For the past 20 years, Rebecca Minkoff has been promoted as one of the greatest fashion stories of her generation. Her eponymous fashion-and-accessories collection, founded in 2005, offered legions of young women affordable access to the enviably cool world of downtown New York.

As the business thrived, Minkoff harnessed this success and used it to build a reputation for herself as a proud feminist and female business leader. And on April 16, it was announced the fashion designer would be joining the cast of The Real Housewives of New York City, alongside Jenna Lyons, the former creative director of J. Crew.

To her 870,000 followers on Instagram, she’s a superstar, the cool big sister, one of the sexiest mothers of four on the Internet, and one of the last remaining #Girlbosses. But behind her public image are allegations of a mismanaged business, dysfunctional professional behavior, and close links to the controversial Church of Scientology.

The Rise

In 1999, the 18-year-old Minkoff arrived in New York after graduating from high school in Clearwater, Florida. She began an internship at Craig Taylor, a small clothing-and-accessories company, and started to work her way up while tinkering with her own designs. When Craig Taylor’s C.E.O., Christina Kumi Kimball, saw Minkoff’s creations, she encouraged her to go out on her own. “You know what you’re doing,” said Kimball; “go do it.” In 2001, she had her first big break when the actress Jenna Elfman, then starring on the popular sitcom Dharma & Greg, wore Minkoff’s ripped rendition of an I Heart NY shirt on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Minkoff wasn’t making a living wage from her designs, so Elfman connected her to a styling job. “The work wasn’t predictable or very consistent,” Minkoff wrote in her 2021 memoir, Fearless: The New Rules for Unlocking Creativity, Courage, and Success, “but when it paid, it paid well. The money that I made picking up random gigs like styling Heidi Klum for the very first season of Project Runway or Padma Lakshmi for Top Chef really bridged the gap.”

Rebecca Minkoff and the actress Jenna Elfman in 2003.

In 2004, Elfman asked Minkoff to design a handbag for a movie she was filming. But when it didn’t get to Elfman in time, Minkoff’s friend Ilaria Urbinati—at the time a buyer for the Los Angeles boutique Satine—ordered 12 of the bags and got them featured on DailyCandy, an early-aughts shopping Web site. They sold out by lunchtime the day the DailyCandy article ran, and Satine immediately ordered 75 more.

The Morning After Bag, as it was named, was a rectangular tasseled shoulder bag that resembled Balenciaga’s wildly popular Motorcycle bag (now known as the City bag), but was much less expensive—around $595 to Balenciaga’s $1,200. It was an instant success, and it would go on to be the main sales driver of the Rebecca Minkoff company for years. However, at the time, it wasn’t enough to dig the designer out of debt. As a last-ditch effort, she asked her brother Uri for help, and in 2005 he moved to New York to become her co-founder and full-time C.E.O. The Rebecca Minkoff brand was born.

This story has been told on numerous occasions by Minkoff, both in the fashion press and in her memoir. But what she hasn’t disclosed is that her brand had come into being thanks to a large helping hand from Scientologists. Craig Taylor, Christina Kumi Kimball, Jenna Elfman, and Ilaria Urbinati are all adherents of Scientology, the religion founded in 1952 by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard that counts Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers.

Scientology teaches that all humans are immortal beings—Thetans—with innumerable past lives, both on Earth and on other planets. Members can attain brotherhood with the universe—or “go Clear”— by working their way through a number of expensive courses. Despite not mentioning Scientology once in Fearless, Minkoff and her family have long been high-ranking figures within the church.

Although Minkoff is proudly Jewish, she also identifies as a Scientologist with roots in Clearwater, Florida, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico that is home to Flag Land Base—Scientology’s “spiritual headquarters.” Minkoff, who was born in San Diego in 1980, is a second-generation Scientologist. Her father, Dr. David Minkoff, moved Rebecca and her two brothers to Clearwater in 1989, where she attended the True School, a Scientology elementary school that uses Hubbard’s “study technology.”

The Rebecca Minkoff presentation at New York Fashion Week in 2019. “Overall the inspiration was celebrating the modern working woman,” Minkoff said in Forbes.

In a 1991 article in the St. Petersburg Times, an 11-year-old Becky Minkoff—as she is still known to her friends—shared a written testimonial with the newspaper about her teaching: “The data that L. Ron Hubbard has put together is so effective that students are happy and wanting to go to school,” she was quoted as saying. “Just like me!! Some of the successes I have had I couldn’t of had if I was in a school that did not use these methods.”

Minkoff attended True School through eighth grade before transferring to a performing-arts high school—just as a scandal was enveloping her family and threatening the church.

On December 5, 1995, 36-year-old Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist living in Clearwater, was rushed to Dr. Minkoff at the Community Hospital of New Port Richey by church members after they’d held her for 17 days following an alleged psychotic break. Immediately upon arriving at the hospital she was pronounced dead. It was later revealed that during the days leading up to McPherson’s death, Dr. Minkoff had prescribed her Valium at the request of fellow Scientologists, even though he never examined or spoke with her.

According to Tony Ortega, a journalist who has reported extensively on McPherson’s death and the Minkoff family’s connections to the church on his Web site, the Underground Bunker, the incident resulted in criminal charges being filed and left a lasting stain on Scientology. Dr. Minkoff was fined $10,000 and had his medical license suspended for a year.

(According to a June 14 article in the Tampa Bay Times, Dr. Minkoff was also recently put “on notice”—a legal requirement in Florida for defendants in an upcoming medical malpractice lawsuit—concerning the suicide of Whitney Mills, another Clearwater Scientologist. Dr. Minkoff did not respond to AIR MAIL’s requests for comment.)

Minkoff and her family have long been high-ranking figures within the church.

“Lisa McPherson’s death was a huge problem for Scientology,” says Mike Rinder, a former high-ranking Scientologist. “The criminal prosecution, had it gone forward, could have cost Scientology its newly won tax-exempt status.” According to Paul McDaniel, another former Scientologist and Uri Minkoff’s former business partner, the aftermath of the Lisa McPherson incident was bad for the whole family. “The church has an ecclesiastical justice system. A kind of rehabilitation system. And so David [Minkoff] went into this program to get ‘fixed.’ At least 5, 10 years he was working on it. Tremendous amounts of money and time.” According to Paul’s wife, Quailynn McDaniel, also a former member of the church, “He’s still not back in their good graces.” But his daughter seemingly is.

(When reached for comment, Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology told Air Mail, “It is unacceptable to attempt to marginalize Ms. Rebecca Minkoff because she is a Scientologist.”)

The Success

Once Uri became C.E.O. of Rebecca Minkoff, the company began to thrive, and with it, Rebecca’s public image. In 2009, the brand introduced a ready-to-wear line and began showing at New York Fashion Week—where it’s been a regular ever since. Rebecca herself became a recurring guest judge on Project Runway and its spin-offs, and started running in the same circles as Leandra Medine, Harley Viera-Newton, and Olivia Palermo, the It Girls of the early 2010s.

In 2012, Uri told The Wall Street Journal that the brand grew 546 percent between 2007 and 2010. And by 2011 you could find it carried in 300 U.S. retail stores, including Nordstrom, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In 2012, the company sold a minority stake to T.S.G. Consumer Partners, a San Francisco–based private-equity firm.

Uri and Rebecca Minkoff are longtime Scientologists.

“What Rebecca was really good at was not just her brand but her own image,” says Robert Burke, a retail consultant who worked as an executive at Bergdorf Goodman. She came onto the scene at “the height of … New York, Sex and the City, and women’s empowerment … [and was part of] this new wave of very approachable designers making fashion and accessories at affordable prices.”

It was the age of the #Girlboss—the term coined to describe an ambitious, successful female entrepreneur—and Minkoff positioned herself right at the center of the movement. In 2012, she gave her first Tedx Talk, “Rebecca Minkoff: Life Is a Journey of First Steps.” In it she spoke about the lessons she had learned from her life, and how those were reflected in her business. She described a story—that would become canon in the Minkoff lore—in which her mother refused to buy her a dress and insisted the young Rebecca make it herself. “She was someone with the attitude ‘If you want something done, do it yourself,’” she says.

Yet the talk itself seemed to contradict that chestnut of motherly advice. When the projection behind her showed three sketches of dresses, Minkoff announced they were “some of my designs” and looked at the images fondly. However, these sketches were the work of three different designers, two of whom confirmed they had never dealt with Minkoff or her company. One of the designs was drawn by Inslee Farris in 2012 for Neiman Marcus, and another was drawn by Katie Rodgers, an artist currently based in New York and Santa Fe, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar. A representative for Rebecca Minkoff says they are not “able to speak with certainty as to how a Powerpoint given to a small audience in 2012 was prepared.”

Indeed, a former Minkoff employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said this was indicative of Minkoff’s modus operandi: “It’s all fake.... She never went to design school, she doesn’t design anything, she can’t even draw.... She literally can’t do anything. All she used to say is, ‘All I want is a beach house in the Hamptons.’ And then she got that, and now she doesn’t care. And it’s not even in the Hamptons. It’s in Quogue.” Minkoff’s representative says, “Rebecca may or may not have once expressed interest in owning a home in the Hamptons.”

The Science of Business

According to Time, in 2014, Minkoff’s business surpassed $100 million in sales, and Minkoff was named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list. She celebrated the “one-millionth” sale of her Morning After Bag, and, that same year, the brand opened its flagship store, in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The company was investing heavily in the Asian markets, and in June 2014, Swire Brands, the owner of Crocs and Ugg, acquired a 9.4 percent minority stake in the business, enabling the brand to open a store in Hong Kong in 2015.

But as well as being a roaring success, the company was rife with religious undertones. McDaniel says that all of the businesses he started with Uri are “these big WISE companies” referring to the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises, a membership organization whose members use L. Ron Hubbard’s “management technology”—a program that preaches heavy use of statistics, strict hierarchy, and a reliance on Scientology jargon—to run their companies. Many of the comments about Rebecca Minkoff on Glassdoor, a Web site where employees can anonymously review their employers, reference how Scientology “seeps” into the workplace.

Minkoff’s representative “categorically denies, regardless of anonymous internet comments purportedly suggesting otherwise, that any employee’s religious beliefs have been integrated into the workplace. [The company] also categorically denies that the religious beliefs or practices of any employee would be relevant to the professional accomplishments of the hundreds of people who have worked [there].”

“It’s all fake.... She never went to design school, she doesn’t design anything, she can’t even draw.”

According to McDaniel, when Uri Minkoff moved to N.Y.C. in 2005 and became C.E.O., he pooled Rebecca Minkoff Inc. with the other Minkoff-family business ventures based out of Clearwater, which included the David Minkoff–founded supplement company BodyHealth, the Lifeworks Wellness Center (whose medical director is David Minkoff), the marketing-and-software company Autoloop (now Affinitiv), Fortis Software, and Mastertech, a publisher of software “based in part on the administrative works of L. Ron Hubbard.” All paychecks to Rebecca Minkoff’s employees were cut in Clearwater. Uri Minkoff did not respond to AIR MAIL’s requests for comment.

AIR MAIL spoke with seven former employees whose time at the company spanned from 2010 to 2020. They allege that Rebecca and Uri fostered a thankless, hostile, and debilitating work environment in their New York office. “We would work until two in the morning. We would work on weekends,” says one former employee, who wished to remain anonymous. “They never paid us overtime, never gave us any extra time off.” The employee alleges that after they’d resigned, Minkoff “went around telling [people] that I was stealing from the company and I had been fired, even though I chose to leave because of this toxic culture.”

Minkoff’s representative says that every employee “has been given the opportunity to resign voluntarily in lieu of termination, to help support their future employment prospects. This includes employees accused of conduct such as theft of company and personal property.” Minkoff’s representative also denies “the existence, at any time, of a hostile workplace,” and says every employee “was entitled to multiple weeks of vacation, multiple days of sick leave, and multiple days off,” as well as “a 4.5 day workweek as a further accommodation to employees’ work-life balance.”

One of the former employees says that while Minkoff put herself forward as an example of female empowerment, her feminist angle was “complete bullshit.” Another said, “I think it’s so funny that she has this platform now about uplifting women and supporting women, because that’s not who she is.... The culture was the exact opposite of that. Pregnant people [at the office], that wasn’t a good scenario for them.... It was basically the end of your job.” Minkoff’s representative “has no knowledge of any employee ever being treated improperly as a result of pregnancy.”

Former employees also claim that the physical conditions of the Rebecca Minkoff offices were unsafe, with too many people crammed into too-small workspaces. In 2013, the physical working conditions “were so bad,” says one former employee, “you literally could not move…. It was a health-and-safety hazard working there.” Another former employee claims, “A mannequin fell on one girl and cracked her head open… She had [to get] stitches.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was called to investigate and fined the company $77,000—the maximum allowed—for “hazardous conditions” that management knew about “yet allowed … to continue.”

Minkoff’s representative “categorically denies ever receiving any kind of worker’s compensation (or other) claim about on the job injuries related to an unstable mannequin,” but did not comment on the 2013 maximum fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Fall

By the end of 2018, Rebecca Minkoff had opened European headquarters in Milan as well as stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Venice, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur, and Thailand. It launched a watch partnership with Movado Group, Inc., a multi-year licensing agreement with eyewear conglomerate Safilo, and a line of smart bags in partnership with the tech company Avery Dennison.

But this growth came at a cost. In 2017, Swire Brands completed a disposition of its stake in Rebecca Minkoff, announcing a loss of $12 million. That same year, the Rebecca Minkoff company was sued by Décor Global, a Minnesota-based design-and-product production company, for unpaid invoices of more than $900,000. The case was ultimately settled out of court.

Meanwhile, Minkoff was riding the #MeToo Zeitgeist, launching her Female Founder Collective—a network of female-owned businesses—and her “I Am Many” campaign, which aimed to support and empower female entrepreneurs. She also launched a podcast, Superwomen, whose guests included Audrey Gelman, the founder of the women-focused social club the Wing, the organizers of the Women’s March, and the editors in chief of Marie Claire, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan.

Yet despite her business’s alleged financial troubles, money continued to flow from Minkoff into Scientology. In 2019, the Minkoff family was listed among the top donors to the International Association of Scientologists, reportedly giving $5 million. But Quailynn McDaniel, the former Scientologist, explains there is typically “three to four times that [amount] in the background … donated as well, because you’ve got to pay for your ‘services.’”

A social-media post shows an image from Impact, a magazine for Scientologists, featuring the Minkoff family receiving the Diamond Meritorious award for their sizable donations to Scientology.

These “services” can include the numerous courses that all Scientologists must pay for if they are ever to progress to “Clear,” the church’s most exalted position. According to the Truth About Scientology, a Web site that publishes the church’s records, Rebecca Minkoff has been regularly undertaking courses such as Arc Straightwire and the Purification Rundown since 1991. In 2021, she attained the level of OT I (Operating Thetan level 1), which is described by the church as a “state of godliness.”

According to Tony Ortega, Minkoff is closely involved in the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, a Scientology drug-prevention program that uses L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings to “educate” children against drug use. She also regularly attends fundraising events for the church, including the opening of one of its Ideal Orgs—the name for the religion’s churches—on Long Island in 2019. One former Scientologist said she saw Minkoff pledge a million dollars at an Ideal Org fundraiser.

In February of 2022, it was announced that the Rebecca Minkoff brand had been sold to L.A.-based Sunrise Brands—which also owns Current/Elliott, Equipment, and Joie—for somewhere between $13 million and $19 million. It was a precipitous drop in value for the company that Minkoff, in Fearless, put down to the coronavirus destroying “virtually all of our wholesale orders.” According to Women’s Wear Daily, the company had been “saddled with debt” and owed one of its factories $25 million. Despite this setback, Minkoff writes, “we’re building something even better, stronger, and more authentic to the brand I want to be.”

But is she prepared to be “authentic” according to The Real Housewives’ standards? Former participants Jen Shah (jailed for wire fraud), Erika Jayne (accused of fraud), and Monica Garcia (accused of stalking and harassment) have shown that one season on a Real Housewives show is all it takes to expose any skeletons in one’s closet.

Rebecca Minkoff declined an interview with Air Mail, citing an exclusivity agreement with NBC, but in an e-mail she announced she is planning a “huge” partnership with the Broadway musical Wicked to celebrate her brand’s 20th anniversary and suggested the angle for our story “could be about our comeback from almost the impossible.” Her appearance on The Real Housewives of New York City seems to be part of this resurrection strategy. But will the publicity, and scrutiny, that her appearance on that show affords her end up doing more harm than good?

Rachel Hodin is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience working in fashion. She lives in New York