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Back in June, Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of the website Man Repeller, posted a letter on her site in support of Black Lives Matter. She was writing to explain how Man Repeller planned to foster underrepresented voices and talents moving forward, but also wanted to apologize: Following the murder of George Floyd, the site had quickly turned its social media accounts over to sharing antiracism resources, which followers criticized as one of many examples of an influencer-led business offering advice instead of looking within. As Medine Cohen wrote, “I have a lot of listening and learning and growing to do before I will truly know how to thoroughly make a sustained impact in the fight to eradicate systemic racism.”
The post was met with more outrage. “As a former POC employee that was let go during COVID-19, this ‘apology’ is a slap in the face and honestly disgraceful,” read a comment left by ex–photo editor Sabrina Santiago on the post. “I have not been reached out to in any capacity. I hope everyone sees that this is another performative attempt to cover racist actions.” Many of the site’s commenters were troubled that Crystal Anderson, who had worked at the site as a creative producer (and one of its few Black employees) since March 2018, was let go during the pandemic. Another former employee of color, speaking anonymously, told Vox in June that she felt ignored by Medine Cohen.
Damage control gave way to more concrete change. Medine Cohen announced less than two weeks later on Instagram that she would step back from her leadership role. A flashy rebrand was revealed a few months later, in early September, with a new name, a new site design, and a new mission to elevate diverse voices. It was met with a combination of sneers and shrugs. Man Repeller was now...Repeller? This certainly wasn’t the only brand led by an influencer-personality that came under fire for public posturing on race this summer, and with the site’s spunky, inclusive origins, it seemed possible that Repeller would weather the storm. And then, on the morning of Monday, October 16, Medine Cohen announced in an all-staff Zoom that the site was shutting down.
The staff was shocked. Rumors circulated on social media—echoed by former employees in conversations with GQ—about an outside investor who had been brought in to reorganize the business in mid-2019, with Medine Cohen asked to take a diminished role as a minority investor this past summer. A source close to the business disputes that version of events: While a number of potential business-development opportunities were in the mix over the past several months, they say, it was “nowhere near along the lines of there [being] a date set for a serious business transition.” This person adds that “there was never an investor in Man Repeller at any point,” but rather “a consultant who was working with [Medine Cohen] on her business strategy.”
Many of the former employees GQ reached out to either declined to speak, citing nondisclosure agreements, or were not interested in discussing Man Repeller further: “Honestly, I’m not interested in spending any more of my effort or time talking about that company, sorry about that,” replied one former employee by email.
But others, including some who left before what many employees call “the reckoning,” in June, are pained by the speed of Man Repeller’s decline, and feel that its shuttering minimized the work done by the many women who built it. “I feel like it's a disservice for it to disappear the way that it has, and not have people's voices come out,” said another former employee. Anderson calls her former colleagues “some of the most intelligent, smartest, kindest people that I’ve ever worked with.”
“I’m sure they put a lot of manpower and money behind the rebrand,” said the second former employee, who left before it was carried out, “and to not even have given it a chance to succeed before the end of the year read as bizarrely abrupt and premature.”
Medine Cohen declined repeated requests to comment, but the source close to the business says that after her Instagram announcement in June, Medine Cohen shifted to a backseat role in the company, offering no creative input. “Leandra didn’t tell [the team] to do the rebrand,” this person says. The remaining leadership team, which consisted of four employees overseeing editorial, sales, partnerships, and operations, made and executed that decision after Medine Cohen had stepped back, this person says.
But a month later, the site was done. Like almost every other media outlet, Man Repeller's advertising business was crushed by the pandemic, but it had also struggled for years with another common challenge: How to evolve its identity amidst a tumultuous political landscape. In the end, the original site about the power of personal style had tried to do too much with clothes.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that Man Repeller changed the way that millennial women dress. The site launched in 2010, after a decade of celebrities in bandage dresses, stiletto heels, and sexy-sloppy velour tracksuits, with a mission to champion the quirky and even ugly. Crazy blouses, wild print mixing, oversized silhouettes, faux pas like “FUPAs” and “birth control goggles”: to Man Repeller, these were the foundations of a perfect wardrobe, and a philosophy of dressing. For a generation of women who grew up reading Jezebel and watching Sex and the City reruns, it felt liberating to think about fashion in this way. “I feel very much like the Man Repeller ethos isn’t about fashion,” Medine Cohen told New York Magazine in a 2014 profile. “It’s much more about a woman feeling comfortable in her own skin, and we’re using fashion as the vehicle to discuss this sense of self-confidence.”
She hit a nerve. Over time, Man Repeller expanded from a one-woman blog, run by Medine Cohen while a student at the New School, to a 15-person operation producing merch, a podcast, and pop-up shops from a glossy Nolita office space. In the process, Man Repeller pioneered a new type of fashion writing that used the signature women’s-media format of the aughts—the personal essay—to elevate the style discourse. “I felt the same way a lot of women felt about Man Repeller,” says Anderson. It was “this space where women could talk about fashion, and it [was] not seen as vapid.”
From its launch, Man Repeller was widely seen as an antidote to the slick, self-serious legacy publications that cover fashion. “When she started that blog, that was like the heyday of bloggers replacing editors and celebrities in the front row,” says Irina Aleksander, who profiled Medine Cohen for the New York Times Style section in 2010. “It seemed like there was something so irreverent about her, which made her cool. She was a little bit like the Nora Ephron of fashion bloggers.” The second former staffer adds that the site’s approach to fashion and beauty “was revolutionary,” citing an early post in which Medine Cohen wrote about not wearing makeup.
Within a year of the site’s launch, Medine Cohen was attending fashion week in Paris and Milan. As Aleksander wrote in the Times, “There is a bit of Cindy Sherman in what Ms. Medine is doing: proudly obstructing the male gaze by disguising her body with androgynous or intimidating silhouettes.” But man-repelling outfits were catnip for luxury advertisers—the site’s sponsored content featured an enviable roster of brands, including Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Matches, and Mango. And Medine Cohen used her growing influence to help mint the careers of young New York designers like Rosie Assoulin, Cate Holstein, and Wes Gordon.
While many bloggers struggled to parlay their point of view into larger careers or media brands, Man Repeller seemed, to many readers, to have cracked the code of successful expansion. The site was self-funded, and by 2017, says the second former employee, “the site was just flourishing.” They launched merch and pop-ups, and larger brands seemed to be knocking them off. American Eagle’s lingerie brand took cues from a Man Repeller popup, and The Wing, the New York-based women’s club that faced its own reckoning earlier this year, reproduced a weekend “sleepaway camp” trip the site had offered, down to the location. “It was nice to feel like we were ahead of the curve during that time,” this employee says.
But cracks were beginning to show long before June. Anderson says that “the business was bringing in a lot of money, but they didn’t have a fundamental strategy of how to run a business in place.” Anderson suspects that Medine Cohen “didn't want to be the founder of a company. She was a trailblazer in the space of being a blogger. And then it seemed like she accidentally built a company—which I totally understand. That's really fucking hard when that's not what you set out to do.”
This summer’s stumble wasn’t the first time Medine Cohen had faced backlash for her site's narrow worldview. Several women’s fashion sites criticized a 2017 post in which she lamented Beyonce’s Instagram pregnancy announcement because it reminded Medine Cohen of her struggles to get pregnant. And some readers felt her 2013 wedding at the Pierre Hotel contradicted her site’s feminist message and aversion to mainstream luxury taste. (She wore a dress by Marchesa, the now-sullied brand owned by Harvey Weinstein's then-wife Georgina Chapman. At the time, Marchesa merely epitomized Hollywood middlebrow—which struck the denizens of fashion blogger threads as further out of character.)
More recently, several former employees point to a merch program, launched in November of 2018, as an example of a brand extension that felt characteristically high on concept but low on strategy. “It did not quite go as expected,” Anderson says. The second former employee adds, “They had a lot of inventory that didn’t sell. I think the second product drop just felt tone deaf, the items being either too specific or not specific enough. The prices were definitely too high for the average consumer, and it wasn’t really speaking to a zeitgeist. It was kind of just existing.” (The source close to the business confirmed that the merch did not perform as expected.)
The issues ran deeper than the struggle to articulate the site’s mission for its readers. That former employee describes the workplace as “erratic,” adding that while it was staffed by “very talented people,” Medine Cohen seemed to view the site’s purpose as ephemeral, almost as a trend itself: “It felt like every six months, we were being presented with a new direction and mission statement, and so we all had to go the way the ship was going.” At the same time, employees who came from backgrounds different from Medine Cohen, who is white and grew up on the Upper East Side, and married at 23, say that they felt sidelined. Asked about an atmosphere of exclusion among the staff, the source close to the business says, “Those are their feelings. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them.”
The site also ran headlong into a changing political landscape. After the 2016 election, women’s media, in particular, became more activist-driven. Many influencers and brands, including Man Repeller, struggled to adapt. The second employee cites the “morality conflict” at the center of the Man Repeller project: Medine Cohen sought to brand the site as feminist, they say, without explicitly discussing politics. It wasn’t until the Women’s March in January 2017, this former employee said, that “it became apparent that as a brand called Man Repeller, we needed to be supporting that movement. Previously, [Medine Cohen] would rather not talk about politics until she had to, from a brand perspective.”
For Anderson, the issue was less that the site was hesitant in its political views, and more that it had strayed from its initial purpose—in the process revealing the limits of its leader’s worldview. Many readers, too, chafed at the site’s increased focus on relationships and marriage at the expense of irreverent dispatches on fashion. The Instagram posts in June brought all that to a head. “It was just the audacity to post all of these things when [I know] how you treated your Black employees,” Anderson says of Medine Cohen’s apology posts. “it’s wild, and so wildly, woefully inappropriate.”
Even before “the reckoning,” several senior staffers had departed this year, which left younger employees feeling adrift. Shortly after Medine Cohen stepped down from her role, writing on Instagram that “the team deserves a chance to show you what Man Repeller can be with me on the sidelines,” she launched a Substack newsletter. The fashion industry’s arms remain open: she wrote a piece about dressing in quarantine for the November issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
Former employees say that staffers had wanted to see a rebrand like the one that debuted in September for a long time—and indeed, Medine Cohen had told New York back in 2014 that “I want Man Repeller to be this very well-edited, curated place, stamped with the approval of the founder of the site. I don’t want it to be about me for much longer.” Yet she struggled to let go, for reasons former employees struggle to deduce. The rebrand, the former employee says, “was just a little too late. The damage had already been done. People weren’t looking for a new logo. They were looking for inclusion.”
While former employees characterized the site’s shutdown as abrupt, the source close to the business says that the site’s closure was prompted by a decline in sponsored content posts. “The majority of Man Repeller’s revenue was integrated content,” this person says—which declined markedly after the onset of COVID in March. “People can observe the amount of sponsored content that’s being published,” this person added. The decision to shutdown the site, this person says, “was based on recent financials and future financial projections in the short term.”
The rise and fall of Man Repeller serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of asking too much of our clothes, attempting to spin every idea into a politically-charged movement. “I think a lot of these brands got it woefully wrong, just trying to be everything to everybody, instead of just understanding what they needed to be and also how to use their privilege,” Anderson says. “And I also think a lot of them don’t realize that using your privilege doesn’t mean it has to be front-facing on Instagram. You can use your privilege and you can do things within your own organization—like being decent to the Black women that work at these places to make them not feel less than.”
But it also seems that the worlds of fashion and style have so embraced the site’s original raison d’etre of anti-fashion that it seems outdated. “The fact that her whole aesthetic became so commonplace that her brand doesn’t even feel interesting anymore is a credit to her in a way,” Aleksander says. “The idea of deflecting the male gaze seems so antiquated.”
Now, former employees are mourning the site that could have been. “It could have been a space for nonbinary fashion,” says Anderson. “It could have been a space for Black women’s voices. It could have been a space for queer folks to really take over. It could have been a space to go back to the early days of what Man Repeller was meant to be—which is this really kooky, cool community of people coming together to wax poetic about fashion in all its forms. It could have been that, and it should have been that.”
Originally Appeared on GQ