An Open Letter to Barney’s CEO Mark Lee re: “Shop and Frisk”

Trayon Christian, who alleges he was arrested for legally purchasing an item at Barney’s New York. Courtesy msn.com

Trayon Christian, who alleges he was arrested for legally purchasing an item at Barney’s New York. Courtesy msn.com

Mark Lee, CEO

Barney’s New York

660 Madison Avenue

New York, NY 10065

Re: “Shop and Frisk”

October 31, 2013

Dear Mr. Lee:

You might remember me from such recent purchases as a pair of Robert Clergerie boots and Céline sunglasses ($350).  I write to inform you and everyone else who reads this open letter that after 21 years as an enthusiastic Barney’s customer, I will no longer be patronizing your Madison Avenue store, Coop stores, outlets, Warehouse Sale, or online sites.

Like Mr. Trayon Christian and Ms. Kayla Phillips, I am Black and began shopping at Barney’s when I was a college student.  This was back in the day when the store was still in Chelsea and maintained a commitment to distinguishing itself from its snobbier uptown counterparts with a vanguardist approach to fashion and excellent democratic customer service.  My best friend and I, both earning honors-level grades while on financial aid, would wander through the store in awe bearing witness—and to people who love fashion it is somewhat of a religious experience—to the astonishing work of Comme des Garçons and Todd Oldham. We took the Barney’s credo, “Taste Luxury Humor,” as a helpful affirmation and guideline to navigating a world that is often hostile to ambitious youth of color. My first purchase there was a bottle of Chanel Vamp nail polish (then about $12).

I have returned to your store over the years because, for everyone, serious fashion offers the promise of personal power.  People do look at me differently when I am wearing Prada loafers bought at your store (then $375) than they do when I am wearing basic Birkenstocks. The distinction in these looks is perhaps more important to me because, like Mr. Christian and Ms. Philips, I am a working class person of color.  Similar to your business partner Mr. Shawn Carter, I will always carry the self-consciousness that comes from growing up in scarcity in a society that judges families with smaller incomes as deviant, immoral and inferior.  In a racist society, I carry the burden of defending myself in public and private spaces against the default presumptions that I am criminal, irresponsible, unintelligent and ugly simply because I am Black.

Ironically, in my social and professional circles I have often defended Barney’s and other high fashion institutions against luxury profiling.  The judgments I’ve heard of Mr. Christian and Ms. Phillips for spending their hard-earned savings and tax refunds on a special treat that they perhaps felt might boost their confidence, encourage them to persist in their studies in spite of obstacles, or reward them for their hard work are quite familiar to me.  People who have no qualms about spending their limited discretionary income on trips to the Caribbean, 30 year-old scotch, Wynton Marsalis concerts or BMWs feel quite comfortable telling people like me that luxury fashion items are a waste of money.

Kayla Phillips outside of the Barney's in which she was profiled. Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com.

Kayla Phillips outside of the Barney’s in which she was profiled. Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com.

Lately, I find myself explaining that calling a Salvatore Ferragamo belt an expensive piece of leather is like dismissing a Mickalene Thomas painting as an overpriced wall covering.  Although I would never absolve Barney’s or the fashion industry at large for fanning the flames of society’s misogyny, racism, homophobia and class prejudice, a Céline handbag is not just a purse. An interest in fashion is no less valid a creative outlet than travel, jazz or drinking.

The good news for me, Mr. Christian and Ms. Phillips is that refusing to shop at Barney’s does not require us to compromise our love of fashion in any way. Every major fashion designer has their own boutique in New York City so I can go straight to the source and experience the fashion awe I first discovered at Barney’s.  There are also many online alternatives to your website—arguably of better quality. As the company CEO you must be aware your store faces stiff international competition, which is why from a business point of view your apparent indifference to these racist incidents is so shocking.

Why would I, or any other person of color, risk the humiliation to which Mr. Christian and Ms. Phillips were subjected when there are so many options and you and the NYPD have taken zero responsibility for what happened to them? It costs me $0 to be vocal and active about my disgust over racial profiling, which, by the way, has nothing to do with how people of color present themselves.  As these incidents have proven, a Black person can be criminalized for doing something perfectly legal. Racial profiling has nothing to do with anything but race.  And you’ve lost this customer because of it.

Sincerely,

RJHSignature

Robin J. Hayes, PhD

Principal Organizer, Progressive Pupil

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6 Comments

  1. We shouldn’t be trying to shop there anyways, slaves to fashion chasing that capitalist carrot.

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  2. Blandon

     /  November 7, 2013

    This is the most naive, circa 1950’s “educated negro” response I’ve heard so far…and you’re a PhD?

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    Reply
  3. Fatema Hayat

     /  November 15, 2013

    I was thinking of going to Barney’s this weekend to buy a jacket, i’m so glad i read this post before i did. The questions asked by the undercover police were disgusting, no one has the right to humiliate someone like that. Also Barney’s should be ashamed of such actions, its crazy that a big store like that in the world’s capital still judges by race and ethnicity.

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  4. yahya shareif

     /  November 23, 2013

    My dear young lady. You are the reason Black People are spending $ 1.6 trillion dollars a year in the United States Economy. IT JUST DOES NOT MAKE ANY SENSE. Where are our businesses to patronize? Are you aware why blacks are not in business? It is stores like Barney’s that ham strung black entrepreneurs and prevented them from opening businesses and competing with them. What does your PH.D stand for. Pile higher and deeper? It is obvious that you wanted to impress someone with your writing this letter. I am certain that you are aware long before now of the profiling of blacks and other non whites in these stores. But it only matters when it happens to you. O you poor baby! SMH!

    P.S. Even if I could afford to buy sunglasses,and prada shoes for $ 300,plus dollars. My basic intelligence tells me HELL TO THE NO, to paying somebody thousands of dollars for ME to wear their name.

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  5. Robyn Macklin

     /  November 26, 2013

    Hear hear. Well said.

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    Reply
  6. It’s impressive that you are getting thoughts from this paragraph as well as from
    our argument made here.

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    Reply

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