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The dark and poky flat had one thing going for it – it was available

Tim was trying to showcase the soundproofing effect of an extra sliding panel on the bedroom window but as he yanked and pushed from every angle he could think of, it remained resolutely stuck halfway across.

“There’s a few bits and pieces that need fixing,” he said.

He had used the same words a few minutes earlier as he pointed to a missing knob on a kitchen drawer, ignoring the cracked, discoloured sink next to it and the broken fan above. I was fairly sure I didn’t want to live in this dark, poky and rather grubby flat but it did have one thing going for it: it was available.

When I heard a few weeks ago that I had two months to leave my current place, my first response was to ignore it, hoping for the date to be deferred until something turned up unbidden. I sidled up to the porter, asking him if he knew of anyone moving out of the building so that I could minimise the disruption and avoid the trouble of changing address.

He had a hot lead on a flat one floor below me with a slightly better view but when I called the agent, he told me it had gone within a couple of days of going up on the website. I looked at a place across the square, led through his bedroom by the current tenant as he picked up clothes strewn across the floor but it soon became clear that I would have to look further afield.

The scale of the challenge took shape right away when Angelika took me on a lightning tour of a large flat in a gated community, available immediately for a king’s ransom. She told me that if I was interested, I had better get an offer in right away because it was likely to go quickly, possibly at above the listed price.

“This month last year I had 100 properties to let around here. Now I have 16,” she said.

Grim reports

Whenever I saw something promising, a friend would warn me that the innocent-looking building I was considering was a thriving hub for sex work or had some other unwelcome distinction. One handsome old building overlooking the river had three flats available but its charm dimmed when I heard about an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease there two years ago and grim reports about its ancient infrastructure.

I thought I had struck gold when Mario showed me a lovely, bright flat in an old-fashioned mansion block known locally as the Elephant’s Graveyard where I would have been among the younger residents. But before the viewing was over, he offered to show me another place “just in case”, which turned out to have all the character of a brightly lit lavatory in a half-empty shopping mall.

During the pandemic, London estate agents reported a “doughnut” effect as people left the city centre for the outer suburbs, looking for bigger homes to work from. Executives renting a pied à terre in central London found they no longer needed it during lockdown and at the other end of the scale, students went home to their parents as lectures went on Zoom.

This time last year, rents in inner London were falling by an average of 10 per cent per annum as landlords found themselves with empty flats they were desperate to rent. Now they are up by 16 per cent and in some boroughs rents have increased by 30 per cent.

The supply problem that Angelika identified is driven by a number of factors, including the reluctance to move out of tenants paying rents agreed during lockdown. But supply is squeezed further by a surge in landlords deciding to sell up, as mine has done after more than 20 years.

A rising property market is one reason for landlords to sell and one estate agent suggested that some sales were driven by a need for cash as businesses found themselves in trouble during the pandemic. Angelika had a more interesting theory.

“Everyone’s getting divorced after the lockdown,” she said.

In fact, there were fewer divorces in England and Wales in 2020 than in the previous year although the suspension of family court sittings may conceal the true extent of marital unhappiness. Touring an attic flat a few days later, the estate agent told me that although the tenants had left, they had yet to remove all their belongings.

“They broke up,” he said.

“But they were very happy here.”

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How Brandy Melville, American teenage girls’ favorite brand, ended up engulfed in a racism and sexual harassment scandal | Culture

In 2014, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch Mike Jeffries resigned from his position. He did so after years of public accusations and lawsuits for racism and discrimination within the brand that glorified the white American heterosexual man. He did it because sales had plummeted. In 2022, the Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch recalled the story of a brand that now seems to have recovered after issuing a public apology and advocating diversity and sustainability.

Also in 2014 American Apparel managed to “get rid” of its founder, Dov Charney, after several lawsuits for labor violations and sexual harassment of employees. If Abercrombie made a fortune with its muscular, shirtless young blonde men, American Apparel did so with its snapshots of anonymous young girls in openly sexual poses, many of them taken by Terry Richardson, a photographer who fell from grace after harassment complaints. Curiously, or maybe not, today Charney works as a manager at Yeezy, another brand cancelled by public opinion and owned by Kanye West.

That same year, 2014, Bloomberg published a report titled Brandy Melville: Instagram’s First Retail Success, which focused on how quickly the brand had become a favorite among American teenagers. Like American Apparel, Brandy Melville sells basic clothing for young people (tanks, shorts, colored tops) at prices slightly higher than those of other fast fashion brands, meaning that they are accessible but slightly ‘different’ from their competitors.

However, unlike Charney’s brand, its campaigns do not show women in leggings and provocative poses, but rather very young, long-haired Caucasian girls posing casually on the street or in front of the mirror. Its aesthetic is based on Tumblr-addicted teenagers who considered the Coachella festival to be the epitome of aspirational leisure. Although the Italian brand dates back to 2009, since it opened its stores in California in 2013, it has not stopped growing. It has nearly one hundred stores around the world and, according to The Wall Street Journal, it is estimated that it will have a turnover of more than $212 million in 2023.

Brandy Melville courted controversy for its strategy of offering only size S in its stores. Furthermore, taking into account that its clientele is mostly adolescents, the psychological havoc that its business model can wreak is beyond doubt. Later, it was understood that the business model was not always like this. The brand’s Italian owner, Stephan Marsan, decided to give the order to remove sizes larger than small from stores when the stores landed in the United States.

Business Insider journalist Kate Taylor revealed this decision in an extensive report published in 2021. She was the first to expose the very elusive Marsan, about whom hardly any information exists on the internet, and his more than questionable business practices. That article caught the attention of director Eva Orner, who has just released the documentary Brandy Hellville and the Cult of Fast Fashion on HBO: “I’ve done so many films in war zones and with refugees, and when I started this, I was like, what is happening here? I can’t get people to speak. We reached out to hundreds of girls. I think part of [the reticence to speak] is because they’re young girls, they’re scared,” Orner said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

One full body photo a day to send to the boss

Both the documentary and the report offer statements from several former employees and some store managers. The girls who work at Brandy Melville stores, many of them teenagers, are recruited in the store itself for “adhering to the brand’s style.”

In a 2022 report in a California university magazine, two former shop assistants said that, when they were offered the job, they only asked for “full-body photos and the link to their social networks.” Brandy Melville’s Instagram, which is different for each region (in Spain it has 175,000 followers, and in the United States it has more than three million) is based on homemade photos of the brand’s staff or influencers, who are asked to advertise free in exchange for clothes. “Workers are instructed to take full-body pictures of themselves and send them to the manager daily, as well as ask to take pictures of customers who are ‘on trend,’” said a former employee in the 2022 report.

The company only hired thin, white women, according to the various reports and the documentary. If a worker gained weight, those in charge received orders to fire her. “If she was Black, if she was fat… [Marsan] didn’t want them in the store,” said Luca Rotondo, former vice president of the company.

The non-Caucasian girls worked in the warehouse, not facing the public. Rotondo and the directors of the company that owns the Canadian stores (Marsan operates with a series of companies and franchises to avoid responsibility) were themselves fired for refusing to fire their staff.

In addition to accusations of plagiarism from brands such as Forever 21 and Bubblered, Brandy Melville has had complaints of harassment. Marsan’s right-hand woman Jessy Longo has been accused of inappropriate behavior by three former employees; another accused the manager of one of the New York stores of harassment. Apparently, in that same store, one of the brand’s largest, the bosses can see the girls entering from the first floor and use a button to activate a red light to alert the manager that they want to hire her. In the documentary, Kate Taylor tells how the brand’s executives take their favorite employees on lavish trips, which are actually trips to Italian factories so they can choose the clothes they want and document those trips on social media. In these trips, the girls are “treated like queens.”

Antisemitic memes and clandestine factories

During Taylor’s investigation, former directors of Brandy Melville sent her screenshots of the WhatsApp groups they shared with Marsan. Among others, he sent them images of girls taking their breasts out of their shirts (“the shirt is clearly Brandy,” he comments), racist memes that compared a monkey with a Black boy or an image of Hitler congratulating them on the New Year. Marsan distributed Atlas Shrugged among his employees, a book by Ayn Rand that advocates individualism, the virtues of selfishness and extreme capitalism, and which became topical again for being claimed by the ultra-conservative North American right. “I called it the Brandy Melville Bible,” says one of the employees.

As one would expect, Marsan does not want to pay taxes. And for this, a million-dollar business with little traceability has been set up. Its name does not appear in any financial statements and its stores operate through local companies that are different in each country. It is a textile company that has a turnover of more than $200 million annually, but it is impossible to find any statements regarding its sustainability plans. What is detailed on their website is the origin of each product. They are mainly manufactured in China and Italy, where the brand originated. However, the documentary travels to Prato, the Italian area sadly famous for hosting clandestine factories where immigrant workers under exploitative conditions manufacture garments for fast fashion brands. It also travels to Accra, in Ghana, the place where 39,000 tons of clothing end up per year. Yes, Brandy Melville is also available there, although its production volume is less and its prices are somewhat higher than those of certain fast fashion platforms.

A textile dump in Ghana.
A textile dump in Ghana.cortesia de HBO (cortesía de HBO)

You can’t blame teenage girls for wanting to fit in with their high school peers. However, the firm that encourages one-size-fits-all should be blamed. Of course, it is not the wearers’ fault for feeling good about being complimented on their style or for wanting to work for a brand with which they identify, nor was it the fault of the dozens of victims who worked at American Apparel. However, as long as the authorities fail to take forceful measures, it is the customer who has the power to change things. Jeffreys left Abercrombie and Charney left American Apparel when sales had already plummeted and both brands were on the verge of bankruptcy. Firing the big boss is difficult, but not impossible.

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When painting becomes haute couture: The work of John Singer Sargent is also a history of fashion | Culture

He painted aristocrats, industrialists, writers, politicians, and even suffragettes, just as Velázquez and Van Dyck portrayed the royalty of their time. Or perhaps he is more like Frans Hals, the Flemish artist who distanced himself from monarchs to portray a the newly established middle class who ruled during the Baroque period.

In the work of John Singer Sargent (Florence, 1856-London, 1925), the most European of the American painters, there is a collective portrait of Paris and London of the Belle Époque, the two cities where he became one of the most influential people of his time. This was no mean feat in a period with many exuberant characters, the nouveaux riches, unscrupulous careerists ,and ladies forced to change their outfits four times a day to signal their superior social standing.

Sargent was distinguished by his taste for fashion, in which he saw the distinctive sign that allowed him to understand the vicissitudes of the individuals he painted. This is demonstrated by a new exhibition which is one of the highlights of the cultural spring in London. The Tate Britain’s Sargent and Fashion is open to the public until July 7.

The exhibition, which displays around 50 oil paintings along with some of the real dresses that inspired them, reflects the extraordinary attention he paid to his models’ wardrobe. Among them were clients of the haute couture that was then flourishing in the French capital. Firms such as Doucet, Paquin, and especially Worth, which employed 1,200 workers in 1870, supplied silk and velvet garments to young buyers — in many cases American women looking for husbands in Europe. Those dresses were “their social armor,” as Edith Wharton, perhaps the best chronicler of that social stratum, would later write.

'Miss Elsie Palmer' (1889-90) and two Charles Worth dresses from the same period, in the 'Sargent and Fashion' exhibition at London's Tate Britain.
‘Miss Elsie Palmer’ (1889-90) and two Charles Worth dresses from the same period, in the ‘Sargent and Fashion’ exhibition at London’s Tate Britain.Jai Monaghan (Tate)

When choosing these dresses, their wearers had the garments’ pictorial representation in mind. These women wondered what their reflection would be on the canvas, just as today’s stylists are concerned about how photogenic the dresses they choose for their clients will be. Oil painting was the red carpet of the Belle Époque. Renowned for his impressionistic lines and his attention to attire, Sargent was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of his time. His paintings circulated throughout society and attested to the new power acquired by its stars, like the profiles of the Roman emperors on the coins of antiquity.

“I only paint what I see,” said Sargent. Of course, he was lying. The artist, who charged 1,000 guineas per portrait (about $107,000 in today’s dollars), was known for ignoring the preferences of his models, no matter how much they paid him. He not only acted as a painter, but also as an artistic director. He chose the dresses and accessories, sometimes despite the protests of his clients, imposed the most appropriate decoration, and modeled the fabric on their bodies as a dressmaker would do. Lady Sassoon (1907) is a portrait of Aline de Rothschild, heiress to the banking dynasty, dressed in a black taffeta cape lined with pink satin, a garment full of folds and undulations that seem to look better in the painting than in the museum room, where it seems poorly lit and devoid of magic. Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) is another example of Sargent’s power of transformation: a portrait of the famous actress in a jeweled robe, in shades of green and maroon, more spectacular on canvas than in reality, which always seems aa little more prosaic.

Sargent not only acted as a painter, but also as an artistic director: he chose the dresses and accessories, imposed the most appropriate decoration and modeled the fabric on the body as a dressmaker would do.

Each portrait is a small representation, a function on the identity of its sitter, which Sargent stages with relative simplicity, with an elegant economy of resources. The best example could be Portrait of Madame X, one of his most famous works, on loan from the Metropolitan in New York. It is the haughty profile portrait of Virginie Gautreau, born in New Orleans and living in Paris, which caused an immense scandal when it was presented at the Salon in 1884. Her tight black bodice is fastened with two straps full of precious stones. In the original version, the one on the right had slipped from her shoulder, which sparked a controversy that forced Sargent to go into exile in London and repaint the painting with the two straps in place. In 1916, he donated it to the Metropolitan with a message to its director: “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' (1885-86) at the Tate Britain in London. Its major exhibition dedicated to the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) reveals the artist's ground-breaking role as stylist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world.
‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) at the Tate Britain in London. Its major exhibition dedicated to the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) reveals the artist’s ground-breaking role as stylist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world.Alamy/ Cordon Press

In reality, that woman with light-looking skin — a product of makeup, as Sargent demonstrates with malice when contrasting her with a red-hot ear — was descended from slave owners with a large plantation. This is information that is not provided in a show that, at times, feels sumptuous but superficial and deceitful. Some of the dresses and accessories are period pieces, but not all of them. Visitors discover a top hat from 1900 and a French lace collar, devoid of the aura about which Walter Benjamin theorized. They do not match those worn by his models. When a piece of textile does not correspond to the one in the painting, the show falls apart.

A portrait of John Singer Sargent.
A portrait of John Singer Sargent.Library of Congress (Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The exhibition timidly explores the subversion of gender roles that Sargent practiced, which would have to do “with the deliberate sexual ambiguity and with the homosexual and homosocial circles in which he often moved,” its curators Erica Hirschler and James Finch point out in the exhibition catalog. However, this aspect is not mentioned in the exhibition spaces. And yet it is fundamental to understanding the relationship with the women who posed for him, in whom there is more complicity and fascination than eroticism, or his male portraits, in which it some ambiguity does reside. After all, homoeroticism was one of the motifs of that time, as also demonstrated by the works of Henry James, a close friend of Sargent, or those of E. M. Forster, a great admirer of the painter.

The Tate exhibits androgynous portraits such as that of the languid Albert de Belleroche, a young English painter. There is also the larger-than-life-size canvas of Samuel Pozzi, a French gynecologist wearing a bright scarlet robe de chambre with slippers peeking out from the bottom. The portrait shows Pozzi in an unusual pose for his time that defied the conventional public image of powerful men. But the exhibition does not dare to show Sargent’s secret lithographs, discovered after his death, where he painted naked men barely covered by sheets. Elegance, Balenciaga said, is elimination.

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Sheldon Garon: From the Spanish Civil War to Gaza and Ukraine: A history of bombings targeting civilians | International

The house at number 10 Peironcely Street in Madrid seems to be frozen in time. Uninhabited, with exposed brick and sealed off to deter squatters, it is the only one-story house among the surrounding multi-story buildings in the Entrevías neighborhood of the Spanish capital. This property became one of the most famous monuments to the bombing of Madrid by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and was immortalized by photographer Robert Capa at the beginning of the conflict. It was also the first place in Spain that Princeton University historian Sheldon Garon visited to research his book The Global War on Civilians, 1905-1945. It is a symbol of what he describes as an “important turning point” in the history of the aerial bombardment of civilians, a strategy that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and is being carried out today on populations in Gaza and Ukraine. Madrid was the first capital city to be continuously bombed, causing an alarming number of victims. His next destination was Barcelona, a city to which he attributes the genesis of air-raid shelters built by civilians. Those in Barcelona were highly organized and served as a reference point for the United Kingdom and France in World War II (1939-1945).

“Aerial bombing started in World War I (1914-1918). The Germans bombed London and Paris particularly, but on a small scale, leaving just under 1,000 dead in the former and about 250 in the latter,” explains Garon, who quotes Hispanist historian Hugh Thomas to recall that around 2,000 people died in Madrid. The strategy of targeting civilians used by the Nationalist forces, using the German pilots and aircraft of the Condor Legion, was greatly intensified in later conflicts: World War II, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), up to the present day in Ukraine and Gaza.

“Instead of simply targeting armies and navies of the enemy, you target their cities and their civilians,” the American details. “You bomb densely populated areas, usually working class areas, with the objective of trying to win the war by breaking the morale of the civilians so they will pressure their government to surrender. That was the rationale in the Spanish Civil War.” That several countries resorted to the same tactic in the same time-period was not coincidental. In his book, Garon connects the different cases to provide a complete picture using a methodology known as transnational history.

Sheldon Garon
Historian Sheldon Garon in front of a building in Madrid that was bombed in the Spanish Civil War. Álvaro García

At the same time that Franco was bombing Madrid in an attempt to break Republican resistance, Japan was attempting to cow China by targeting the cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, and particularly Chongqing, the capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which suffered four years of aerial bombardment with an approximate death toll of 9,000. “Nobody is safe, nobody is protected, there’s no difference between civilians and soldiers. Civilians are simply considered soldiers at home,” Garon says to explain “the concept of total war.”

If Madrid was important in understanding the offensive aspect of aerial bombardments, Barcelona had the same importance in understanding the rearguard, what Garon refers to as the home fronts. “In Barcelona in 1937 they had a lot of time to prepare and they built many shelters. It was far from the front. So Barcelona had a lot of time to prepare, unlike Madrid.” The population of the Catalan capital, the last bastion of the Republican government, formed neighborhood organizations that provided first aid, distributed food rations, set up guards on the tops of buildings to warn of approaching planes, dug trenches, and sheltered children.

“Barcelona became a model to other Europeans at the time, because in the First World War there weren’t many shelters in London and Paris. The British and the French had observers in Barcelona and they studied the shelters. It was almost a laboratory for them. By the time World War II started they had all organized home fronts,” he points out. “So, again, it’s a transnational history.”

A Spanish Civil War-era air raid shelter in Barcelona.
A Spanish Civil War-era air raid shelter in Barcelona. Marcel.lí Sàenz

It is impossible to talk of aerial attacks on cities without mentioning Germany. The United States and the United Kingdom had destroyed 200 by 1944, mainly industrial areas such as Hamburg, Dresden, and the Rhine Valley. In France, 70% of Cannes was destroyed, Garon estimates. In Japan, 66 cities were devastated, two by atomic bombs and the rest by incendiary devices. This intimidating strategy had already been used in the 1920s and 1930s against insurgencies in the colonies. In 1926, Spain and France bombed the rebels in Morocco in the Rift Valley, and the United Kingdom did the same shortly afterwards against those seeking independence in Somaliland and Iraq.

Garon’s research ends with the conclusion of World War II, but the dropping of bombs targeting the civilian population “continues to the present day, unfortunately.” The U.S. became the biggest exponent of bombing campaigns in the second half of the 20th century, in Vietnam (where deadly napalm fuel was dropped), North Korea (as part of the Korean War of 1950-1953) and in Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

All the cases detailed by Garon reverberate today with Ukraine and Gaza, although incendiary and heavy bombs have been exchanged for ballistic missiles and drones. “The scale and the technologies become much more sophisticated, but the strategies don’t change much: the demoralization of the population.” The United Nations has condemned reports of Israeli attacks in the Strip against hospitals and refugee camps and some 70% of the more than 30,000 Palestinians killed during the war are women and children. On the other hand, the Kremlin has consistently targeted the Ukrainian power grid but has also attacked Kyiv and other cities with aerial strikes.

Guerra Israel en Gaza
A house destroyed by bombing in the southern Gaza Strip.
Anas Baba (EFE)

International rules of engagement have not been able to deter warring nations from using weapons against civilians. There are laws such as the 1923 Hague Regulations on aerial warfare, which prohibited the bombing of cities that were not being attacked from the ground, or the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, which was created precisely to protect the population in times of war. However, they have been regularly violated under the claim that military targets are mixed among civilians.

This willingness to use the citizenry as a means of warfare was verified by Garon when he gained access to official documents. The 1941 British Air Force files noted that the new targets were not industrial factories or port cities, but “the morale of the German people.” Other records detailed the types of poison effective against rebels in British colonies. Garon highlights the one that shocked him most: “When the U.S. was fighting the Japanese in 1945, they blockaded food supplies to Japan. They called it Operation Starvation and the goal was to cut 20% to 30% of the calories that the Japanese people consumed.”

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