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Abuse and Abandonment – The Many Failings of Buffalo Exchange

In 2014, Buffalo Exchange celebrated its 40th anniversary by tricking out an Airstream trailer and setting off on their “Great American Road Trip.” The celebration was spread across many of the brand’s locations, where the mobile vintage store was parked for short pop-ups before heading on to the next town.

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Buffalo Exchange Founder, Kerstin Block, in the anniversary airstream.

The cross-country vintage clothing jamboree concluded at one of the company’s newest locations in Denver, Colorado. The last stop of the trip culminated in a party in the newly-finished basement bar of the store, a well-attended gathering of members from all levels of the organization.

But six years later, the cordial relationship between Buffalo Exchange Colorado and its franchisee, Buffalo Exchange, would end dramatically with claims of widespread abuse at the hands of one of BE Colorado’s partners, Todd Colletti. In the aftermath of these allegations going public thanks to Instagram account @buffalo.in.the.room, Buffalo corporate revoked the agreement from their Colorado stores and, in what had become an all-too common theme, abandoned the stores’ employees.

Buffalo and the Blocks

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A young Kerstin Block. Image via thisistuscon

Within the next five years the secondhand market is projected to explode into a $64 billion industry, a huge shift largely brought on by Gen-Z consumers. But 46 years ago, the resale market was barely a shadow of the behemoth it’s bound to become.

Those early years proved fertile ground for building a household name, however, and Kerstin Block, a businesswoman with an incredibly prescient idea, was well ahead of the curve. Her store in Tucson, Arizona would come to be called Buffalo Exchange, which would expand into a veritable vintage clothing empire, with 48 stores across the U.S.

When the business grew, so did respect for Block. As late as March 2020, she was still being heralded as a “Badass businesswoman,” in a local Tuscon news source and quoted on the Buffalo Exchange website as saying, “We built our business on a lot of principles … such as respecting people and treating everybody fairly and listening to people. Those are our tenets in business.” But evidently, this listening to people didn’t extend to survivors of alleged sexual assault, more specifically survivors who had endured torment in Colorado franchises run by Colletti, many of whom had even turned to Kerstin Block and the rest of Buffalo Exchange corporate for help.

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Kerstin and Rebecca Block celebrating the brand’s 40th anniversary. Image via Local Tuscon Media.

On July 17th, 1996, Todd Colletti formed an L.L.C. called “Watermelon Sugar,” which would become known as Buffalo Exchange Colorado later that year. According to claims made in @buffalo.in.the.room, this partnership arose from a childhood friendship between Rebecca Block (Kerstin Block’s daughter and current Buffalo Exchange V.P.) and Colletti, who grew up together in Arizona.

In a 2008 interview with BizWest, Colletti recounted his origins with Buffalo Exchange, explaining how he and two partners in an earlier Arizona franchise, Victor Cortes and Kathy Plach, joined forces to open the Boulder store. In the interview, Colletti waxed philosophical on his commitment to the environment and more importantly, his hiring strategy. Colletti explained he prioritized hiring ” young people who have an innate sense of fashion and business.” However, these “young people” were typically young women, many of whom would allegedly suffer at his hands in the 24 years he ran Buffalo Exchange Colorado.

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The Boulder store. Image via Buffalo Exchange.

Colletti, along with a number of silent partners, helmed the new Buffalo Exchange location in Boulder, which eventually expanded to Denver and then to bigger stores in both cities.

To an outsider, the stores seemed a kind of secondhand paradise. The people who worked in the stores were cool and well-dressed, and the selection was thoughtful and eclectic. There was an air of celebrity to the cool, confident salespeople and an incentive to join the team: best pick of the vintage!

Beyond the Clothes

We spoke to several sources under the condition of anonymity, one of which described starting at one of the Colorado stores. “It felt really cool to be accepted by what I perceived to be a really badass group of women who ran this business really effectively. You know, they were very in the know anything cool that was happening around town … it was exciting to feel like I was a part of something special.”

There was a caché to working in Buffalo Exchange’s Colorado locations. The salespeople and buyers were young, hip, and well-connected. For many of them it was a first job and a first taste of independence. Working at a Buffalo Exchange was also a social network, a chance to have fun and to party.

One source’s first interactions with Colletti took place at a company holiday party. “It was a scene I now know was a really typical scene, Todd’s against the wall with his DJ decks, handing out beer and things to everyone.”

There was a back room of the basement where the raucous parties were held, a room that one could only enter with Colletti’s explicit consent. “And there was a general perception that you were supposed to want to be a part of that. It was an unwritten part of the job description that if you really wanted to be a part of the team, you would do whatever you needed to do.”

One likened working in the stores with Todd to the proverbial frog in the boiling pot. The abuse in the store was not immediately clear, although with time, they learned, “when Todd was in the store, you really just needed to shut up and do what he said, even though 90% of the time, he didn’t know what he was talking about.” The metaphorical temperature was raised at imperceptible increments so that by the time it came to a rolling boil, you were cooked.

Boiling Point

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Interior of the Denver store. Image via Buffalo Exchange.

Not all employees of Buffalo Exchange Colorado were assaulted by Todd, but many were subjected to some form of bullying or torment while at work. Todd’s behavior was erratic and inconsistent, but his bad days usually “came down to drugs and alcohol usage.”

Accounts describe him ripping clothes off the rack, insulting sales associates, or verbally abusing the buyers as they attempted to finish a transaction with a customer. Sometimes managers would temporarily close the store to prevent customers from witnessing it. Multiple accounts state that Todd might take money from the till, leaving employees to make up a reason for the change in the count.

But he wasn’t just a bully. He was a predator. Seemingly untouchable (and by some accounts, enabled by certain members of his management team), his lewd and racist remarks on the floor of the store escalated considerably after hours.

Colletti would allegedly grope women, often after cajoling inebriated party-goers into undressing, but sometimes even at work. Numerous accounts describe Todd taking compromising photos and videos of women in the store or after work and keeping them for what he called “his private collection.” Colletti has also been accused by multiple women of rape in a number of allegations that stretch back twenty years.

Allegedly, Todd had no concerns about doling out cocaine and alcohol to underage employees, or really anyone in attendance. “I read a lot of those stories,” a source explained, “and I know that most of them happened before the past four or five years. Most of them happened when quite frankly, most of us were probably too fucked up to even see what was going on around us. But that was part that was part of the manipulation.”

By the time the main party dwindled to the last few attendees and those closest to him, the party moved to his house, “this small handful of individuals that were left were really the most harshly victimized.”

Looking for Help

One source recalls when two female employees came forward with documented instances of sexual harassment and abuse, their efforts were met with false promises and legal action against the employees. They sent their testimony to two different entities, the first to Justin Van Houten, one of Colletti’s partners and they also reached higher up the chain of command, all the way to Buffalo Exchange Corporate.

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An account posted on the @buffalo.in.the.room Instagram.

Though a source recalls that Colletti’s behavior briefly improved after these accusations became public, ultimately nothing was done to protect the employees or admonish him. Justin Van Houten’s promise to bring the accusations to an outside H.R. firm seems never to have been fulfilled and instead of rebuking Todd, Buffalo Exchange Corporate instead punished the employees of the Colorado store.

The Corporate office sent documents to all the Colorado employees stating that although they worked under the Buffalo Exchange name, they were in no way connected to the official company and the company would not be held responsible to anything that happened to its franchise employees or in the franchise stores. If the employees wished to keep their jobs, they had to sign.

It was around this time that the only H.R. person at Buffalo Exchange Colorado left, which a source believes was a choice made simply out of frustration from being unable to exercise any change in the stores—though cause cannot be verified—leaving the Buffalo Exchange Colorado employees with even fewer options.

The corporate office had washed their hands of the ordeal and refused to take responsibility, the silent partners didn’t hire an independent H.R. firm, and the abuse continued until quite recently.

Buffalo.In.The.Room

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The @buffalo.in.the.room Instagram account did what no one had yet been able to do:  release stories of the abuse and assault to the world at large. The first post was made on July 25, 2020 and the account quickly snow-balled to include dozens of anonymous accounts, as well as updates on the eventual investigation and as well as press releases from Buffalo Exchange’s corporate office feigning disbelief and horror.

By July 30th, only five days after the first Instagram post, Rebecca Block, daughter of the founder and Vice President of Buffalo Exchange, released a statement revoking the rights to the Buffalo Exchange franchise and ensuring Colletti would have no place near not necessarily the store, but no place near the public-facing corporate structure.

By the beginning of August, all of the employees at the Colorado stores were laid off without severance, leaving many without any means of income at the height of a pandemic. Around this time, a manager of one of the stores took their own life, leaving the former employees heart-broken. Former employees launched a Gofundme seeking to provide them some aid as they were immediately out of work. A source, with unemployment looming, spoke on the toxic experience of working at Buffalo.

When I look back at my time with that company, I liken it very much to a cult. And I know that’s a really strong word, but you know, thinking back to my first experiences there and wanting to be part of that upper echelon, it’s clear to me now that he very meticulously created that upper echelon to be something that was aspired to. And there was a constant influx of employees for various reasons. And, you know, it’s clear that, we were groomed to be something to aspire to. And if you outgrew that, then it was made to seem like there was something wrong with you.

Young, inexperienced, and many frequently abused, the employees who began to work at Buffalo Exchange were often convinced, through a combination of subconscious lived experience and outright pressure, to tolerate their abuses.

A potent mix of fear, obligation, love, and necessity trapped the victims of Colletti’s alleged abuse, much in the way many survivors of abuse can be trapped. In the end, Colletti was removed, but only after the story risked embarrassing the corporate office. And then ultimately, it was his victims who paid the price once again.

Epilogue

Scout, a new vintage store, (totally unaffiliated with past ownership) takes over the Denver location and even hires back many of the Buffalo Exchange former employees. Image via Westword.

Scout, a new vintage store, (totally unaffiliated with past ownership) takes over the Denver location and even hires back many of the Buffalo Exchange former employees. Image via Westword.

On December 3, 2020, the Denver District Attorney’s office announced that Todd Colletti would not face any criminal charges. Despite the fact that some 100 accusations of abuse were made, the Denver Police Department struggled to get any witnesses to come forward. These survivors were (rightfully) concerned that they wouldn’t be taken seriously by law enforcement, though the Denver Police stress, “there was not an arrest and the case is closed, but it can be reopened should evidence be made available.”

In response to our inquiries, Buffalo Exchange corporate shared with us their official statement:

We were horrified by the accounts of what occurred in the Colorado stores and what happened to these victims is despicable and unacceptable. Their experiences are devastating.
The Colorado franchise stores were owned by a group of investors. We did not manage their business operations, hiring, employee documentation, or terminations, or have access to employee records and paperwork such as exit interviews.
When we learned of the allegations, we took immediate action to support the victims and ended our branding agreement with the Colorado franchise. We extended our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) — a great resource that’s free, anonymous and confidential — to former Colorado franchise employees and also formed a partnership with Khesed Wellness, headquartered in Denver, giving those employees free access to mental health and wellness services with all costs covered by us. In addition, we offered employment in any of our corporate stores to all Colorado franchise employees. We hope that all of the victims find justice and healing.

Despite Buffalo Exchange’s attempts at damage control, Colletti’s shadow still looms large in an industry that has never quite had its own #MeToo movement to root out its abusers. Predators in fashion and retail remain prevalent and they keep coming back.

In California, alleged abuser and designer, Dov Charney, has made an enormous comeback with his revamped Los Angeles Apparel, even escaping allegations of flouting Covid restrictions and sickening his garment workers. In New York, Alexander Wang has come under scrutiny after a flurry of sexual assault allegations have been released in The New York Times as well as on TikTok, yet major retailers continue carrying his line. As far away as India, a garment worker was assaulted and murdered in a factory that supplies H&M, allegedly by a supervisor she had previously reported for harassment.

Sexual misconduct seems to be the common thread across a diverse and multi-faceted industry. This issue can rear its ugly head in a huge sweatshop or your local boutique. Regardless of context, it takes an immense amount of courage to confront these predators. With their innate power and social capital they can make or break careers, but they are not invincible.

Every new story weakens the armor that protects abusers in fashion and every brave victim telling their story makes a tremendous difference. In the case of Colletti and others, we can only wait for more people to come forward when they are comfortable to tell their stories. It is not our place to rush them, but it is our place to support and care for them.

In the meantime, spend the money you may otherwise have spent at your local Buffalo Exchange and send it to former employees of the Colorado stores at this Gofundme.


Correction: The article previously misattributed a quote in Westword, that quote has now been removed. Also, we have confirmed that new Boulder vintage store Disco Apocalypse has no relation to Buffalo Exchange Colorado partner Justin Van Houten.