The one thing that Oprah Winfrey and Hermes agree on is that the talk show host did not get a chance to do any early-evening shopping recently at the company's Paris store. Why she was denied an opportunity to spend her money at the expensive boutique is what has gossip columnists, radio commentators and, in particular, the Internet reverberating with a chorus of girrrrrrlllll.
On June 14, Winfrey arrived at the Hermes shop at 24 Faubourg Saint-Honore. The street is well traveled by tourists and the well-to-do because of its abundance of famous designer boutiques. In the first (and untrue, both sides say) version of the incident, reported Monday in the New York Post, Hermes staff members stationed at the door failed to recognize Winfrey, as she was not in full glamour makeup with her TV hair. They denied her entry and, the gossip item claimed, told her that they have been "having a problem with North Africans lately."
The bloggers raced to their computers: "Oprah Musta Forgot She Is Black." "Oprah w/out makeup, hair done, etc. is really ugly. Seriously, I love Oprah, but what we see on TV is very different from how Oprah really looks."
"That's France for you."
On Wednesday, the New York Daily News weighed in with a different version of the story, saying Winfrey arrived just after the store had closed at 6:30 p.m. and there was no doubt about her identity. She saw shoppers still milling about inside and asked the Hermes staff at the door if she could dash in to make a quick purchase. A clerk said no, and so did a store manager. An unnamed "friend" quoted in the Daily News didn't use the term racism but suggested that if Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand had made a similar request, there wouldn't have been a problem. In this telling of the tale, the entire population of northern Africa was not maligned.
Internet postings often blended the two versions and were accompanied by outraged commentary, indignation and suggestions that Hermes start putting together an especially nice gift basket in the form of a crocodile Birkin. (The company had no comment on the subject of apologetic bouquets, jewelry or handbags.)
A spokeswoman at Winfrey's Harpo Productions confirmed the Daily News version of the story, saying that the incident was "Oprah's 'Crash' moment" -- a reference to the film in which racism unfolds in complex, subtle and surprising interactions. Winfrey also contacted Hermes' U.S. president to inform him of the incident. She plans to tell the story on her show when it returns from hiatus in September.
With the Internet painting an ever-grimmer portrait of the 168-year-old French company, Hermes issued a statement from its Paris headquarters apologizing for "not having been able to accommodate Ms. Winfrey and her team and to provide her with the service and care that Hermes strives to provide to each and every one of its customers worldwide. Hermes apologizes for any offense taken due to such circumstances."
The company also tells a slightly different version of the story. Hermes shuts its doors at 6:30, but on this particular evening the staff was preparing the store for a private event -- a presentation of ready-to-wear. As a result, there was a significant amount of activity in the boutique, which may have given the impression that shoppers were still browsing.
A Hermes spokeswoman said Winfrey arrived about 6:45, accompanied by three other people. A clerk and security guard were at the door and there was no discussion of North Africans or anyone else, according to the store's security videotape, which the company inspected after the incident. The guard explained that the store was closed. The clerk offered up her business card with an invitation for Winfrey to return the next day. The store manager, preparing for that evening's event, was not at the door.
Hermes regularly lavishes celebrities with all of the attention they have come to expect, the spokeswoman said. But Winfrey's visit was an after-hours surprise at a particularly inopportune moment.
One could argue that perhaps this was simply an example of employees not empowered to be proactive, even for a celebrity who could purchase every watch and handbag in the place and come back the next day for more. (The clerk, by the way, has not been forced to take up with an organ grinder on Boulevard Saint Germain; she remains gainfully employed.) It could be an example of a store treating a wealthy celebrity just like anyone else. It could be a case of rudeness. It could be racism. It could be a complicated blend of all that and more.
Hermes is a family-owned business that was founded as a harness shop in Paris in 1837. It is known for its luxuriously printed silk scarves and its handmade bags, namely the Birkin and the Kelly bag. It is one of fashion's most exclusive brands thanks to its high prices and its years-long Birkin waiting list that has risen to near mythic importance among high-end shoppers. The company makes little effort to reach a broad demographic. One of its silk squares retails for $320. A simple tie is $145. A basic Birkin costs about $6,000. A starter handbag is still a thousand-dollar investment.
Brands that cultivate an air of exclusivity breed paranoia, insecurity and suspicion as a byproduct. If the brand is perceived as being for a select few, there's a heightened sensitivity to the perception that the brand is not for you -- even if you happen to be extremely wealthy.
The fashion industry also is particularly ruthless about choosing its customers. Through sizing, pricing, geography and attitude, companies attempt to weed out those they don't deem representative of their image. There's a reason why so many designers steer clear of plus sizes. Fat women are not part of their fashion fantasy.
And there have been countless stories of well-known African Americans feeling snubbed. Cornel West in a three-piece suit couldn't get a cab in Manhattan. Vanessa Williams was mistaken for a waitress at a private dinner party even though she was wearing an evening gown. Condoleezza Rice -- before she became secretary of state -- reprimanded a salesgirl for showing her costume jewelry after she had requested the better pieces.
It is easy to believe that a clerk in a fancy store could be plagued by prejudices. But is it utterly naive to think she could also be indiscriminately brusque, dismissive or inflexible? The public probably will never know precisely what transpired in the case of Winfrey versus Hermes. The story has been taken over by the Internet, a forum not known for its subtlety and accuracy. (One posting had Winfrey going to Hermes to "get her hair done.")
People have argued that no matter what was going on inside the store, no matter what time it was, Winfrey -- the billionaire with millions of devoted fans who ask "How high?" when she says "Jump" -- should have been allowed to shop. It certainly would have been beneficial for the Hermes bottom line. But after-hours shopping is a favor, a perk. Not a right. There's nothing wrong with a store saying not tonight, madame, as long as the reason doesn't have anything to do with skin color. It's okay to say no to a celebrity, even when her name is Oprah.