Kristin Kohler Burrows, senior director, Consumer and Retail Group at the consultancy Alvarez & Marsal, has her doubts.
Insider’s article would appear damning, particularly for a company whose business relies on a demographic known for prioritizing diversity and inclusion. Its author claims to have talked with 32 current and former U.S. employees—some named, many unnamed. All reportedly said they felt appearance heavily influenced the company’s hiring and firing practices. “All but a handful” claimed to have seen evidence that race played a role.
Some said employees as young as 14 would regularly undress in front of executives to try on new clothing for them. Four said some workers believed they might get paid more if they went fully topless.
One former worker recalled the first time she tried on clothes for CEO Stephan Marsan and fellow executive Jessy Longo. At first, she changed in the bathroom, but after a few times, she said, the executives instructed her to stay and change in front of them. “I always felt like I had to do what they were asking or I would lose my position,” the former employee said.
According to Insider, the publication viewed more than 150 screenshots—and published 12—from a group chat that included senior leadership like Marsan. Of that total, 24 featured Hitler. Some referenced the Holocaust and mocked Jewish people. Others included racial slurs and pornography. Franco Sorgi, a former Canadian store owner now suing Brandy Melville USA executives, claims that an edited image of Marsan as Hitler was created by the CEO himself.
The most serious allegation of all came from a former New York manager who says an Italian Brandy Melville store owner, Andrea Castagnasso, sexually assaulted her. At the time, she was staying at an apartment the company kept for employees and models. “I did not recall consenting to have sex with this person,” the manager reportedly said. “He told me I was very drunk and wanted it, although I do not believe I was in any way in a state to consent to this.” Insider said it viewed medical records that align with the manager’s story, including contemporaneous notes from the doctor saying the manager said her boss “raped her” but that she did not want to press charges for fear of losing her working visa.
A spokesperson for Pacsun, Brandy Melville’s exclusive retail partner, said the company was “deeply troubled” by Insider’s allegations. “We are taking this matter very seriously and looking into the situation to make a determination on next steps.”
Among the brand’s core constituency, however, it’s less clear what sort of impact the new information is having. Hana Ben-Shabat, author of the recently published book, “Gen Z 360: Preparing for the Inevitable Change in Culture, Work, and Commerce,” believes awareness “is likely mixed rather than universal.” Still, she said, “too many lines have been crossed.”
“Before the exposé, when exclusive sizing was the main point of controversy, I’d have said many [of Brandy Melville’s customers] don’t care,’ Ben-Shabat said. “However, the Insider article revealed much bigger issues with Brandy Melville such as toxic work environment, racism and anti-Semitic sentiment, as well as sexual harassment…. We’re in different territory now.”
Though Burrows believes a subset of Brandy Melville’s customers would be pushed over the edge, she simply hasn’t observed any sort of “broad-based awareness” of the allegations.
“If a micro influencer or a bigger influencer did some sort of TikTok thing on it and it went viral, I absolutely do think it could impact sales,” Burrows added. “They run the risk of that, assuming everything in the Insider exposé is true.”
Despite the fairly tepid response Insider’s Brandy Melville article appears to have generated, Ben-Shabat and Burrows said Gen Z still care about diversity and inclusion.
“Being the most diverse generation to live in this country, Gen Z expects diversity in marketing and in the workplace,” Ben-Shabat said. “They want to see advertising that reflect the diversity they experience in their everyday lives, in their homes, schools, and communities. They want brands to be inclusive and deliver their messages in a way that considers the full gamut of their target consumers, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, dress size or body shape.”
Burrows pointed to Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick as an example of how brands can get this right. Though the former NFL quarterback proved a controversial choice to some, the move prompted an almost immediate spike in sales. Ten days after airing an ad starring Kaepernick, stock prices reached an all-time high.
“They made a clear decision that their focus was on engaging and re-engaging Gen Z and millennial customers—potentially with the trade-off of losing some older customers—and they doubled down on that strategy and it worked” Burrows said.