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Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion Review

A girl holds a sign with the name Brandy Melville in a store, in the film Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion

Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion showcases the exploitation of workers at one of the world’s most beloved clothing brands.

In 2009, the Brandy Melville clothing line took the USA by storm. Teenage girls across the country rushed to stores everywhere to purchase various items. The Italian brand quickly built up a cult following, and girls hired to work for the store felt like they were part of an elite club. They viewed their employment at the fashion label as a badge of honor, and if anyone were “fortunate” enough to be given a job at the store, they would consider themselves one of the lucky ones. Young girls would flock to social media, decked out in the label’s clothing, and advertise their latest store-bought items in hopes of being noticed by the Brandy Melville Instagram page and employed by the brand. However, behind the scenes, Brandy Melville had a toxic work environment and immoral business practices. This is the basis of Eva Orner’s documentary Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion, which sheds a sinister light on the fashion label.

Before we get into the details of the documentary, you may be surprised to learn (as was I) that Brandy Melville isn’t actually a person’s name. The brand name is based on two fictional characters (Brandy and Melville) who fall for one another when crossing paths in Italy. Unlike most brands whose CEO is easy to find from a simple Google search, investigative journalist Kate Taylor couldn’t find much information on the mastermind behind the clothing label. She recounts researching Brandy Melville after being taken aback by the brand’s questionable business model. After some digging, she discovered that the company’s owner was Stephan Marsan, and the clothing line only geared its fashion toward women with small figures.

Even if you didn’t grow up wearing Brandy Melville, it’s clear from the documentary how much of a phenomenon the brand has become in the fashion industry and among teenage girls. Orner immaculately pieces together various montages, archived footage, and media posts throughout the film’s runtime, constantly reminding viewers of the power of popularity and just how much fashion trends can shape our identity and self-worth as teenagers. The direction never feels manipulative, and Orner’s knack for visual storytelling immerses viewers in the narrative.

Throughout Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion, we also witness various one-on-one interviews with former Brandy Melville employees as they share shocking revelations about the brand’s unethical and exploitative business practices. The subjects’ recollections of events with their past employer feel authentic, and the documentary allows each subject ample time to detail their stories. According to the women, employees at the company are only hired based on their looks and tiny frame. After all, Brandy Melville’s former tagline was “one size fits all.” Later, they changed it to “one size fits most,” after being called out on social media for only accommodating small sizes.

A girl holds a sign with the name Brandy Melville in a store, in the film Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion
Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion (HBO / SXSW 2024)

It’s sad to see how much of a negative impact the clothing line has had on some of the previous workers, all of whom parted ways with the company. They recount the pressure of always needing to be pretty and skinny during their employment. It impacted their well-being, and some are still dealing with the fallout. A former senior VP of the company discusses how each store had a group chat with senior staff members, and Stefan would regularly request photos of each employee. He would order a higher leader to fire them if he didn’t deem them pretty enough or view their body type as desirable.

There is also mention of a group thread with employees with leadership named “Brandy Melville Gags.” Inappropriate content in the text thread consisted of racial jokes, distasteful sexual content, and body shaming. Previous employees note that Marsan only hired skinny white girls, even demanding a manager to fire a girl due to her race. One of the former employees recounts one of her coworkers being sexually assaulted by another manager at the company at a loft Brandy Melville owned. However, she never reported it to the police for fear of losing her job.

As a woman who can relate to the pressures put upon teenage girls to feel worthy, particularly in today’s age with social media instilling unrealistic beauty expectations upon our youth, I was angered by each detail revealed in the documentary and shocked to learn about how mistreated the employees at Brandy Melville are. This exploitation shouldn’t exist in any business, let alone in 2024. It’s hard to comprehend how the brand has gotten away with such practices and discrimination for so many years, and they should absolutely be held accountable.

After watching Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion and googling the brand, I was sad to see many online posts from users asking how they could lose weight to fit into Brandy Melville’s small sizes. This is not the example any fashion brand should set, and the fact that this sort of treatment exists in business today highlights how much a powerful company with a cult following can influence the public. 

If this documentary doesn’t make customers of the brand question the company’s ethics, I at least hope Brandy Melville takes a long and hard look in the mirror and moves toward a business model of inclusivity for all their consumers.

Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion will be screened at SXSW on March 11-16, 2024. Read our SXSW reviews and our list of films to watch at SXSW 2024!

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