Art News

Suicide, Abuse and Unemployment Rip Apart Buffalo Exchange Family

The Buffalo Exchange store at 51 Broadway.
The Buffalo Exchange store at 51 Broadway. Kyle Harris
On August 4, former employees of the Buffalo Exchange secondhand fashion stores in Colorado, who were laid off without severance on July 29, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for rent, legal fees and counseling.

The stores had been temporarily closed three days earlier, after an Instagram account called Buffalo in the Room, launched on July 25, started filling up with charges against Colorado stores co-owner Todd Colletti, the focus of more than 100 accusations of numerous misdeeds, crimes and misdemeanors, including rape, physical assault, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, stealing, drugging and boozing minors, and more.

By July 28, Buffalo Exchange Colorado had booted Colletti. The following day, Buffalo Exchange Corporate cut ties with the Colorado stores, and the local franchise owners decided to shut their three stores permanently.

But in the meantime, the Colorado employees were without jobs. According to the GoFundMe campaign, 37 staffers lost their jobs after the franchise's owners closed two Denver stores and one in Boulder. A manager of the store at 51 Broadway, who had been instrumental in Buffalo Exchange's support of the LGBTQ community, subsequently died by suicide.

"The public allegations against the owner in question and the negative press on social media about his conduct was a necessary and brave step in holding those in positions of power accountable, but at the same time saddening, overwhelming, disgusting and painful to the employees, many of whom were victims," explains the GoFundMe campaign, which was set up Nadia MacKinnon, a former employee. "This terrible situation led one of these employees to take their life, which brought even more heartbreak to the family of staff that were already reeling from their recent job losses and the devastating and stomach-turning allegations against ownership of the franchise."

Buffalos — as shop staffers affectionately call each other — are mourning the death of a co-worker, wrangling with the trauma of suffering through Colletti's reign of terror, and scrambling to pay rent.

The former employees frequently describe each other as family. Buffalos at the Boulder store commuted together; some even shared apartments. They were a motley bunch of ambitious creatives — musicians, artists, fashion designers, models and entrepreneurs, many from the LGBTQ community — who were happy to have found a job where they could express themselves as they were.

"We would all go out to dinner as a staff every once in a while," one Boulder employee, who asked not to be identified, tells Westword. "It was the Thanksgiving that you actually want to attend. Everyone at the table laughing and being with one another and supporting each other fully and hyping each other up. That was the biggest thing at our store: 'Look at you girl! You look amazing!' It’s unreal. Just being everybody’s cheerleader. Being on everybody’s side no matter what...going to X Bar or going to Tracks together, being idiots on the dance floor, totally goofing around and not caring, because you're with your best friends, and it doesn’t matter."

A couple of times a month, that safe space was disrupted by Colletti, whom two former employees describe as "a monster" who'd long made them uncomfortable. He would flatter staffers, telling them they would find success if they stayed with Buffalo Exchange, and praising them for their loyalty; then he would sexually harass them and make rude remarks, they say.

"You put up with the abuse to have the family," the Boulder employee says. "I was Todd’s favorite in the store, and he’s touched me inappropriately. I’ve had my moments when I've been like, 'Get the fuck away from me.' Nonetheless, I stayed and never thought of leaving because I love my family so much."

Just as much as she now hates Colletti. "
I’d love to see Todd fucking in jail. Jesus Christ. I'd love to see Todd face some punishment for what he has done for decades," she says. But she also thinks that the other co-owners of the Colorado stores as well as Buffalo Exchange Corporate should be held accountable.

The day the Buffalo in the Room account went live, she says, she had planned to meet with one of the co-owners about Colletti's sexual harassment. "Most of my anger is geared toward corporate," she adds. "Ultimately, it was them that shut us down and put 37 people out of work."

But the Arizona-based company puts the blame on the Colorado owners.

"The Colorado franchise stores were separately owned by Justin Van Houten, Kathy Plache, Victor Cortes and other investors through their limited liability companies," explains Buffalo Exchange Corporate Vice President Rebecca Block in an email to Westword. "Their relationship to Buffalo Exchange Corporate was through a franchise agreement licensing them to use our name and trademark, and providing a business model for a clothing resale business. Buffalo Exchange granted Justin, Kathy and other investors time to change their name, and they had the right to continue the same business in the same location. We are disappointed that they chose instead to continue the closure and terminate all employees."

Over the past few days, the Buffalo Exchange signs have been removed from the three Colorado stores; windows are boarded up. Clothing has been bagged and put into storage, and items that were being sold on consignment are supposed to be returned to their owners. As for customers who sold their clothes to the store in exchange for coupons, "Buffalo Exchange will continue to honor in-store coupons that were issued by the Colorado franchise stores at any of our locations," Block says. "These in-store coupons never expire and have always been welcome at any of our stores. Alternatively, customers can reach out to the franchise ownership group through email at [email protected]"

Neither the other Colorado owners nor Colletti himself have responded to Westword's multiple requests for comment. Initially, Buffalo Exchange Corporate had promised an investigation; now both the Denver Police Department and the Boulder Police Department have opened their own investigations. Lawyers are also looking into filing a civil case against Colletti and other Colorado owners.

While Block did not say whether the corporate office would be donating to the GoFundMe, she added this:

"Buffalo Exchange is currently forming a partnership with a local non-profit in Colorado to provide free counseling and support services. We also encourage employees of the Colorado franchise stores to utilize our Employee Assistance Program. That program is anonymous and confidential, completely free, and it offers counseling sessions, financial guidance, legal assistance and career support. In addition, we’ve offered positions at any of our corporate-owned stores to the Colorado franchise employees. We told them to pick a store and a job will be available for them."

But moving to another state for a retail job during a global pandemic is neither realistic nor a good idea, says the Boulder store employee.

Another Boulder store employee says he had signed a lease for an apartment just days before the accusations surfaced, locking him into living in Boulder for the next year, though the only reason he stayed there was for Buffalo Exchange and the creative possibilities the store promised. Now he can't afford the rent he agreed to pay.

He and others hope the GoFundMe campaign will provide some much-needed help that neither the Colorado owners nor corporate have provided. Close to $12,000 had been donated to the campaign as of early August 8; the goal is to raise $100,000, which will go to housing, crisis therapy, legal aid and more for the former employees. Donations can be made at the campaign's GoFundMe page.

"This GoFund Me is very important to me and my fellow former Buffalo employees," says MacKinnon, the campaign manager. "We are focused on moving forward and hope to get the story out to as many people as possible in order to raise funds for this cause. The GoFundMe speaks for itself.  We need support, healing, and to make a path to move positively and stably into the future."
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris