It’s been a few months since a former assistant of Flaunt magazine filed a lawsuit accusing its owner and editor in chief of harassment and workplace abuse, and the purported refusal by the magazine, until now, to publicly recognize the issue has caused a cofounder to officially exit.
Long Nguyen, Flaunt’s longtime style director who helped start the magazine in 1998, is leaving after more than two decades. He told WWD that a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last April by Joseph Dalla Betta — who worked in 2018 as an assistant at the L.A.-based magazine — claiming to have been groped, slapped and verbally harassed in work settings by chief executive officer and comptroller Luis Barajas and editor in chief Matthew Bedard, was “the last straw.”
Reached by e-mail for comment about Nguyen’s departure, the lawsuit and new allegations by former staff, Barajas called the claims “categorically false and misleading” and said they’re being “driven by a disgruntled and vindictive agenda.” Barajas said Nguyen has been “terminated” and that any information he shared with WWD is “downright inaccurate.” Despite Nguyen being on the magazine’s current masthead online and work from him being posted as late as this month, Barajas said that Nguyen “has no official position with Flaunt, nor has he had one for the past four years.” Barajas said Nguyen has been an “unpaid contributor” giving rise to his “disgruntled position.”
Barajas said Nguyen has not received a monthly salary since 2015 due to a lack of “compliance” with Flaunt’s operations. He said issues with Nguyen included his citing of the magazine’s ad rates and publishing schedule without approval, his offering of editorial to brands without approval, “formation of creative teams” without approval, “among numerous other grievances.”
“Long has continued to act as an island with no accountability to the brand or his colleagues in an increasingly damaging fashion,” Barajas added.
According to Nguyen, he said he’s been Flaunt’s cofounder and style director until last week, when he left. Asked why he didn’t leave sooner, Nguyen said he’s been trying to get Barajas and Bedard to step aside and have the magazine make some kind of public statement on the Betta lawsuit — and the culture at Flaunt that it alleges — in hopes that the magazine itself could continue. “I’ve tried for months to get the accused to do the right thing,” Nguyen said. “I failed to do so.”
The alleged behavior of Barajas does not come as a surprise to some in the industry, however. His lifestyle and ways with employees have been rumored by many over the years, especially in Los Angeles. While it’s unlikely that Nguyen knew nothing of such rumors, sources say the style director, based in New York, had little to no direct communication with Barajas despite putting a magazine together six times a year. Nguyen first worked with Barajas on the long-defunct fashion magazine Detour and worked together again, along with Barajas’ husband and Flaunt’s creative director Jim Turner, when they decided to launch Flaunt.
Nguyen said Betta’s lawsuit “brought all the whispers over the years into real action, not innuendos as in many previous years.”
Declining to get into specifics, Nguyen said in a #MeToo world, Barajas’ behavior as detailed in the Betta lawsuit became untenable and has had a direct effect on Flaunt’s business. Luxury fashion brands that have for many years appeared in shoots and advertised with Flaunt — Chanel, Prada, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent and Hermès among them — have pulled out their business entirely, according to Nguyen. Most have stopped lending clothes for shoots.
Nguyen said he sought the advice of many in the industry on what course of action would be best, and was told that Barajas and Bedard should step aside, that there needed to be an official statement from the magazine condemning the alleged conduct and that an independent investigation needed to be launched. Instead, Barajas and Flaunt, until now, have been silent in public.
Breaking that public silence to WWD, Barajas addressed the Betta lawsuit, saying: “In our 20-year history, we at Flaunt magazine have consistently promoted inclusion, mutual respect, and admiration for all people, including our staff and personnel, and we treated Joey Dalla Betta no differently.”
Despite the claim that Nguyen has had no official position with Flaunt for years now, Barajas contended that “Flaunt was not able to speak with Nguyen regarding the allegations, following numerous requests to do so” from the time the lawsuit was filed last April “through the present.”
Others, however, have backed up the allegations in the suit. In a text exchange with Nguyen reviewed by WWD, another former Flaunt assistant claimed to have “experienced similar things” and that “everyone in the industry knows about [Barajas’] behavior.” In a separate exchange, a former editor said the behavior described in Betta’s complaint “has been happening for a long time.”
Asked about this apparent consensus about his behavior toward young men who worked under him at Flaunt, Barajas said, “We categorically deny these bogus and defamatory accusations. Though we desperately want to, we cannot comment further given this is an allegation in the pending lawsuit.”
Marcus Steptoe, yet another former assistant who started working for Flaunt in New York in June 2001 and left in 2007 as associate fashion director, told WWD that reading Betta’s complaint “was like a stroll down memory lane.”
He said he met Barajas just a few months after he started working for Nguyen in New York. Barajas came to town and needed someone to show him around and take him to meetings, so Steptoe filled the role. Then Barajas wanted to go out in the evening and, Steptoe claimed, “did a ton of blow,” which Steptoe said he does not do. Barajas, allegedly, eventually asked for a kiss.
“He was like ‘kiss me’ and I uncomfortably give a very quick peck and then he’s like, ‘No, kiss me!’ and grabs me and forcibly pulls my head to him and stuck his tongue in my mouth — I can’t tell you how I wanted to barf.”
As he was sober, Steptoe says he was able to keep it from going any further than that kiss and some groping. But he alleged that Barajas “is known” for that kind of sexually aggressive behavior, particularly with young men who work under him. Nevertheless, Steptoe described Barajas as a man who could be “very charming,” “very funny” and “a creative genius” who had a large part in making Flaunt the quality and inventive magazine that photographers and celebrities wanted to be a part of.
“People love him unless you work with him,” Steptoe said.
He also noted that shortly after his experience with Barajas, he was promoted, out of the blue, similar to what happened to Betta, according to the lawsuit. Steptoe soon became the conduit through which Barajas and Nguyen communicated after he was promoted. He said the two cofounders rarely spoke, leaving him to believe that Nguyen had no exact knowledge of Barajas’ alleged behavior toward young men who worked for Flaunt. The layouts would go through Turner.
“Luis is in L.A. and Long is in New York. What happened in L.A. happened in L.A., what happened in New York happened in New York,” Steptoe said. “It’s one company but very, very separate.”
As for Steptoe’s claim, Barajas denied it. “I met Marcus fewer than 20 times, often in the context of an event I was hosting, or fashion week, and never in an office. The sexual advancement incident in question never took place.”
But after six years of working for Flaunt, the magazine proved to be Steptoe’s last job in fashion. After a few attempts to leave that he says always came with a promotion and a raise, he remembers what finally got him to quit, or his “‘Devil Wears Prada’ moment,” as he put it. He claims that Nguyen lost a blouse pulled for a shoot. He couldn’t remember the designer, but said the company sued Flaunt and Steptoe, because he was the person who called it in, for $4,000. Before the first court appearance, Flaunt was dropped from the suit. Steptoe said neither Nguyen nor Barajas took responsibility or provided a lawyer and a small claims judge found in favor of the designer, ordering him to pay.
“Luis told me he would pay me back in installments, but because I was so p—ed I told him that I knew the ins and outs of the company and needed it to be paid off now,” Steptoe recalled. “Funnily enough, Luis paid it immediately.”
Asked about this situation, Nguyen confirmed the small claims lawsuit and that he likely was responsible for the loss of the blouse due to sending it by mail to a public relations agency instead of by a courier. But he said he did not recall exactly how the payment to the brand was made in the end. “I don’t doubt what he says,” Nguyen added of Steptoe’s version of events. Regardless, Steptoe left Flaunt after the blouse incident and returned to Maryland. He’s is now a critical care nurse in a hospital.
If Nguyen was unaware of the details of Barajas’ alleged actions toward young men who worked at Flaunt, something he seems to have been more aware of were issues with the magazine’s circulation numbers. He told WWD that from its inception, Flaunt greatly inflated its circulation when pitching to advertisers. While Barajas — who controls the finances and circulation and was even Flaunt’s publisher and simultaneously its editor in chief for a time — started out claiming that Flaunt had a circulation of 80,000, it was actually around 8,000. This trend of inflation allegedly continued through last year. Circulation is used as a baseline for pricing ad pages in a publication.
“None of these numbers had any base in reality,” Nguyen claimed. He added that the revenue Flaunt generated would not have been able to fund the printing and distribution of the number of copies Flaunt stated as its circulation. As early as 2000, advertisers in the fashion industry were questioning the validity of Flaunt’s seemingly high circulation. Nguyen claims he was given false information to in turn give to clients. Beginning in 2012, Flaunt’s base circulation was lowered to 77,000, but even that is still vastly inflated, according to Nguyen. Around 2014, he said he began to make his own downward adjustments with the numbers he gave to luxury clients he worked with directly. By 2017, with Flaunt in L.A. still claiming circulation of around 70,000, Nguyen contends the actual circulation of the magazine was only 2,235.
Such inflation now includes Flaunt’s digital traffic as well. Nguyen said in April a public relations agency asked for the size of the magazine’s digital audience as it considered placing a campaign. In e-mails reviewed by WWD, Long requests the information from a Flaunt employee and is told monthly traffic to the site is between 1 million and 1.5 million visitors a month. The p.r. came back after finding information by Alexa showing Flaunt only had a bit over 375,000 visitors a month.
Asked about the circulation claims, Barajas again denied them, saying it’s completely untrue and serves the narrative of an embittered Long “who has no future with Flaunt.”
“We highly value our long-standing relationships with our many advertisers and flatly deny any insinuation that we have been dishonest with them, specifically by inflating our circulation figures by tenfold,” Barajas said. He provided two statements from 2012 of printing costs, showing payments to a printer for 91,000 copies.
As for the current state of the business, Barajas said 2019 has come with “some challenges” but that Flaunt is “in fantastic shape” with digital traffic beating that of rivals and that there is a new e-commerce product set to launch this fall, dubbed Want by Flaunt. Barajas said there also is an “inventive new hospitality brand” in development.
“Long’s role in any of this is nonexistent and inconsequential,” Barajas said. “Long is on his own destructive agenda and nothing else.”
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