following?

I wanted to do something about fashion, and particularly fast fashion, and I was looking for the right story. I had a meeting with the producers Jonathan and Simon Chinn, who are amazing, from the company Lightbox. We talked about it and they came back a few months later with the Brandy Melville story. You know, I'm not the age of you. I don't have a teenage daughter and I didn't know what it was. I did a bit of a deep dive and I was like, 'This is amazing.' So I didn't know anything.

The first thing I did was ask my friends with teenage daughters, and they were all like, 'Oh my god, my daughter's obsessed with it.' I went and looked at their closets and I talked to them about it. And then the one thing that I wanted to do was also open the story up to make it a little bigger, about the implications of where all of this excess clothing goes. That's why we went to Italy and we also went to Prato, to Ghana, to tell a bigger story. 

People know about Brandy because it capitalized on influencer culture. I think it was really successful because of that. During your interviews, what did you uncover about young girls' relationships with social media?

I say this about all of us, because I don't want to just blame young girls on this, but you know, it's addictive and it's captivating and I think we're all a bit obsessed with it and we spend too much time on it.

I have the odd friend, like my fiancé, [who's] not on any social media and never has been. It's really interesting to watch his life as opposed to my life. I'm not super consumed. But you know, [teenage girls] grew up with it and this is how they communicate and this is what they do and people want big followings. People want to be influencers — Brandy encouraged like crazy.

The biggest thing for me is when I look at all my friends' teenage daughters, they are basically unpaid brand ambassadors for all of these companies. It's genius — evil genius — of the companies. It's horrifying. Right now on TikTok, the biggest trend I think is face care for young girls. So there's all these girls between probably five [to] eight years old and 15 years old and they buy all this expensive face product. Then [they] make videos of it and then they post it and millions of people see it and replicate it. I mean, the companies are laughing all the way to the bank. They don't have to advertise. It's insane and I think exposing it is really important because if they stopped, the companies would collapse. I think you realize the power is with the consumer, but they're being duped. 

At the center of this is Brandy Melville's CEO, Stephan Marsan. We discover in the documentary that he's this middle-aged white man shrouded in mystery. How did you begin deconstructing this elusive figure and boss? And where did you start considering the numerous allegations of racism, antisemitism and discrimination against him? 

A lot stemmed from Kate Taylor's Business Insider article. That was the jumping off point. Then once you start talking to people, you find out more and more and more. Obviously, the two Italian men agreed to appear in the film anonymously. That's not them. That's actors playing them in the film, but off their transcripts. I think it's really hard when you have to make a film and the antagonist is a shadowy figure and there's literally three photos of him online. There's absolutely nothing about this man online. It's really extraordinary. And what's even more horrifying is he spends his days gathering photos of young girls who work for him. So there's tons of material of them. I mean, the exploitation is just so rife, but nothing of him. And then when you see him, it's really inappropriate, who he is and what he's doing. And it's the same as his offsider, Jessie, who was running the Instagram; he's equally the same. He is managing these teenage girls and again, he's a middle-aged man. It just feels really wrong and incredibly exploitive and the industry is such an exploitative industry. The fashion industry is mostly female workers are all being exploited, whether they're models down to the workers, and it's mostly run by men.

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You've mentioned two actors speaking from transcripts, how did that process go? These two people are involved in a discrimination lawsuit against Brandy and they decided to stay anonymous. Was it challenging to film?

I mean, everything in this film was really challenging. It was actually surprising because I've done a lot of stuff in war zones and with refugees, and there I haven't had that kind of hesitancy to go on camera. I mean, starting with the girls — and I really liked to point this out — we spoke to so many girls and reached out to so many girls and ex- and current employees, and like 95% of them said no to being in the film. They would share their stories often, not always, but there's a level of fear, you know, fear of retribution. They're scared of the people who own the company, but they're also young girls starting their careers, so they're scared of going on camera . . . it could stop them from getting a job.

"I wanted to get to the end of the film and to have people more informed about the global impact of buying a T-shirt and their choices."

So, my first thing is that all of the young women who appear in the film are the heroes of this story. They are whistleblowers. They are brave. Most of them said no, and I cannot show my gratitude and awe of how strong and brave they are. It's an example of when young women speak out, they have a powerful voice and I think that needs to be galvanized more and they need to be manipulated less. So, I think that was a really amazing thing.

And the two Italians who I have mentioned and — I'm actually in Kate's article, and so we were introduced to their attorney, and then it was a lot of negotiation from 'maybe,' to 'yes, but I don't want to be on camera' and 'no, you can't use my voice.' 

So I said we can do a Zoom interview that I record. We'll cut it into the film. And then once we're pretty much locked, we will have actors sit in silhouette, reading from your transcripts. They agreed to that and I think it works really well. I think it's really effective. I think you just go with it and forget that they are actors. We brought Italians to play them because their Italian [had] strong Italian accents.

Honestly, I really didn't even fit the pieces together until you mentioned that because it felt like they were actually them. So it was a success.

That's why I didn't show their faces. 

But again, I feel like they didn't have to speak and are really brave to do it. And I feel like whenever you have a whistleblower in a film, without whistleblowers, we are in the dark, we are in big trouble. And I think whistleblowers are getting more and more concerned and scared to speak because of laws changing and governments changing and journalists are the same. So I'm always like, without these incredibly brave people, we have nothing. 

You highlight the environmental cost of fast fashion, and it's laid out perfectly from the beginning of the supply chain with exploited textile workers to exploited teenage retail workers. Why was important to highlight the stark racial and environmental inequity in fashion?

It would have made my life a lot easier to just stick with an exposé on Brandy, but I wanted to get to the end of the film and to have people more informed about the global impact of buying a T-shirt and their choices. And I thought, honestly, when you see those images from Ghana, from the beach in Accra — my crew and I have shot in war zones and we've seen the worst of humanity and the best and standing on that beach for the first day in Ghana our jaws were on the floor, and we were kind of like, "This is one of the worst things we've ever seen."

I mean, I'm literally getting chills. It was so shocking. And you realize you're part of the problem. It's so shocking. So I really wanted that to be in the film. And I wanted you to get to the end of the film, and this is why the last line of the film is 'We need to buy less.' Look there's lots of different technologies and solutions that are in progress at the minute, but I'm just checking my facts. One-hundred billion garments are produced nearly globally and most of those are discarded in the first year of wearing them. We don't need as much as we have. We don't need these massive closets. 

In terms of just day to day, we just need to buy less, and if our buying went down even 20%, 30%, 40%, — I mean, let's go for 80% or 90% — but even if you've just stopped buying 30% of what you're buying now, if everyone did that, it would make an impact. 

It would really hit the businesses who are making all this excess product that we don't need. Lee is one of the women who works in Ghana [and she says], 'You know we've we've made enough clothing we don't need to make any clothing.' So I really just hope that people see this film. Everyone who worked on the film is affected. We've all cut down our consumption by probably 70-80%. It's really, just take a minute and don't buy it instantly. That's what the algorithms are trying to make you do. 

The image that Brandy has created to sell their clothes is this Western standard of beauty: White, blond, light eyes, skinny and beautiful. While interviewing former Brandy employees, how did this ideal affect them long term? And what does it say about our culture that this is still the beauty standard perpetuated in fashion?

Kate Taylor, who was the initial journalist who uncovered this, is in the film. She says at the beginning of the film, 'I didn't think that's what this generation was about.' You know, there's so much inclusivity and diversity, but that is a new thing that didn't exist when we were growing up. Maybe [diversity and inclusion] is not as deep as we really think it is because something like Brandy exists. What's great is that the ex-employees, who are in the film really spoke about it honestly, I love their honesty. I love when Natasha says 'I don't know why we wore it because everyone wore it.' That's exactly what we all did at school and it's very easy to make fun of that, but to me, that honesty is extraordinary. When Kate says she felt amazing when she was complimented in a Brandy store and you know, it was like being a cool girl, and that's fine. That's what growing up is all about, but this company exploits that.

Did doing this documentary make you look at clothing and the fashion business differently in your own life?

It's so interesting because I love fashion and that's how this all started. I mean, I love watching fashion documentaries. I loved you know, not buying excessively, but I definitely have too much stuff. I think it's made me not like the fashion business and to not be as interested in it. I'm interested in the kind of designers doing real work with recycling, like the company in Italy, Manteco, who makes all that incredible, like cashmere and recycled wool. To me, that's sexy and interesting, taking all our old woolen cashmere and turning it into a gorgeous product. To me, that's interesting and it needs to be scaled up.

"To be truly sustainable means not making something new."

So, I feel like now I'm more interested in the activism. Aisha, who is a woman in the film, runs an organization called Remake which is all about activism and campaigning. I sort of switched my focus to 'I still want to look nice and be fashionable and look at fashion, but I don't want to read fashion magazines.' I'm also incredibly critical and have very little patience for companies that call themselves sustainable and they're not. I feel like everyone's doing it. You can have one organic t-shirt in your line and say you're sustainable because there's no regulation in the global fashion industry. You go on any website and it says sustainable and you feel good about what you're buying and it's simply not, it's just greenwashing, you know? To be truly sustainable means not making something new.

How does this documentary fit in with your other work? I know that you've done exploration into Bikram yoga and the Ohio State University abuse scandal. What about these stories have a common theme?

I'm just definitely into exposes these days. I'm definitely into giving a voice to people doing good, representing the underdog. You know, I historically did a lot of films in war zones with refugees, and I'm not known for doing easy films. When I said I love fashion, I'd love to do something in fashion, I'm very quick to say, 'But I don't want to do a celebrity designer piece.' So I wanted to do something about fast fashion.

To me, it's about exploration, discovery, meeting people and going to places that I would never meet and that I've never been to. I find that endlessly fascinating and I'm so blessed that I get to do this. I do like a little bit of edge to what I do. I feel like you can lure an audience into something and then maybe they walk away with slightly changed behavior, whether it's more empathy towards a refugee or whether it's being more thoughtful about waste and what you buy. So I kind of like not banging people over the head with things, subtly drawing them in, educating them and maybe changing their behavior a tiny bit for the better if that's possible. But at the end of the day for me, it's about stories. You know, when people bring you things or you come across things, you know instantly if it's something you want to spend a few years of your life on.

"Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion" is now streaming on Max.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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