If you’ve been living under a Giambattista Valli sequined cape, a 19-year-old college student, Trayvon Christian, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the NYPD and Barneys New York, after he purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt and was arrested by undercover officers as he left the store. According to the suit, they asked him “how a young black man such as [him]self could afford to purchase such an expensive belt?” Just a day later, 21-year-old Kayla Phillips came forward to say that she, too, was accosted by undercover cops just a few minutes after she purchased a $2500 Celine bag.
The speed with which the shoppers were confronted suggests that the salespeople called the police to go after shoppers, which Barneys denied in a statement on Wednesday: “…after carefully reviewing the incident of last April, it is clear that no employee of Barneys New York was involved in the pursuit of any action with the individual other than the sale.”
I’m struggling to take them at their word, because the reality of shopping in a store in New York is generally a horror. Intimidation, discomfort, and a distinct feeling of monetary and sartorial inadequacy are all standard hallmarks of the New York retail experience, and that’s before you even look at a garment or even a price tag. You’re rarely greeted, or offered help, or even muttered at. When I consider that I’m saying that as a white girl who lives on the Upper East Side, the behavior alleged in Christian’s suit doesn’t seem all that unfathomable.
Fantasy, luxury, and desire are the three prongs of fashion’s value system, yet the rhetoric implied by the way customers are often treated in department stores suggests the desire aspect only works if a splurge isn’t really a splurge for you. If you aren’t an old Fifth Avenue bat who buys half of every Dries Van Noten collection every season, are you just supposed to sit tight and fantasize about luxury? Of course one wishes that these shoppers wouldn’t have gone through any of this at all. But it’s also disappointing to think that Christian’s shopping experience didn’t involve a basic level of customer service that would have made him feel the way one should when making a big and awesome purchase. You know: “What are you going to wear it with?” “Do you want to look at other accessories?” “This belt rules.” “It also comes in lizard feet leather.” And other #duh questions.
I’m aware that harping on the niceties of customer service may sound trivial. But consider this: if Christian and Phillips had been given good customer service in the first place, it’s possible that the whole thing would never have happened. There’s nothing suspicious about a kid saving up for months to buy a belt, as Christian did, and which the salesperson probably would have found out from even a brief exchange. Same goes for Phillips, who bought the bag with a tax refund and whose nameless debit card raised suspicion (from what I recall about last April, you can choose to get your refund as a direct deposit or as a ‘prepaid’ debit card, which is probably what she was using).
After Phillips came forward, Barneys released a second statement: “Barneys New York believes that no customer should have the unacceptable experience described in recent media reports, and we offer our sincere regret and deepest apologies.” They added that they were conducting a thorough review of their practices and procedures “as they relate to these matter to ensure that they reflect our continued commitment to fairness and equality.” But what they need isn’t to ensure their procedures reflect their commitment to fairness and equality. What they need is a total realignment of their values.