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What exactly happened at 6:45 p.m. on June 14, when Oprah Winfrey showed up at the Hermes boutique on the Rue Faubourg Saint Honore and was refused entrance? Was she actually turned away unrecognized as a shop employee murmured something about the store having a problem recently with North African women as some sources originally reported? Or was she in fact recognized and invited to come back, barred only because the store was closed for a private function?
Depends on who you talk to. Now, if we owned Hermes, there wouldn’t be any function so private it couldn’t include Oprah, who supposedly cancelled an order for yet another Birkin bag (not to worry, she apparently already owns a dozen) over the ugly incident. In any case, Oprah has indicated that she is planning to talk about what happened when her show returns from hiatus in September and frankly, we can’t wait.
In the meantime, the whole incident got us thinking about who’s welcome, and who’s emphatically not, in stores around town. Actually, because of our peculiar penchant for spending hours wandering around ritzy department stores and overpriced boutiques when other people are out playing sports, attending cultural events, and generally having a life, this is a question we’ve wrestled with for years. When a vintage shop we loved in Soho installed a buzzered door, we immediately thought, what can you see through a door, anyway? You can’t tell if the person has any money, since it’s well known that some of the biggest slobs turn out to be filthy rich. There’s only one thing you can see when you glance through a glass pane. Skin color.
It has often occurred to us that the way we live—have always lived—with the constant looking, looking, looking in shops we can rarely afford (including Hermes); our desire to fondle fancy stuff; this endless, rather embarrassing fascination with high-end merchandise, would never have been possible if we hadn’t been born white. All that cruising around the third floor of Bergdorf’s, hushed as a mausoleum, where 80- year-olds buy Bill Blass tailleurs? Forget it. Our habit of trying something on 10,000 times before buying? Not likely. Our shameful tendency to buy and then return items—only, on some occasions, to turn around and buy them again when they’re marked down further? Call in the security guards.
It’s wonderful that the 1964 civil rights bill, says, in effect, that if you’re a store that is open to the public, that means the entire public. But in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from that unbuzzed door to the suspicious salespeople to the hostile security guards, people of color are made to feel uncomfortable in shops every day of their lives.
We were once talking to a guy we know who works on the fourth floor of Barneys selling tattered Comme des Garcons shifts, deconstructed Martin Margiela jackets, and other pretend-poor clothes with four-figure price tags. When we asked which collections he particularly liked, he shrugged. “I can’t wear any of this shit,” he said. He didn’t even sound sad, just matter of fact. “What do you think people think when they see a black man dressed in something all raggedy?”