Challenge on Polo Ralph Lauren: Different Kind of Suit as Dress Code

Published: 25th September 2008
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Advertisements for Polo Ralph Lauren show a world populated by beautiful trust-fund families on their leafy estates. But how far should a company go to propel that image into the public consciousness? A few current and former employees say Polo crossed the line. Two onetime sales associates joined a class-action lawsuit this week alleging that image was, in part, crafted illegally, by forcing salespeople to spend thousands of dollars a year on the company's latest outfits to project a "lifestyle image." The hired help, in other words, struggled to keep the shirt on their backs, even with the in-house 65% discount. Accusations against the posh clothing company ring true for many salespeople, but few have taken their case to court, said Dean Friar, spokesman for California's Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The law says employers who require workers to wear uniforms must provide that wardrobe at no cost. "But we see, instead, discounts given out," Friar said. "That's very common." Industry experts, including representatives of the National Retail Federation, the largest retail trade organization in the world, have never heard of a lawsuit similar to the one filed against Polo. They say salespeople are traditionally expected to look presentable and sport some of the designer's product, but no one reached by The Times had heard of an employer forcing its staff to invest heavily in wardrobe. "This strikes me as a unique lawsuit," said Peter Arnold, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The complaint against Polo was initially filed in federal court last month in San Francisco by Toni Young, a 31-year-old sales associate. Attorneys for Polo have until Nov. 4 to respond to the complaint. When contacted for this story, Polo spokeswoman Ellen Maguire said that the company does not comment on pending litigation. Plaintiff attorney Patrick R. Kitchin says Young, who earned $22,000 last year, has receipts that show she was required to spend more than $6,000 a year on Polo purchases since she began working at the store in 1997. "It's a ton of money," he said by phone from his office near the Polo store where Young still works. Young's lawsuit also alleges that Polo managers conducted "strip searches to ensure that all of their clothing is from the defendants' product lines." "They would ask Ms. Young to take off her sweaters - she had a shirt on underneath - or take off her shoes, so they could check the labels," Kitchin said. "In late August, all employees in the San Francisco store were told they needed five new outfits from the fall collection. They had to come in wearing the outfits so they could be photographed and those photographs could be kept in a file sent on to headquarters in New York." Kitchin has posted the Web to attract additional plaintiffs. One of the newest plaintiffs is 26-year-old Janika Goff, who worked at the same store as Young, where both Ralph Lauren Designer Clothes and Polo clothes are sold. Over five years, she sold shoes and clothes full time and made about $24,000 a year. Each season, she was entitled to an 80% discount off two pairs of shoes and a 65% discount off everything else, including the Polo clothes she was expected to wear every day. "They wanted you to be in current season and wanted the shoes to look nice and not scuffed, but I was running up and down stairs, doing stock work sometimes, so I would buy comfortable shoes," said Goff, who now works at a bank in San Diego. Goff estimates that after five years at Polo, she had accumulated 65 pairs of shoes, most of which she considers in great condition but that were too scuffed for store's management to consider acceptable. When Goff showed up in sandals one day, a manager made her choose a pair of loafers to wear. "The price of $50 was deducted from my paycheck," Goff said. For Young, the store's expectations were clearly out of line with what she knew about retail. She had previously worked at the mid-range clothing chain Bebe while she worked toward a court stenographer's degree. "I did have to buy Bebe clothes, but they were a lot more lax about how current you had to be," she said. "You could actually go to a secondhand store and buy a Bebe outfit for work and not be questioned." Another former employee who confirmed he has joined Young's class-action lawsuit is Troy Greene, a former sales associate for eight years at Polo on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Greene was earning $87,000 by the time he resigned last month over a dispute about new payment structures. He was immediately hired by Prada, also on Rodeo Drive, which provides its employees with uniforms - at no charge - that must be returned at the end of each season. "We get two pairs of trousers, four dress shirts, four knit tops, two pairs of shoes and a belt. All paid for," said Greene, 40. "Gucci does the same thing." According to Young, Polo management received commissions on the "sales" they made to their staffs. Young, who is black, also filed a racial discrimination suit against Polo in San Francisco Superior Court last month. Kitchin says that in addition to being subject to cruel racial remarks by superiors, Young has not been promoted during her five-year career at the store, despite glowing reviews from managers. "She was told her hair was too nappy, and she needed to straighten her hair," Kitchin said. "Managers call out to her with an exaggerated African American urban accent. They call her 'Ms. Thang.' " This is not the first tussle Polo has had with its staff. In February, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Polo Ralph Lauren Clothing Corp. denied minorities the same pay and opportunities as whites even as it promoted a "blond hair and blue eyes" image. The commission's conclusion was related to another lawsuit pending in federal court by two former Polo employees.





The author claims to be obsessed with fashion that he wants to create his own line of apparels to match the likes of Ralph Lauren ,

Guess
, DKNY and more.

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