‘Brandy Hellville’ Documentary Is a New Twist on Exposés About Cults

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The film examines the retailer’s tactics and is surprisingly similar to exposés about cults.

What’s most provocative about “Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion” (streaming on Max), and about the horror show it contends is behind the immensely popular cheap-clothing retailer Brandy Melville, isn’t necessarily its content. Other documentaries have tread similar ground with similar methods — the Netflix documentary “White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch,” for instance — which is to say that everything in “Brandy Hellville” has been reported before.

Documentary participants allege that the company and its leaders, especially co-founder and owner Stephan Marsan, engaged in a host of terrible behaviors ranging from fat-shaming and exploitative practices to really awful racism and sexism. Aimed at teen girls, the company’s marketing and messaging is to Gen Z what Abercrombie was to my generation: an aspirational brand designed to make you feel terrible about yourself, even if you were the skinny white girl in the pictures or working in the store. You can read about it all, of course; what the documentary provides is a host of eyewitnesses, including girls who worked in the store as teenagers and men who worked closely with the company to open new stores. Experts and activists also attest to the threat that fast fashion (that is, inexpensive, essentially disposable clothing sold at retailers like Zara, H&M, Shein and Forever 21) poses to global economies and the environment.

The documentary also looks at the economic and environmental fallout from fast fashion.HBO

But the subtitle of “Brandy Hellville,” directed by Eva Orner, points to an interesting idea, even if it’s underdeveloped in the movie. Brands like Brandy Melville and their ilk resemble a cult, and even harness some techniques employed by cults to keep their “members” (in this case, high school girls, whether as customers or as workers) in line. The documentary shows how employees were flattered, and then shamed by the leadership so that each would want to be more of a “Brandy girl” (which, the film hints at, usually required disordered eating). There was a strict image projected for “Brandy girls,” which many of the former employees in the film detail at length. Being part of the group requires constantly giving your money and time (which is to say, buying marked-up, poorly made clothing, according to the documentary, and then posting pictures on social media) to stay in the group. At times, girls were isolated from family and friends. And as in a cult, there’s a small, secretive inner circle (in this case, Marsan and some cronies) that makes all the decisions. There’s also a whole weird thing related to Marsan’s obsession with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” but I’ll let you find that out for yourself.

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