For an experience that’s supposed to be so lovely and luxurious, shopping for fashion can be everything from frustrating to dehumanizing, and it can be those things all too often for some shoppers. Over the past week, Barneys’ New York flagship store has been hit by allegations that it surreptitiously called the cops on two paying customers for nothing other than having the temerity to be black while buying something expensive. One of those customers, Kayla Phillips, says she was targeted after buying a Celine Luggage Tote.
Unless you fit the narrow, impeccably dressed profile of what many luxury stores consider to be the kind of people to whom they’d like to cater, you probably know what it’s like to get a dirty look or be totally ignored while trying to spend your hard-earned dollars on a handbag. As a young, non-skinny woman with pink hair, I rarely get attention from sales associates at high-end stores unless I’m carrying an uber-conspicuous handbag or a large shopping bag from an equally elite store. As embarrassing as it can be to try to flag down assistance from someone who has already judged you as poor, distasteful or both, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to complete a purchase with your own money, leave the store and then get stopped by the cops. I can’t fathom that sort of humiliation while shopping, or why store employees feel they have a right to treat anyone like that.
Barneys, for its part, denies that any of its associates called the cops on anyone and that it was the NYPD itself that decided to question the African-American shoppers once they left the store. The NYPD, on the other hand, insists that they were summoned by employees. No matter who started the ball rolling down hill, the assumptions inherent in both incidents are clear: if a young black person has enough money to buy something expensive, it’s not because she worked hard and saved money, or she, like so many people in New York City, just has money to spend on silly things like handbags. It’s because she stole something. In the end, the implication is that nice things aren’t meant for those people. Fashion certainly benefits monetarily from its close association with hip-hop (an association which is only getting closer), but if you want to stroll into a high-end store and expect high-end service, you best be Rihanna.
Over the weekend, several fashion industry vets on Twitter linked to Horacio Silva’s 2007 New York Times Critical Shopper column about the opening of the Tom Ford boutique on Madison Avenue. Silva didn’t have the cops called on him, but he was treated like he didn’t belong in the store on his first visit, shoo’d away from personal shopping areas and mostly left to wander the store without assistance, as though no employees wanted to encourage him to remain in the store longer than he might otherwise be inclined. (On a second visit, after the staff had been tipped off to his place of employment, Silva got the white glove treatment.) Fashion retail has had a tough time walking the line between “exclusive” and “exclusionary” for quite some time, and it looks like scant progress has been made. If you don’t look the part, down to the color of your skin, good luck finding someone to help you lighten your wallet.
Have you been profiled at a high-end boutique or department store because of your ethnicity, weight or general appearance? Let us know about it in the comments.