The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Column | ‘Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion’ unveils brand’s sinister reality

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
A still from “Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion,” released in 2024.

Unethical labor, racism, fatphobia and anti-semitism — the alleged secret price of the Brandy Melville style. 

HBO’s new documentary released on Max, “Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion,” investigates the controversies surrounding the widely popular Italian brand Brandy Melville.

Brandy Melville was founded by Silvio Marsan with his son, and now CEO, Stephan Marsan in the early 1980s. The store first opened in California in 2009 and quickly gained popularity on social media due to its simple, feminine style. 

The documentary exposed Stephan Marsan for hiring and firing people based on their looks, sending racist, sexist and anti-semitic jokes in a large corporate group chat, not wanting minority group clientele and being outwardly, and oftentimes, inappropriately vocal about his libertarian views in front of employees.

The typical demographic for the store’s employees were white and skinny teenage girls, and when minorities were hired, they would work in the stock room only — not the store’s main floor.

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While the documentary had very intriguing topics of discussion, the jumps and connections made from each claim — which varied heavily in severity — made it somewhat disjointed and difficult to follow thematically. The documentary quickly moved from the topic of the brand’s social media popularity to the exploitation of middle-income countries’ labor — a jump not made very smoothly.

Insider investigative journalist Kate Taylor detailed how Brandy Melville got popular through social media and quickly became a staple in many young girls’ wardrobes. Specifically, the Brandy Melville Instagram account, currently with 3.1 million followers, would post photos of teenage girl’s outfits and cater to a specific California aesthetic.

The Instagram was shockingly revealed to have been run by a middle-aged man. Employees were required to send daily photos of their outfits to a superior to be overseen by Marsan or other older executive employees — typically middle-aged men. 

Another marketing tactic the brand had would be to send boxes of free clothing to various influencers on YouTube in exchange for exposure through a try-on haul. This exploded the brand’s recognition and amplified the desire to wear its clothes.

One of the most harrowing claims made by the documentary was the unethical labor practices Brandy Melville utilizes to produce its clothing.

The documentary focused on the “made in Italy” tag that Brandy Melville’s clothes have. While it’s typical to see the “made in China” tag because of China’s massive factory industry, the tag is also associated with cheap outsourced labor, unethical working conditions and lower taxes. The Italian tag separates it from the associated rhetoric of the “made in China” tag.

Despite the tag difference, the labor process is eerily similar and still utilizes disturbing practices. The business produces most of its products from Prato, Italy — a city known for its textile production. 

The factories in which the clothing is made exploit Chinese immigrant workers and are ultimately sweatshops. The only differentiating factor between typically associated unethical textile productions of other brands and Brandy Melville is the label — the only actual “Italian” part of the clothing is where the factory is located.

The documentary also relates to how the fast fashion industry affects countries such as Ghana, where Brandy Melville and other clothing brands’ “waste” gets dumped onto their shores. It depicts the clothing polluting their waters and causing residents to take on the intense physical labor of moving the heavy bales of second-hand clothes.

The amount of videography from the shores of Ghana and various sweatshops warranted a more in-depth analysis of the true economic impact brought about by stores such as Brandy Melville. However, this was presented as a mere surface-level conversation.

Despite its storytelling flaws, the documentary has reignited the discussion about the morally ambiguous practices and damaging consumerist culture of fast fashion. The exposure of the fast fashion industry intensifies climate change and labor debates, as it is revealed to make up 10% of total global carbon emissions, and is heavily sourced from slave labor

Another issue the documentary revealed was the toxic mindset the employees experienced. The girls interviewed in the documentary spoke out about the competitiveness of the work environment, the need to fit into the clothes resulting in unhealthy eating and the confusing business model of the brand.

Many girls described their experience about needing to fit into Brandy Melville to maintain a certain look to keep their job. The brand only had one size: “one size fits all.” After some pushback from many individuals questioning the accuracy of the label due to the small nature of the clothing, the brand changed its size to “one size fits most.”

The documentary needed to dive deeper into the girls’ personal experiences to fully gauge the magnitude of the brand’s impact on their mental health. While the girls were vocal about their mistreatment, it was surface level, and their perspective required more attention than what the documentary provided.

There was a societal importance associated with the clothing, and the need to fit into the clothes was becoming almost trend-like with posts on YouTube, Reddit and TikTok about losing weight to fit into Brandy Melville. Many young teenage girls wanted to fit in, and the brand capitalized on that fact.

The documentary also details how there was a Brandy Melville-owned apartment in New York where a staff member was allegedly spiked and sexually assaulted.

The personal experiences of the employees were not enough of a focal point in the documentary — it was more of an overall commentary on the fast fashion industry and the odd business model of the brand. 

This was a sharp contrast to the marketing of the documentary, which was a deep expose of the brand and its impact on teenage girls, alongside the obvious downsides of fast fashion. The film could have benefitted from a more in-depth account of how the brand impacted the girls’ lives to be a more cohesive piece.

Stephan Marsan was invited to comment on the documentary but did not respond

The documentary weakly concludes with an ultimate message of attempting to shop more sustainably such as going to second-hand stores and overall buying less unnecessary merchandise. The ending was a rushed call-to-action piece that should have had more of an elaborate and clear resolution to fully finish the documentary. 

Despite the documentary’s faults, the subject of fast fashion has long been overdue for a solution-based conversation. It’s difficult to say whether or not the brand will face any true consequences for its controversial practices. 

The documentary revealed that Brandy Melville had gone through controversy before, and the exposure had only boosted their sales. The documentary alluded to Marsan only caring about revenue, and with only profit incentives, it seems as if Brandy Melville, alongside the entirety of the fast-fashion industry, will continue its disgusting methods of exploitation.


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