Culture

Racism In Retail: An Industry-Wide Problem?

CREDIT: AP/Invision/Joel Ryan/Grant Pollard/Vianney Le Caer/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

From left to right: FKA twigs, First Lady Michelle Obama, Salma Hayek, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett, all wearing Alexander McQueen.

Luxury fashion house Alexander McQueen is being sued for racial discrimination. Again.

Red carpets are lousy with McQueen creations. Kate Winslet, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Salma Hayek are among the A-listers who decked themselves out in the brand’s wares this year; Felicity Jones wore an Alexander McQueen ballgown to the 2015 Academy Awards. First Lady Michelle Obama wore a blazing red McQueen gown to the 2011 state dinner in honor of China’s President Hu Jintao. Kate Middleton’s instantly-iconic wedding dress was designed by Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton, as was her sister Pippa’s (also-instantly-iconic) bridesmaid’s dress.

Less glamorous, though, are the experiences of two black employees at Alexander McQueen’s Madison Avenue store. They are suing four of their managers, Alexander McQueen, and Kering Americas Inc., which owns the brand, claiming the store “engaged in systematic racism.”

According to court documents, Alexander McQueen “systematically rejects African-American job applicants who seek positions on the sales floor where they can be seen by customers or positions where they might have authority over white employees, relegating the few African-Americans who are hired to menial positions behind the scenes.”

The suit goes on to say that the plantiffs — 26-year-old Christopher Policard, an inventory supervisor, and 28-year-old Duane Davis, an inventory clerk — are only visible to customers when “Kering searches them for theft.” (“White employees, on the other hand, are screened for theft after closing and in private.”) Policard and Davis also allege that they have been “falsely accused of theft without evidence.”

Kate Middleton and her sister, Pippa Middleton, as they arrive at Westminster Abbey at the Royal Wedding in London on Friday, APril 29, 2011. Both women are wearing dresses designed by Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton.

Kate Middleton and her sister, Pippa Middleton, as they arrive at Westminster Abbey at the Royal Wedding in London on Friday, APril 29, 2011. Both women are wearing dresses designed by Alexander McQueen creative director Sarah Burton.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

A smattering of the other acts of discrimination which Policard and Davis say they’ve endured: Being excluded from company meetings because of their race and, when invited to meetings, being treated rudely “for purpose of humiliation because of their race,” being denied vacation leave, feedback from supervisors, and requests for basic help around the store (e.g. resetting a computer password), being forced to work in rat-filled rooms because their requests for extermination were rejected, “being forced to perform heavy labor… and other menial, demeaning tasks that white employees are not asked to deal with.”

Policard made a written complaint about racial discrimination to one of his supervisors on September 17; the court documents state that “no steps were taken to address the discriminatory mistreatment and it continued unabated or worsened”; two months later, Davis also issued a written complaint. Davis and Policard claim that the only response from higher-ups was “a course of action designed to denigrate, punish and retaliate against them for making their complaint, intimidate them into withdrawing it or force them to leave the company.” The suit alleges Davis and Policard were “laughed at” when they tried to complain about racial discrimination in the workplace.

The two men filed their discrimination lawsuit on Thursday and are seeking damages for emotional distress, plus legal fees to be determined at a jury trial. They are also asking that Alexander McQueen and Kering be forced to implement a policy to train all employees and managers in civil rights of employees at work, as well as a policy for reporting complaints like Policard’s and Davis’ and disciplining those who are found guilty of civil rights abuses.

A Recent History Of Racism Allegations Against Alexander McQueen

This is the third time in less than three years that Alexander McQueen has been accused of racism in its stores. In July 2013, a black security guard at the West 14th Street location, Othman Ibela, filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that other employees mocked him with racially demeaning jokes. He said the treatment by various bosses at Alexander McQueen was so appalling, he wanted to commit suicide. Ibela, who is from Gabon, in Central Africa, claimed that a clerk “repeatedly made jokes about me running nude in Africa with a spear in my hand.” One of the defendants in Ibela’s suit is also named in Policard and Davis’ suit: Catherine Flynn. She allegedly teased Ibela about his accent and would ask Ibela over and over again “why Muslims were always killing people.” He asked to be reassigned to a different store; according to EEOC documents, his pay was then docked and his hours were cut.

Later that year, Moselle Blanco, a Hispanic saleswoman who, like Ibela, worked at the brand’s Meatpacking District location, filed a suit claiming her sales manager called her “Goya princess” and “burrito face” before ultimately firing her. The manager, Max Cantey, allegedly told Blanco that she had “greasy hands like a Mexican” and instructed Blanco not to touch products because, if she did, they would “get messy.” Cantey allegedly responded to Blanco’s formal complaints by bullying her, sabotaging her professionally, and gossiping about her: He spread defamatory lies about Blanco, saying she stole store inventory, was drunk at work, and did cocaine in the bathroom. Supervisors “made light” of Blanco’s complaints, according to court documents, citing the “brother-sister” relationship she supposedly had with Cantey.

Models walk in Alexander McQueen's Spring-Summer 2016 ready-to-wear fashion collection, presented during the Paris Fashion Week in Paris, Sunday Oct. 4, 2015.

Models walk in Alexander McQueen’s Spring-Summer 2016 ready-to-wear fashion collection, presented during the Paris Fashion Week in Paris, Sunday Oct. 4, 2015.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Francois Mori

Blanco was fired in September 2012 after ten years of working in the flagship store. The grounds for her dismissal: Not getting back a dress lent to her client, Jessica Seinfeld, and selling to customers on her days off. Yet Blanco’s lawsuit points out that two other employees who complained about racial discrimination — one of whom was Ibela — were fired as well.

Racism In Retail: An Industry-Wide Problem?

Some of these McQueen complaints echo the 2003 lawsuit against Abercrombie and Fitch; plantiffs accused the retailer of favoring white hires for sales floor jobs while sticking employees of color in the stockroom where they would be all but invisible to customers (that is, when prospective employees of color were hired at all). That class action lawsuit, Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch, ultimately settled, with A&F paying $40 million to rejected applicants of color and employees who experienced racial discrimination.

Policard and Davis’ descriptions of the harassment and mistreatment they experienced at McQueen also share some notes with the reports of Zara’s former general counsel, Ian Jack Miller, who filed a $40 million discrimination suit against fast fashion behemoth Zara this June. Miller, who is Jewish, alleges that Zara’s management routinely spoke crudely about Jewish landlords and real estate developers with whom they worked. Once Miller’s supervisors found out about his religion, Miller claims he was cut out of meetings and critical email chains and that his annual pay raises plummeted.

Policard and Davis both spoke with the NY Daily News. “I felt oppressed, rattled, and afraid for my future,” Policard said, “I was surprised that such a prestigious brand would allow ignorance to infect and tarnish the brand image.” Davis reported feeling “very uncomfortable” in the store: “There were times I didn’t want to be at work. I began further not to trust any of my managers from then on.”

Eric Baum, Policard and Davis’ attorney, told Women’s Wear Daily, “Since 2013 the Alexander McQueen and Kering organizations have been on notice of racial discrimination claims but apparently have done very little if anything to fix the problem. The mistreatment of our clients shows that they have failed in this endeavor. This lawsuit is brought not only to remedy the harm caused to our clients but to send a message to the defendants and the entire retail industry that no level of discrimination will be tolerated by the African-American community.” A Kering spokesman told WWD that both Alexander McQueen and Kering “take these allegations seriously and we are investigating, however, we don’t comment on current litigations.”