Bergdorf Goodman Versus Hermes

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Not long ago during a visit to New York City, I went to Bergdorf Goodman in an attempt to buy some stockings. OK. Why Bergdorf’s, one of the most expensive stores on the planet when CVS is my US stocking shop of choice? It happened to be my birthday and one of my substitute ‘mommies’ had taken me to a posh lunch. (My mother passed in 2007 but I have two women [one pictured below with me] who’ve known me all my life and have graciously allowed me to adopt them.) Afterwards, she gave me $50 as a birthday gift and told me forcefully.

“Now, you go to Bergdorf’s and buy yourself something for fifty dollars that you would never spend that much on.”

No, it wasn’t stockings that first came to my mind. It was lipstick. Why? Because a good friend was with us and she immediately said,

“I have just the thing.” She whipped out a lipstick by Guerlain that cost $50 (tax excluded). Candy apple red, tucked inside a case with not one but two mirrors (including a pop-up). Beyond perfect! She and I hustled over to Bergdorf’s. I got it and happily paid the sales tax from my own pocket.

I then remembered that I needed a pair of stockings for an event that night. So, the make-up salesgirl escorted us to the Wolford stocking boutique. Pricey as well but the only hosiery available at Bergdorf’s and after all, it was my birthday.

The saleswoman sauntered over and when she asked me what shade I needed (in a pronounced Eastern European accent, I might add), I showed her my leg and she got in my face, and said, “We don’t have anything for you,” then turned on her heel and walked off.

I was speechless and my friend (a white woman) turned red with anger. Ordinarily, I would have gone to the manager and pitched a hissy fit but my time was short. So, I wrote to Bergdorf’s online customer’s service explaining what happened. After about six weeks of silence, I wrote to Mr. Jim Gold, President of Neiman Marcus group which now owns Bergdorf’s. Furthermore, I added that I lived in Rome, Italy where the local Wolford store accommodates me and all my friends of varying hues. I deduced from the difference between the two shopping possibilities that Bergdorf’s was not interested in women of color as clients, even though the pool of potential black shoppers in New York City is phenomenally larger than the bathtub sized number in Rome.  

I got a mildly apologetic note from the General Manager of Bergdorf’s, inviting me and a friend to have lunch in the store’s rooftop restaurant the next time I came to New York. Now — I live in Rome and get to the States at the most once a year, right? Next time you jump across the pond, come on down to Bergdorf’s for lunch.

Let me now compare an experience that a black American friend (who also lives in Rome) had a few years ago at Hermes in Paris (before Oprah Winfrey’s unfortunate non-visit). In short, a saleswoman told her and her daughter to wait until she finished with another client and they did, patiently, for about a half hour (the store was packed). My friend finally inquired and was informed that the saleswoman had gone to lunch.

So, my friend also wrote a letter. The store apologized in short order in writing, included one of its signature ‘foulards’ with the letter, and told her to advise them when she was planning her next trip to the French capital so they could send a car to the airport to pick her up and escort her directly to their flagship store.

Not the foulard, but two of my own for illustration

Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting a plane ticket but maybe a couple of pairs of hose…to match my skin tone?

You be the judge.

Lobster Anyone?

A few years ago, the end of 2016 to be exact, I went shopping with an Italian friend of mine, named Maria Teresa. She prefers to go only by Teresa because as she explained, “Every girl in Italy has Maria somewhere in her name, so I drop that part.” We did more gabbing than grabbing since neither of us was in the mood. That year had been a hard one for many reasons, not the least of which occurred for me on November 8th in the United States as well as all the skullduggery that preceded the ‘vote.’ On this side of the pond, Italians were more than fed up with the political shenanigans and also wishing to sweep out the incumbents.

In any event, Teresa needed to buy a birthday present. We wandered into Tech It Easy, a tech store with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that make you think you really need them. This chain also has a lot of well-designed items, some of which are actually useful. We came across a set of paraphernalia for a lobster party for six: red-trimmed white bibs with embossed lobsters across the fronts; lobster shell crackers in the form of, you guessed it, lobster claws; long-handled, dual-ended seafood forks and scoops; and even sturdy, pint-sized wooden hammers just in case the crackers didn’t do the job. 

My friend wisecracked, “Who would need these? Who fixes lobsters at home?”

“We did,” I immediately chimed in. “When I was a kid, my parents and their friends had lobster and champagne parties.”

“Really?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that here.”

“Black people couldn’t go into most restaurants and sit down and eat back then, especially the highfalutin’ places. But we could buy the lobsters out of the back door or from markets and prepare them at home. Everything was segregated in my hometown but they had so much fun at those parties. More fun than the white folks did sitting in those fancy seafood restaurants, I bet.”

My Italian friend’s face fell. “That’s so sad. That you couldn’t go out to eat.”

“Yeah, those were tough times but they made the best of them.”

Teresa still didn’t understand. She watched me smile and laugh as I reminisced about those times. I told her how one couple, ‘grown-ups’ I emphasized, loved to dance. They knew all the latest teenage dances and the highpoint of these evenings was when they strutted their stuff and did the “Madison,” (instructions below) the “Bop,” and the “Stroll,” with or without music in the background.

She finally gave me a half-smile but I could tell she would never really understand how black folks back then had real fun under such constraints, all the while marching and protesting and fighting for equal rights. For her, it was tainted and for me, too.

But I still remember how excited everyone would get anticipating steamed lobsters, a cup of piping hot melted butter for dunking, baked potatoes, crispy cole slaw, a brightly colored mixed salad, and endlessly popping champagne corks. And all in the comfort of our homes. They could get as loud and happy as they wanted to and they did!

Strolling Home

Andre’ Laug photo shoot Hotel de la Ville Rome, Italy

Although Milan is clearly Italy’s fashion capital with Florence nipping at its heels, Rome still has its own panache. As I walked home a few nights ago, I came upon two models in front of the newly reopened Hotel de la Ville. They swished and swayed in Andre’ Laug flame red coats, pretending not to be freezing while photographers snapped away.

A friend of mine, Bert Keeter, is Laug’s designer and he had told me of the photo shoot for the atelier’s spring/summer collection but I had no idea they’d be doing part of it outside after sundown.

I took a few photos myself and scurried off, glad to be bundled up in a heavy coat on an especially chilly winter night.

Gail Milissa Grant

What’s in a Face?

Gail Milissa Grant

For starters.  During the aforementioned trip to Athens, I decided to buy a fur coat because Greece has a centuries-old tradition for making some of the best. It was the 1970s and PETA* had yet to be founded, so you’ll forgive me, ok? I was teaching at a university, had a few extra pennies, and this was a BIG deal for me. A French friend, who was living in Athens, said he’d help me out so we waited until the sun started to set because no one with any sense shops during the day in summer. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and thought I knew what hot was . . . until I spent a week in Athens in August.

We made our way through the muddling market that tumbled forward and backward along cobblestone streets. As the sunlight dove into the Aegean Sea, electric light bulbs strung along the streets took over its job. When I finally found ‘my’ coat, we sat down with the store owner and bargained politely over steaming coffee that soothed my throat and surprisingly didn’t spike my temperature. Once we agreed on a price, I cheerfully handed over my credit card.

Plaka Shopping Athens

“Sorry, Miss, but your card doesn’t work.”

“But,” I stammered, “that’s not possible. I know it’s good.”

George (yes, his name was the ubiquitous George so many Greek men are named) then explained that there was a spending limit on my card for any single purchase. I was beaten, I thought.

“That’s all right,” he continued. “You can wire me the rest when you get back to the States.”

“Huh? But you don’t even know me.”

“Oh, but I do. Everything I need to know about you is written on your face.”

Well, that just about knocked me off my feet and into the mountain of fur coats piled up behind me. I immediately thought of how many times my colored ‘face,’ had gotten me kicked out of a restaurant or gotten me called the ‘N’ word, or gotten me turned away from a movie theater growing up in my own backyard. And here I was in a very foreign and distant backyard with a complete stranger telling me that my face was all he needed as collateral.

“That’s so kind of you but isn’t there another way? I’d really like to pay you now.”

He rubbed his brow, took my card and disappeared but returned quickly with a fellow shop owner waving a receipt for me to sign.

“We’ll split the amount in two. You sign his and mine.”

With my coat bundled up in a shopping bag, I left but not before hugging them both.

I’ve thought of that incident time and again. In fact, it resonates whenever I experience this type of color-blind kindness abroad. Don’t, however, take me for a Pollyanna. I know the times they are a-changing and Europe ain’t what it used to be. But it still happens. Trust me. 

Gail Milissa Grant

Fur coat shopping Plakka Athens

*PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1980)

Introduction

Prefer to listen to a self-narrated version of this post? Simply use the player above

I’ve been traveling the world for decades, making stops (long and short) in more than forty countries. As a black person from the United States of America, I defined myself as a black American whenever I was asked until late one summer night in Athens’s Plaka neighborhood. I proudly announced my provenance to our waiter. He, however, wasn’t having it.

No!” he insisted. “You are a black international!”

That stuck with me. He saw me untethered to any nation. Although that’s an appealing idea (especially in this present-day climate), I feel firmly attached to my country and my peculiar vision. No matter where I am on this planet, I perceive the world through a black American lens.

I’ve chosen Nightingale Noir as my moniker because of the bird’s creative and seemingly spontaneous song and I aspire to bring my stories to you similarly while keeping them noir. My recollections will include tales from the past as well as current opinions as I continue to travel the globe and wander around Rome, where I’ve lived this time since 2001.

And why should you care? Well, if you are a black American, I hope you do because ‘we’ have a particular way of observing, born out of our inimitable history and out of our complicated relationship with the United States. It colors how we live, think, and move about our country. And how does it inform us when we voluntarily move outside our borders? I intend to present how one black person views the world from overseas. I also hope this will encourage you to travel and ‘see’ with your own eyes.

And if you are not a person of color? Why should you hitch a ride on my wings? The issue and effects of ethnicity are pervasive, no matter where you are. I grew up during the heart of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, shepherded by parents deeply committed to and actively engaged in its evolution. Then I launched into a career of international, cultural diplomacy. I offer you a rare opportunity to explore my unique world view — through the prism of race and geography. I believe my stories will offer unexpected insights, some surprises, and even some humor — to open up your perspective. Granted, my blog is international in scope and not grounded in the “black experience” as it is lived daily in the United States. If you, however, choose to follow me, you will see how even when one roams the globe, this paradigm travels alongside. 

By the way, my blog will wonder off its black track now and then. Whenever something strikes my fancy (be it a stroll past astounding Roman monuments on my way to the city’s premier organic market or my take on the Venice Biennale or running into an haute couture photo shoot on the street where I live), I’ll include it as well.

Hope you enjoy the ride! Join me tomorrow for my first blog.

Gail Milissa Grant