Shen Beauty was one of the most stylish shops in brownstone Brooklyn. Airy and bright, it offered an assortment of luxury beauty products and services like brow shaping, body waxes and facials. Despite its small size, it appeared regularly in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and other publications. Its celebrity fans included Gwyneth Paltrow, who stopped in for a selfie, and Courteney Cox, who called it “the coolest store in Brooklyn.”
The boutique was started in 2010 by Jessica Richards, who had been working as a stylist, and Jules Stringer, a beauty journalist. (Ms. Stringer left the business in 2014.) “The antithesis of Sephora” is how Ms. Richards described Shen shortly after it opened, contrasting her neighborhood haven with the worldwide beauty chain.
It was a regular stop for fashionistas until August, when employees were told it would close for a brief renovation involving repairs to the flooring and a fresh coat of paint, Pedro Boyer, a Shen aesthetician, recalled. But soon Mr. Boyer and his colleagues received an email from Ms. Richards, saying that the place had permanently closed. Ms. Richards cited “ongoing economic issues” in the email, which was reviewed by The Times.
A sign appeared in the window: “We’ve moved online.” Inside, there were bare shelves and a single Post-it note on the dusty floor. Ms. Richards shared the news in an Instagram post, and disappointed customers replied with posts that included heart emoji.
“Due in part to the impact Covid had on the business, Shen was unable to pay its debts and is preparing to file for bankruptcy,” Ms. Richards said in an email interview for this article. “I may need to file for personal bankruptcy in the future.”
Looking back on their time at the store, many former employees described a casual workplace, with affectionate text messages between the shop owner and the employees. At the same time, many of the people who worked there likened the daily environment to the film “Mean Girls.”
Several employees said in interviews that Ms. Richards yelled frequently at staff members and made remarks that they considered offensive. In addition, some former employees said they had seen the boss fully or partly naked in workplace settings. (Ms. Richards denied any inappropriate behavior.)
Tia Rivers, a military veteran who worked at Shen for roughly two years, said she had a more pleasant time in the Air Force. “I would have taken the Air Force two, three times over,” she said.
Ms. Richards, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., built Shen into a hot spot during the time of the so-called girlboss movement, when mediagenic female entrepreneurs were on the rise in the fashion, wellness and beauty industries. Several of the more than 15 former employees interviewed for this article described the initial excitement of going to work for Ms. Richards, whom Vanity Fair described in 2014 as a “cool hunter” who “looks like a surfer girl but with a downtown-chic edge.”
But for many staff members, the good feeling didn’t last. Four of them described seeing Ms. Richards in various states of undress, including fully nude, while they were working. Mr. Boyer said he had seen his boss topless when he was preparing to give her facials.
Although clients often undressed and put on a wrap before receiving beauty treatments, Mr. Boyer said his experience with Ms. Richards was unique. Lara Kaiser, another former Shen aesthetician, said Ms. Richards would change in front of her before receiving facials. “She was, like, pointing her boobs at me,” Ms. Kaiser said.
During work meetings at Ms. Richards’s home or on business trips, another former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive issue, recalled seeing Ms. Richards fully naked roughly 20 times. Noting that employees would regularly conduct business from a dining table in Ms. Richards’s home, this person added that the experience had made her uncomfortable. Another former employee, also speaking anonymously, described similar experiences while working at Ms. Richards’s home. This person recalled seeing Ms. Richards nude on at least five occasions.
Ms. Richards disputed those accounts. “As a beauty retailer and spa, many of our services involved clients in partial or total states of undress, so it was a daily occurrence that my staff treated with the utmost respect and professionalism,” she wrote in an email to The Times. She added that she had often participated in photo shoots that “involved rapid clothing changes while getting dressed and undressed in small spaces while employees were assisting with makeup, hair and other preparations.”
Madison Willson, who worked at the boutique for a year, said the emotional effects of the job had lingered long after she had quit. “All I heard for a year in my mind was her screaming at me,” she said, referring to Ms. Richards.
Ms. Willson, whose job title was assistant managing director, said she met Ms. Richards when they were both working for the fashion brand Free People. At the time, Ms. Willson lived and worked in Denver. “I was totally enamored by her and was, like, ‘I have to go work with her,’” Ms Willson said.
She made the move from Denver to New York in late 2018; Ms. Richards hired her a few months later. Ms. Willson said her opinion began to change when Shen had an issue with the e-commerce platform Shopify. According to Ms. Willson, Ms. Richards “was screaming at me like I have never heard someone scream at me before.”
“She’s like, ‘I better just fire you because you’re just so retarded,’” Ms. Willson said. That epithet, she added, was “Jessica’s favorite word.”
Ms. Willson added that her time at Shen was not all bad. “As much as I hated working for her, the job I did has been my favorite job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I loved the work of it.”
Monica Dawidowicz, an aesthetician who worked at Shen from 2020 to 2023, also said Ms. Richards had a habit of yelling at employees. “Sometimes, quite literally, she’d be screaming at the top of her lungs,” Ms. Dawidowicz said. Carrie Lindsey, another former employee, said working at Shen had taken a toll on her mental and physical health. “It’s hard, because there were good times, too,” Ms. Lindsey said. “It’s a typical abusive relationship.”
Ms. Richards had no comment on whether she had yelled at employees or used an offensive term.
Samson Smith said he had enjoyed part of his time working at Shen. But he quit after several years, because, he said, he had “had enough.” He added that he had heard Ms. Richards refer disparagingly to people of color. “My dad always told me not to hire fat or Black people because they’re lazy,” Mr. Smith, who is white, recalled Ms. Richards saying.
“It felt like she was saying it to test how I would respond,” he added.
Another employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal sensitive conversations, recalled Ms. Richards making a similar comment.
Ms. Richards wrote in an email to The Times that she had “never avoided hiring people of color or insulted someone for their race or size because doing so would be against everything I believe in, and my commitment to diversity and inclusion is backed up by the numbers: Most of my hires chosen by me personally were people of color, and the majority of our staff were people of color or part of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community.”
Some employees described being touched inappropriately by a manager at work. Mr. Smith said this manager had slapped his butt; Ms. Willson said the manager had groped her breasts. After employees complained to Ms. Richards, the manager was fired. But Ms. Richards ended up bringing the former manager back to the store.
Ms. Richards acknowledged that she had fired and rehired the employee in question, adding, “My initial instinct was correct, and I regret giving her a second chance.”
In 2020, with business affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Richards closed the shop and, six months later, reopened nearby. “I laid off everybody, except for my accountant,” she said in an interview with Allure, adding that she rehired “everyone that wanted to stay, plus two new people” when the new location was ready.
Ms. Richards said in an email to The Times that she had paid employees out of her own pocket, and had at times not paid herself. Three former employees — Mr. Boyer, Ms. Dawidowicz and Ms. Lindsey — said in interviews that they had completed work for which they were underpaid or not paid at all. Ms. Dawidowicz said she texted Ms. Richards in March about a payment that she said she had not received. “It will be paid in next payroll,” Ms. Richards replied in a text message reviewed by The Times. Ms. Dawidowicz said she had yet to receive that money.
“I am not aware of anyone not being paid or being underpaid for work that was performed and timely reported,” Ms. Richards wrote in an email to The Times. She added that none of her employees “has ever notified me of any issues with their paycheck.”
Days after Shen closed, the website Beauty Independent published an interview with Ms. Richards in which she discussed her financial difficulties. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me,” she said. “Whatever has transpired is my fault. I’m the business owner.”