Barneys is having a horrendous week. You can tell by their press releases, which started out rather snippy and have escalated rapidly into something that looks a lot like panic. Last Thursday, 19-year-old Trayon Christian filed a lawsuit alleging he was racially profiled at the famed Madison Avenue department store, detained by undercover cops after buying a designer belt that store employees apparently didn’t believe he could afford. As the story picked up steam, Barneys issued a statement, flatly denying Christian’s charges, and adding that the store stood by “our long history in support of all human rights.”
Then Kayla Phillips came forward. She’s a 21-year-old woman, who, like Christian, is black, and who says she found herself swarmed by police after buying a $2,500 handbag at Barneys.
At that point, Barneys CEO Mark Lee issued a statement of his own (the previous one was unsigned), stopping just short of admitting that the incidents had taken place. It reads, in full:
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.
Further to our statement of yesterday, we want to reinforce that Barneys New York has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination. We are a strong proponent of equal rights and equal treatment for all human beings. Our mission is to ensure that all customers receive the highest-quality service–without exception.
To this end, we are conducting a thorough review of our practices and procedures as they relate to these matters to ensure that they reflect our continued commitment to fairness and equality. To lead this review, we have retained a civil rights expert, Michael Yaki, who also serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission has been the nation’s watchdog for civil rights for more than 50 years. Mr. Yaki will be provided with unrestricted access to all aspects of our store operations.
In addition, Barneys New York has reached out to community leaders to begin a dialogue on this important issue.
Those community leaders are the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Brooklyn chapter of his anti-racist National Action Network, which held a rally on Saturday denouncing Barneys’ alleged actions and asking more people to speak up if they’d been profiled at the store. They said they’ll be meeting with Lee on Tuesday for what NAN Brooklyn president Kirsten John Foy told ABC would be “some very intense dialogue.”
Lee’s statement didn’t stem the tide of people sharing their awful Barneys experiences, though. On Friday, actor Rob Brown of the HBO series Treme filed suit with a similar allegation, saying he was detained in June after buying his mother a $1,350 watch as a graduation gift. Brown tweeted that the police held him for an hour before realizing their mistake and driving him to his mother’s graduation (he’s subsequently taken those tweets down).
In the meantime, rapper Jay Z also came under fire for not immediately pulling a partnership he has with Barneys, a “holiday collaboration” that, per the store, has some famous designers making “exclusive, limited edition products inspired by New York City in a color palette of black, white, gold and silver.” Jay Z is also apparently designing their holiday window display. He described that partnership as a “unique and groundbreaking collaboration that I hope demonstrates how inspiring New York has been to me.”
Jay Z defended his decision to stick with Barneys in a statement to Life and Times magazine, saying most of the proceeds from that collaboration go towards the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund, a charitable foundation he set up to help send kids to college.
“The Shawn Carter Foundation is the beneficiary and the foundation is receiving 25% of all sales from the collaboration, 10% of all sales generated in the store on November 20th and an additional donation from Barneys,” he wrote. “This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning. My idea was born out of creativity and charity … not profit.”
Jay Z, too, said he was waiting for the Tuesday meeting with civil rights leaders to make any decisions:
I move and speak based on facts and not emotion. I haven’t made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys. Why am I being demonized, denounced and thrown on the cover of a newspaper for not speaking immediately? The negligent, erroneous reports and attacks on my character, intentions, and the spirit of this collaboration have forced me into a statement I didn’t want to make without the full facts. Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project, wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter, but all the people that stand a chance at higher education. I have been working with my team ever since the situation was brought to my attention to get to the bottom of these incidents and at the same time find a solution that doesn’t harm all those that stand to benefit from this collaboration.
According to tax records from 2011, the most recent year that’s available, the Shawn Carter Fund gave $140,000 in educational grants. The same year, the fund spent nearly $300,000 on just one fundraiser, a carnival at Pier 54. (The total coast of that event was actually more than $1 million; all but $300,000 was covered by donations.)The records also show that the fund’s educational college tour, toy drive for children, and Christmas giveaways benefited a total of 55 needy recipients. Jay Z was previously criticized for giving a mere $6,000 to his own charity in 2010.
Maybe Barneys and Mr. Carter will feel a little better now that at least one other department store is sharing the hot seat: on Sunday, another man, Art Palmer, said he was surrounded by police after purchasing $320 worth of clothes at Macy’s.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2013