On the very day that Italian luxury fashion house Moschino was celebrating Federico Fellini at its Pre-Fall 2019 collection presentation came the news that the brand was being sued by a former employee who alleges, among dozens of other claims, that a West Hollywood Moschino retailer was racially profiling its customers.
In a complaint filed on Dec. 4, 2018, the plaintiff alleges that an assistant manager there would call non-celebrity Black shoppers "Serena" and at times even ask employees to follow them through the store in an act known as retail racism. The latter is sadly not an uncommon practice. (For more on that, read Michelle Singletary's 2018 Washington Post essay detailing the experiences of shopping while Black.)
Among the 17 complaints are discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, national origin and/or color (in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act), sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation.
In a statement given exclusively to Fashionista, plaintiff Shamael Lataillade said this:
"It's a sad reality that despite the amount of money, time and loyalty that people of color, especially women, put into luxury brands like Moschino and [Moschino's parent company] Aeffe Brands, these companies still fail to exhibit basic respect through workplace policies from the boardroom to the boutique floor.
It's not so much that these situations occur, but that when they happen, a significant number of companies fail to set up systems to protect their employees against harassment and discrimination. Instead, such companies set up protocols, procedures and processes that allow harassment and discrimination to thrive and force people to endure hostile work environments.
It's a shame that in today's environment, there are people that desire to use someone's ethnic sounding name, like Serena Williams, in a slanderous way — or even worse, to perpetuate hate. Serena is one of my heroes and the breadth of discrimination that people of color endure sickens me."
The 36-page complaint goes on to allege that there were "protocols" put in place for potential Black clients entering the store. "If a potential Black client was not a celebrity and did not have an outward appearance of money via diamonds or name brands, Defendant Selbak called them a 'Serena' to other sales associates and wanted the 'Serena' to be closely watched," the complaint reads. The lawsuit alleges that staff were encouraged to use the alias as well.
According to the lawsuit, on other occasions Black clients would throw hundreds of dollars on the floor of the dressing room while they were trying on clothes in their desperation to show sales associates that they did have money and could afford to purchase items in the store.
Lataillade says that she spoke with corporate staff over the phone to make a formal complaint against her manager and to express the lack of access to human resources, but she says a promised follow-up never came. Further attempts to reach out, according to her, went unanswered.
"It looks like a lot of these allegations are about the actions of this specific manager, and Moschino is being held liable under a legal principle called 'respondeat superior,' which is a latin legal term that basically means 'employers are responsible for the actions of their employees,' explains Jenny Odegard, founder and senior attorney at Odegard Law. "This is always the case, but it is even more potent once there is evidence that the employer knew about the problem and did not act to mitigate it. This is why the unanswered calls to corporate are important."
In a statement provided to Fashionista by Aeffe, Moschino denies the allegations made by the former employee. "It is our practice not to comment on pending legal matters. Moschino complies with applicable equal employment laws and values and respects all customers and clients regardless of their race or background."
According to Odegard, it's likely that Latillade and Moschino have already been in contact about these claims and were unable to reach an equitable resolution. "She may have also chosen to file this claim out of a desire to make the allegations public, which many more victims of harassment are doing in the #MeToo era. It may also be a shaming-and-naming strategy, hoping that the public reaction to these types of allegations will encourage Moschino to settle on the terms that Ms. Latillade is seeking."
The main next step, according to Odegard, is discovery, during which both parties begin gathering information (including pay stubs and security footage) and interviewing relevant people who may be either to corroborate or disprove Latillade's claim. "It's really unlikely that this will go to trial, particularly if Ms. Latillade has or acquires a lot of evidence that would be damaging to Moschino if it is made public," Odegard explains. "A vast majority of cases settle out of court, before trial, for this reason."
Since we do not know — and likely will not know — the outcome of this lawsuit, it's important to use this as a moment to educate ourselves on the necessary actions needed when faced with any sort of workplace discrimination or harassment.
For anyone out there facing discrimination or harassment at work, Odegard suggests a number of steps to take in the immediate, including taking notes on specific incidents with dates and times, who was present and what happened. She suggests escalating the matter to a safe person higher up within the organization, but notes that if that is unsuccessful (as was the case for Latillade), you can go to city, state or federal anti-discrimination agencies like the EEOC to file a free complaint. "The investigating agency will advocate for you, so you don't necessarily need a lawyer to start that process," she says.