According to Brandy Melville employees, CEO Stephan Marsan wants his staffers to be young, thin, pretty, and white.
Every day, girls who work at the fast-fashion stores are required to send a full-body photo to executives. Some are as young as 14. If Marsan thinks a girl is too heavy or unattractive, he demands that she be fired, according to Luca Rotondo, a former senior vice president. If Marsan decides a Brandy Melville store has too many Black employees, he has them replaced with white women, Rotondo said.
During Rotondo’s nearly nine years at the company, Marsan instructed him to fire hundreds of employees, Rotondo said.
“If she was Black, if she was fat … he didn’t want them in the store,” Rotondo told Insider.
In September 2019, Marsan received a photo of a manager in Newport Beach with dark hair wearing chain necklaces. Marsan texted Rotondo, writing in his native Italian that the store was “only hiring pieces of shit.” They’re going to destroy the store, Marsan wrote in a text message viewed by Insider.
“Cacciala,” Marsan demanded — or “kick her out.”
Brandy Melville is the go-to brand for the type of high-school girls who spend hours on TikTok and worship Bella Hadid. Named after two fictional characters — Brandy, an American girl, and Melville, an Englishman — who fell in love in Rome, the line has developed a loyal following among teenagers who arrive by the thousands to a store opening. It’s Contempo Casuals for the Gen Z set: crop tops, miniskirts, and a controversial “one size fits most” tagline.
But while Marsan has made a fortune selling fast fashion to teenage girls, interviews with more than 30 current and former employees from eight cities suggest a business largely built on the exploitation of young women and discrimination against anyone who fails to meet Marsan’s white, blond, and skinny ideal.
Some current and former employees say higher-ups regularly crossed professional boundaries; one former employee told Insider an Italian store owner sexually assaulted her. Rotondo and former Canadian store owners alleged in two separate lawsuits that they were ousted after refusing to fire employees based on race and appearance. A group text with Marsan and other top executives contained racist, sexist, and antisemitic jokes, including one photo in which, a former business partner says, Marsan edited his face on Hitler’s body.
In a filing in Rotondo’s lawsuit, Bastiat USA, the company that operates Brandy Melville locations in the United States, denied that it “has ever fired an employee on account of his or her race.” Brandy Melville representatives, attorneys, Marsan, and other executives named in this article did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
“If I could say anything to the owners, I would say: ‘You had such an amazing opportunity to be a safe, inclusive space for young women, and instead you took advantage of them,'” Mina Marlena, a former employee, said.
“People don’t realize how corrupt this company is,” a current employee at a Massachusetts store said. “It’s a disgusting company, and the company needs to be shut down.”
For many of Brandy Melville’s customers, the brand is a way of life. Almost every item — most costing less than $40 — comes in just one size, the equivalent of a small. As of 2019, annual global revenue had surpassed $250 million, according to a former executive, with teenagers scouring the resale site Depop for “Rare Brandy.” One teenager gushed to the fashion publication i-D that the brand was “the female Supreme.”
During sales at one of Franco Sorgi’s Canadian shops, thousands of girls would arrive before dawn to line up, he told Insider. “I’m talking about September, in Canada, at 4 o’clock in the morning, freezing my ass off,” Sorgi, who used to own 11 stores, said. “These girls would stay there, in the cold.”
For some customers, the dream is a job at Brandy Melville. YouTube videos and TikToks about what it’s like to work at stores rack up millions of views. Employees who appear on the brand’s Instagram can become celebrities in their own right. Scarlett Rose Leithold, now an established model with 3.5 million Instagram followers, got her start at Brandy Melville.
Despite Brandy Melville’s 94 locations worldwide, including 34 in the US, few know the name of the man who started it all: Stephan Marsan, its elusive founder, owner, and CEO.
Marsan has apparently never given an interview. In a 2014 article, the Italian outlet Viterbo News said the family behind Brandy Melville had “made a religion of confidentiality.”
Marsan opened the first Brandy Melville stores in Italy in the ’90s, following in the footsteps of his father, a manufacturer for fashion brands. In 2009 he opened the first US outpost in Westwood, California, near the UCLA campus. At the time the brand had 40 stores in Italy (many have since closed). But Marsan wanted more, and the US was key to taking the brand international.
People familiar with the company described Marsan as a workaholic who micromanages all aspects of the business.
“There was a day when Stephan told us, ‘Take everything but the three smallest sizes off the floor,'” a former Brandy Melville employee who worked at stores in California and New York starting in 2013 said. “From that moment on, we did not carry anything above a size 4.”
For Marsan, political correctness is blasphemy, Sorgi said. The CEO broadcasts his prejudices to executives, calling Black people primitive and claiming that women only create problems, Sorgi said. But to secure their spot in the world of Brandy Melville, employees at all levels said they had to endure — and often enforce — Marsan’s beliefs.
When Franco Sorgi opened Brandy Melville’s first stores in Canada, in 2012, Marsan was clear about the target audience, Sorgi said.
Sorgi says that Marsan told him he did not want Black people to buy Brandy Melville clothing, telling the Canadian store owner it would damage the brand’s image to have Black or overweight women wearing his “nice and delicate” garments. According to Sorgi, Marsan said he would rather sell to “good-looking rich little girls.”
Employees say they were held to even more exacting standards.
In the New York City flagship store, Marsan and fellow executives have an elevated work area from which they watched shoppers, according to an employee who quit last year. If they saw someone who fit the Brandy Melville look, they pushed a button, setting off a light that prompted the cashier to ask for the girl’s photo and contact information so she could be recruited.
“There was no sugarcoating it,” a former New York regional manager who left in 2017 said. “It was, ‘She is skinny, white, blond, and pretty — let’s hire her.'”
Top executives are sent photos of all candidates for retail positions before hiring them, according to multiple current and former employees. Eight employees who worked at the brand from 2013 through now said a new employee’s pay was often determined solely by her photo and, in some cases, a screenshot of her Instagram. Those who fit the look tended to be brought on with higher pay, they said.
The employee who worked in California and New York said the executives would text yes or no on the spot “and give us a rate that that person would be hired at.” She said she watched coworkers use Facetune to edit the appearance of a qualified applicant, making her taller and skinnier and erasing blemishes on her face before sending the photo to executives.
Sorgi says he pushed back on Marsan’s modus operandi and began hiring employees based on merit. The girls featured on Brandy Melville Canada’s Instagram grew more diverse, while the US account continued to be overwhelmed with comments asking why almost all the models were white.
Sorgi suspected he was on thin ice in April 2017 when three Brandy Melville executives flew to Canada to visit his stores: Salvatore Rianna, the chief financial officer, Luca Rotondo, a senior vice president, and Yvan Marsan, Stephan’s brother who works for YYGM, the Swiss company that owns the Brandy Melville trademark.
According to Sorgi, even before they got out of the car at the Square One mall in Ontario, Rianna and Yvan didn’t like what they saw. The issue, as Sorgi understood it, was that “there’s only Indians here, there’s only dark people,” Sorgi told Insider. Yvan told Sorgi the customers were “ghetto” and demanded he shut down the store. He scolded Sorgi about a manager at a different store, telling Sorgi that she was too “short and fat” to work at Brandy Melville, accroding to a lawsuit filed by Sorgi.
After the visit, Sorgi said, he was pressured to close stores outside predominantly white areas. A year and a half later, Sorgi says he and his business partner, Paolo Simeone, were told by Yvan that YYGM was terminating their trademark agreements, a move Sorgi alleges was made at the direction of Bastiat USA. In August 2020, Sorgi and Simeone filed a suit against Bastiat USA, alleging their agreements were terminated because they refused to discriminate based on race or appearance.
All 32 current and former US employees who spoke with Insider, ranging from stockroom workers to executives, said they felt the company’s hiring and firing practices were heavily influenced by appearance. Many — including managers in New York, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts who worked directly with top executives — said this guidance came directly from Marsan and other leaders. All but a handful said they saw evidence that race played a role. (Most of the employees requested anonymity in order to speak without fear of repercussion, but their identities and employment histories are known to Insider.)
Ex-employees at Brandy Melville’s New York stores said that in their experience, Black staffers were typically relegated to the stockroom or night shifts. Three former managers and two employees at New York City stores said it also appeared that management would hire Black employees for prime hours when a store was extremely understaffed and then fire them when more white candidates became available.
“Even if they were the best employees ever, they would only keep the ones that were pretty or mixed” race, a former regional manager in New York said. She remembered screaming at Marsan and his right-hand man, Jessy Longo, telling them they couldn’t keep firing all the people of color.
In late September 2017, Stephenie Legros, who is Black, was nearing her first anniversary as a Brandy Melville employee. There were more people of color working with her at the New York City flagship than usual, she and another former employee said.
Marsan had been spending more time at the store, watching employees, Legros recalled. On her day off, Legros found out she’d lost her job. Human resources told Legros it was because of a lack of funds. A week earlier, though, the store had hired two new employees, one white and one Asian, Legros said. The newly hired white teenager told Legros she was earning $13 an hour, $2 more than the more experienced Legros.
“I felt like they were trying to get rid of some of the Black girls because that’s not Brandy’s look,” Legros said.
Rotondo told Insider that Marsan could be ruthless when it came to achieving his vision. In his lawsuit, Rotondo says that when he refused to fire the “piece of shit” Newport Beach manager at Marsan’s order in 2019, his salary was cut by $40,000, to $260,000. Three months later, Rotondo says he was let go. (In a filing in Rotondo’s lawsuit, Bastiat USA denied that his salary was cut, stating that Rotondo “had lesser responsibility [at that time] following his shift to the West Coast territory only.”)
Rotondo declined to be interviewed on the record on any topics beyond his lawsuit, citing concerns for his safety.
“I believe that he is not rational,” Rotondo said of Marsan. “You can still have stores made out of good and great workers, no matter race, color.”
Marsan and fellow executives weren’t shy about sharing their opinions. Insider viewed more than 150 screenshots that appear to show Marsan and Brandy Melville’s top brass exchanging pornography, photos of Hitler, and memes featuring the N-word in a group text called “Brandy Melville gags.” People familiar with the inner workings of the company said it was active from about 2017 to 2020. The group chat included more than 30 men, including members of Brandy Melville’s senior leadership — Marsan, his brother Yvan, and Rianna, the chief financial officer.
Many participants sent photos of naked or topless women, including one video of a woman penetrating herself with a sex toy. Matteo Centaro, a graphic designer who works with the brand, appeared to have sent a photo of a woman in a wet see-through shirt squeezing her breast with the caption “La maglia è chiaramente brandy,” or “That’s clearly a Brandy shirt.”
Holocaust and Nazi references appeared frequently. Hitler was mentioned 24 times in the more than 150 screenshots Insider viewed.
One image featured Hitler with the text “Premio Nobel per la brace,” or “Nobel Prize for barbecue.” Another screenshot showed an image of Hitler with the text “Happy New Year My [N-word].” Yet another included an edited image of a severely emaciated woman wearing underwear and a sash reading “Miss Auschwitz 1943.”
Top executives, in many cases, appeared to be leading the charge when it came to sharing antisemitic content. A selfie taken by Adriano de Petris, the chief technology officer, showed Roberto Tatti, Marsan’s brother-in-law and a Brandy Melville supplier, alongside another man performing a Nazi salute. Marsan sent a picture in which he folded a shirt to obscure certain letters, spelling out “Hitler.” Another screenshot showed an edited image of Marsan as Hitler, which Sorgi said Marsan himself created.
The screenshots also showed chat members mocking Black people, with several memes featuring the N-word. A photo of the cast from the TV show “Happy Days” was shared with text that translates to “There were no Black people in this show — that’s why it was called ‘Happy Days.'” One screenshot showed a photo of a T-shirt with the words “Capitalist [N-word].” Another featured someone holding up a National Geographic magazine with an ape on the cover next to a young Black man.
Sorgi said many people went along with the group chat because they wanted to stay on Marsan’s good side.
“Everybody will laugh at the most stupid joke he made, even if they were not funny,” Sorgi said. “Everybody would kiss his ass like you can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t be surprised if people … in the chat would post nasty stuff just to make him happy.”
Keeping Marsan happy, after all, was crucial. Every day, Brandy Melville retail employees have their pictures taken and sent to higher-ups, a practice known as “staff style.” For years, these photos were sent directly to Marsan and other company leaders via group text, according to multiple managers who were a part of the exchanges. Marsan regularly received more than 2,000 text messages a day, according to a former executive with direct knowledge of the matter. (Earlier this year, managers began emailing the photos to a company account.)
Marsan methodically saved some girls’ photos, according to the employee who quit last year. She once spotted a folder on his computer labeled with her name — it appeared to contain every photo taken of her from the day she was scouted to her most recent staff-style shot.
Executives told employees that the photos allowed Marsan and other higher-ups to keep track of clothing trends.
“In retrospect … it’s really fucking weird that we all — as underage people — had to text this mid-to-late-30s guy photos of what we were wearing,” the former employee who worked in California and New York said.
But for many, anything was worth it if it meant being able to work at Brandy Melville.
“We call it a sorority … so many horrible things are happening, but at the time it was the coolest thing to be a part of,” a former New York employee who started working at Brandy Melville in 2015 said. “Like, I would go back to school and be like, ‘Yeah, I work at Brandy.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you work at Brandy?!'”
Some former employees in Santa Monica dubbed executives’ favorites “special snowflakes.”
According to current and former staffers, these special employees got access to the company credit card for $1,000 shopping sprees, were invited on work trips to Hawaii or Italy, and were allowed to use the “Brandy apartment,” a lavish two-story, five-bedroom apartment in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
Many girls were desperate to earn a spot among the favorites.
Long hours were part of the job, and two former New York employees who worked at the company from 2013 to 2016 said it was common for girls to take Adderall to stay up all night. In some cases, managers encouraged the drug use, they said.
Eight former employees from five stores said there was widespread concern that gaining weight could cost workers their jobs. One girl who worked in New York until 2018 said a visit from Longo and Marsan could prompt storewide diets. Three girls said they believed that working at Brandy Melville sparked or fueled their eating disorders.
People said that teenage employees as young as 14 would frequently undress in front of male executives to try on new clothing for them. Four former employees in California and New York told Insider there was a belief among some retail workers that if you went fully topless in front of the executives, you might get paid more.
Mina Marlena, who started working in the Santa Monica store in 2012 at age 17, said that the first time she tried on clothes for Marsan and Longo, she went to the bathroom to change. After she did this a few times, they told her to “just stay down here and change here,” she recalled. In an effort to stay in their good graces, she began to change in front of the executives, typically wearing nothing but thong underwear.
“I always felt like I had to do what they were asking or I would lose my position,” said Marlena, who now works as a content creator.
“Even though it was sus, everybody wanted” to be one of the favorites, one of the former employees who started at Brandy Melville in 2013 said. “You’d hear about it and be like, how do you get those privileges?”
Numerous current and former employees told Insider that professional boundaries were often crossed at Brandy Melville.
They said executives sometimes took retail employees out for drinks, including those who were underage. A former New York manager who left in 2016 said Marsan and Longo once brought beers to a store to share with her and a 16-year-old employee. Another former manager recalled executives sending bottles of wine for employees, most of whom were underage, to drink during an overnight shift in a San Francisco store.
Several former employees mentioned the behavior of Longo, the brand’s top executive alongside Marsan while Brandy Melville gained footing in the US. One former staffer said Longo approached her on her first day in the Santa Monica store as an 18-year-old, told her she looked like Naomi Campbell, and asked for her number and to take her out. She declined, but Longo continued to come up behind her, tickling her or whispering compliments in her ear, she said.
Marlena, who worked at the Santa Monica store until 2015, recalled Longo pinching her sides and making comments such as, “Oh, are you eating good?”
At least one employee, a former manager in New York, says the sexual comments turned physical.
In July 2015, she asked if she could stay at the Brandy apartment for a night.
Andrea Castagnasso, who owns some Brandy Melville stores in Italy, showed her the room she’d be staying in, she said. Castagnasso said his room was next door — something that surprised her. She’d thought the apartment was primarily for store employees and models visiting from out of town, not older executives.
Castagnasso, in his 30s at the time, took the then 21-year-old manager out for drinks and dinner, she said. She said she had a few drinks with Castagnasso at a bar in Brooklyn. Then, she said, her memory went blank.
“I do not recall getting in the car or coming back to the apartment, I do not recall how my clothes were taken off, and I do not recall how I ended up in his bed or engaging in any sexual activity,” she told Insider.
“I did not recall consenting to have sex with this person,” she went on. “I was very sick and disoriented when I woke up the next morning in his bed. 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.”
(Castagnasso did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.)
According to medical records Insider viewed, the manager went to the hospital to receive treatment to prevent HIV and STIs, as recommended for victims of sexual assault. Records from July 28, 2015, said she told medical staff she had been sexually assaulted two days prior.
She declined to file a police report despite medical staff advising her to do so, according to the records. A doctor wrote that the manager said her boss “raped her” and that she recalled having a drink at a bar then nothing until the next morning. But the doctor wrote that she did not wish to press charges because “she may lose her working visa.”
Castagnasso was a powerful player at Brandy Melville and a personal friend of Marsan’s. The manager was in the US on a visa and didn’t want to jeopardize it, she told Insider. Shortly after, she spoke with a few coworkers, one of whom recounted the incident to Insider. Then the manager stopped talking about what happened for years.
“I don’t believe in anything the company stands for,” she said, “but I was just desperate to stay in the country.”
Technically, Brandy Melville is a brand, not a business. The trademark is owned by YYGM, which controls brands connected to the Marsan family, including the agricultural company San Bartolomeo. (Brandy Melville sells the family’s olive oil online for $25.)
Every Brandy Melville store in the US is owned by a different independent company. All 34 are named a variation of Bastiat, after the libertarian economist Frédéric Bastiat. (Marsan is an ardent libertarian, naming a sub-brand John Galt after the character from “Atlas Shrugged,” personal copies of which he displayed in early stores.) Business filings list Marsan as the CEO or director for each Bastiat company and the president of Bastiat USA.
It’s an “unusually complex” structure, said Neil Saunders, the managing director at GlobalData, a research agency. Saunders said Brandy Melville’s attempts to fly under the radar made it “harder for criticism to be attributed to any individual or for the brand to be probed too deeply.”
The structure adds layers of confusion for anyone pursuing legal action against Brandy Melville. In 2015, the attorney Tristram Buckley found himself on a wild-goose chase attempting to serve legal papers on someone — anyone — who could be considered an executive at Brandy Melville, he said. Buckley repeatedly visited addresses associated with the brand only to discover that there was no one but teenage girls present. (Buckley told Insider the case was settled out of court.)
Sorgi said Marsan’s anonymity is purposeful.
“He is not like the typical CEO that sits on a chair and makes a million dollars a year in bonuses while the company is sinking into debt,” Sorgi said. “He doesn’t want nobody to know him because he’s sitting on a pile of cash.”
From the outside, Brandy Melville is a massive success.
The brand has stores in 15 countries. In 2011, PacSun started selling Brandy Melville products in the US. In 2013, Abercrombie looked into buying all its North American stores, the Canadian franchisees’ lawsuit said. At one point, Marsan spoke with Goldman Sachs about going public and shocked the bankers when he told them the business had no debt, Sorgi said.
As a privately held brand, Brandy Melville does not disclose its financial figures. According to a former executive, though, high-performing US stores can surpass $10 million in annual sales.
Its financials are helped by low costs. Brandy Melville doesn’t have a massive corporate office and has only a few salaried executives. Marsan manufactures the vast majority of clothes in one size at factories that the Marsan family owns overseas. The clothes are sold around the world by teenage girls making close to minimum wage.
Clothing designs are often directly copied from other brands or artists, according to several former employees. Two employees who worked at Brandy Melville between 2013 and 2018 said that, when they worked there, the entire creation cycle of a shirt could occur in the building behind the Santa Monica store: Teenage girls would find images on Tumblr, get approval from Marsan or Longo, have them screen printed on shirts, and immediately start selling them in the store.
Sometimes Marsan or another executive would literally buy an employee’s outfit off her body, replicate the design, and name the new product after the staffer, according to multiple former employees who worked at the company as recently as 2020.
In 2015, Brandy Melville appeared to be introducing a more formal structure to the business. The company opened a corporate office in Iselin, New Jersey, and hired Salvatore Rianna as chief financial officer. Today, insiders say, Marsan spends most of his time in Europe and New York, where he recently bought a $9.6 million townhouse.
Several people familiar with the company said Longo was rumored to be taking the lead on launching a Brandy Melville pizza chain. The brand has also been working with the New York City street-fashion brand Yellow Rat Bastard, signaling a possible move into the menswear market.
Despite the momentum, current and former employees told Insider they thought Brandy Melville’s moment of relevance was coming to an end.
“Every year that goes by, the beauty standard is shifting a little bit,” a Black woman who worked at Brandy Melville from 2016 to 2019 said. “And I feel like they’re so out of touch still. They don’t even try to keep up with the times. They’re stuck in this whole 2013 bubble where they feel like young, skinny, blond-haired, blue-eyed girls should be the face of their brand.
“We’re past that,” she continued. “You know, it’s not going to kill you to put a girl of color on your Instagram — multiple girls of color at that.”
Many insiders said they’d been waiting for years for the brand’s inner workings to be exposed, swapping horror stories in group texts with names like “Brandy Melville survivors.” While Brandy Melville has faced backlash for its sizing and lack of diversity, executives’ hiring and firing practices, racist and antisemitic comments, and allegations of sexual misconduct have gone unreported. A former New York employee suspects this was partially because of what she called a “culture of fear.”
More than a dozen employees Insider interviewed put the blame squarely on Marsan and other executives.
“The way that they run the company, these people are absolutely evil,” a current employee in Massachusetts said.
Some employees are severing ties and hoping customers do the same. One New York employee told Insider that she quit in 2020 partly because of the way she felt the company treated Black people and the lack of a public response to Black Lives Matter protests. Another former New York employee said, “This store should not be a thing.”
“We used to say to ourselves, ‘How long is this going to go on?'” said the former New York manager who said she was sexually assaulted. “I don’t think people know the extent of how bad it is.
“They would be doing everyone a favor to shut this business down.”
If you’re a current or former Brandy Melville employee and want to share information about your experience, email [email protected] or get in touch via the Signal encrypted messenger app at (646) 768-4740.
Ruqayyah Moynihan contributed to this report.