Kristle Peterkin will never forget the early morning shift at the Rittenhouse Square Anthropologie store when a Black colleague took off work because her child was sick. Peterkin’s supervisor hung up the phone, she remembers, “and basically said, ‘Why doesn’t she go back on welfare?‘”
The comment stopped her cold, but Peterkin, who is Black, continued to hear many more like it. Even after she reported the incident to the store manager, the supervisor routinely made racist and derogatory comments, according to Peterkin and another former employee. The signal, Peterkin said, was “this is just something that’s just accepted.”
Peterkin is not alone in sharing her experiences with racism at the multi-billion-dollar retailer headquartered in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.
Anthropologie and its parent company, Urban Outfitters Inc., endured fierce criticism on social media over allegations that its employees racially profiled customers, as protests against systemic racism swept the country following the police killing of George Floyd.
The company has faced criticism internally too. Last month, more than 700 employees signed a letter to corporate executives, calling for “racial justice” inside the company. According to a copy obtained by The Inquirer, employees asked the company to institute mandatory training on bias, create a diversity and inclusion team to oversee hiring, and establish an “official HR team” where Black employees would feel safe to report discrimination.
The outcry has forced company executives in recent weeks to confront how they deal with racial bias, and to commit to new hiring initiatives and expanded anti-discrimination training. “We support and stand with the Black community, and we recognize that we all must do more than we’ve done to date,” CEO and cofounder Richard Hayne said in a June 3 statement.
Urban Outfitters also acknowledged that the company had a policy of using code words such as “Nick” or “Nicky” to identify possible shoplifters. That policy was “misused” in stores, the company said, and has been revised. “We profusely apologize to each and every customer who was made to feel unwelcome,” a spokesperson said. The company hired a third party to review store practices, and says it has a “zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination or racial profiling.”
In response to questions from The Inquirer about discrimination claims at the Rittenhouse Anthropologie, the company said “several employees were terminated” as the result of an investigation stemming from an employee complaint in June. “Regrettably, it is now clear that there was an issue in the Rittenhouse store, and we will be taking further actions to fully rectify that situation,” the spokesperson said.
In interviews with The Inquirer, 10 current and former employees who have worked in stores and at Urban’s headquarters described racial profiling of Black customers as potential shoplifters and hearing racist language in the workplace, as well as barriers to career advancement for people of color, and difficulties reporting discrimination complaints internally.
For those who work in fashion and design, Urban Outfitters headquarters is considered one of the only games in Philly. Three people of color who worked at headquarters said their supervisors demeaned or excluded them from important meetings, while their job responsibilities could change with little warning, or didn’t match the roles for which they applied and were hired.
Designer Lamarr Nanton said he was promoted and replaced a design director at Anthropologie. But he said he was not actually given the title or the pay for that role, the company didn’t inform the team Nanton took over that he was their manager, and his own boss didn’t invite him to meetings about products and collections that were essential to his job.
“There was no way to win,” said Nanton, who is Black and now works for another company in California. “It seemed like people of color were always being shuffled. So you never got an opportunity to level up, or feel like you were really part of a team – so you were always trying to play catch-up.”
As the company pledges to take action now, he said, “you can recruit us all day long. But if the culture isn’t supportive of us, then you’re not going to retain people.”
A company spokesperson said: “We strongly believe that every customer, partner, vendor, employee, and associate should feel welcomed and respected when they walk through our doors. It is clear that there is work for us to do to make that a reality.”
Urban Outfitters did not provide diversity statistics on the makeup of its workforce or senior leadership team.
Founded in West Philly in the 1970s, Urban Outfitters Inc. today operates a constellation of lifestyle and consumer brands for clothing, home décor, and eateries. The company does nearly $4 billion in annual net sales.
Protests over Floyd’s killing started in Philadelphia on May 30. The company’s publicity problems over racism started to intensify two days later.
Hayne, the CEO, in a June 1 internal email to employees, said several of the brand names reflect the company’s “core principle of inclusiveness and cultural understanding.”
Anthropologie is “the study of different cultures,” Hayne wrote, and Urban Outfitters “was so named to celebrate the richness of urban life where diversity is the rule not the exception.” The brand Free People, said Hayne, 73, “was born during the anti-war movement of the early 70s when young people, including yours truly, were protesting a war and loss of life that made little sense.”
The email also referred to company stores damaged during the unrest.
“Even though I joined those protests in the 70s, I always rejected violence and destruction,” Hayne said in the email. “Today is no different. Criminal acts did nothing to promote peace then. And they do nothing to promote understanding or justice now.”
That same day, the Urban Outfitters Instagram account posted that “racism, injustice, oppression, and complacency have never been welcome in our community.” Anthropologie’s Instagram featured a Maya Angelou quote about diversity draped in whimsically illustrated flowers. (The post no longer appears on the account.)
Neither post mentioned the Black community or the Black Lives Matter movement. Many users on the platform, current and former employees among them, viewed these initial posts as empty platitudes.
“There’s no mention of white supremacy. There’s no mention of police brutality. There’s no mention of the pain and trauma that Black people are feeling every day,” said Da’ani Jetton, who started working for an Urban Outfitters store in Atlanta last summer.
And yet, she said, the company relies on Black employees and Black customers like her — and capitalizes on streetwear looks that were made popular by the Black community.
“This company caters to young city folk, and they aren’t even hip to the political climate,” Jetton said. “I don’t know how much more they want from us.”
The Instagram posts also elicited an outpouring of emotion from people who felt the messages belied their own work history with the company. It was “a lot of people telling stories they felt like they couldn’t tell before – or they fell on deaf ears,” Peterkin said.
Many of those accounts centered on allegations of racial profiling, and the comments gained even more traction when the fashion Instagram account Diet Prada wrote about them on June 10.
Five people who worked at Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters stores on the East Coast told The Inquirer that they were instructed to use names such as “Nick” or “Nicky” to identify shoplifters in general. But they said the code words were often associated with Black people in practice, and that racial profiling was commonplace in stores where they worked.
The workers said it was easy for managers and sales associates to project their own bias onto flagging shoplifters. A mix of factors contributed to that problem, according to interviews. In some stores, employees were trying to meet goals to decrease losses from shoplifting. People working for Anthropologie also understood the typical customer to be a white woman.
“We would call out ‘potential Nick’ or ‘potential Nicky’ a lot,” said one former worker who worked at an Anthropologie store in New York, and requested anonymity to speak freely about a former employer. “It was a lot more frequently Black women than anyone else.”
This person said managers encouraged employees to “go with your gut” when identifying possible shoplifters, and there were no consequences, or questions asked, if the employee was mistaken. “I think people wanted to get recognition for contributing to” loss prevention, the person said.
Some store managers recently voiced their own frustrations with the company to Anthropologie President Hillary Super. In a June 19 email to employees, provided by the company, Super acknowledged receiving a “number of messages” from store leaders “expressing disappointment, anxiety, and anger over the way Anthropologie and URBN has responded to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent global movement for racial justice.”
Super apologized that the company had not made more progress on diversity and inclusion. “Black lives matter and the bottom line is that we have to do better – we have to address systemic racism,” she wrote.
Peterkin was excited about landing a job at Anthropologie as a receiver, processing the daily arrivals of new clothes and home goods. The hours, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., suited her schedule as a working mom with children in school.
But the supervisor’s offensive comments wore on her. She tried to compartmentalize them, and found some reprieve when she switched her schedule and worked fewer hours. She spent more time interacting with Black women shoppers, who often confided to Peterkin that they felt uncomfortable going in, either watched too closely or ignored altogether.
Peterkin took a job at another retailer in 2019. Looking back at her time at Anthropologie, she says, “What they allow and what they continued to allow – it has to stop.”
Joey Clayton, another former Anthropologie employee, heard the same supervisor use the “N-word” to refer to employees, in front of the store manager. “I was complacent for years, and chose financial security over speaking out about what was right,” said Clayton, who recently quit his job. “Now, that’s over.”
Both Peterkin and Clayton said that a toxic culture in the store festered because of the supervisor’s offensive remarks, and the store manager’s apparent tolerance of them. The company did not make the supervisor or the store manager available for comment, and did not elaborate on their employment status.
Peterkin and Clayton also lacked confidence in reporting incidents through other channels, such as the employee hotline.
Clayton, who is white and gay, said he called the employee hotline at least twice to file discrimination complaints involving the store manager and another colleague, for comments they made about his sexuality.
A company official acknowledged one of Clayton’s complaints in a June 2019 email seen by The Inquirer. The official, Susan DiFebo, said Urban Outfitters Inc. “abhors discrimination and harassment,” and that she would work with district and regional leadership to “investigate your concerns.”
Afterward, Clayton said, the regional manager told him he should apologize to the store manager for instigating an investigation. “There are systems in this company that need to be dismantled and restructured,” Clayton said.
In its response to The Inquirer, Urban Outfitters did not address Clayton’s account of a superior telling him to apologize for the complaint. A spokesperson said Clayton did not respond to “repeated attempts” to contact him at the time, and so there was “little the company could do to investigate.”
Clayton disputed that characterization, saying he spoke with DiFebo by phone, and he provided The Inquirer with an email showing he followed up with her as well. “This is, unfortunately, just another best effort for them to defend and deflect their bad behavior,” he said. “I don’t hear a lot of taking accountability.”
For all the prestige of working at Urban Outfitters, getting a job at headquarters can come with steep trade-offs, said some employees. These include dealing with a culture of favoritism, grueling performance expectations, and standing doubts about where to take a human resources problem. The recent employee letter on racial justice noted, “Many of our employees don’t even know if we currently have a HR team or not.”
Those issues are magnified for people of color working at the predominantly white “home office,” as it’s known, according to interviews.
Two former employees spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their current careers.
“I was surrounded by affluent white people, and if you weren’t a part of that group, you were ostracized, and you were made very aware that you didn’t belong,” said one former employee, who worked for Anthropologie.
This person described herself as a “white-presenting Mexican woman,” born in the U.S. Colleagues initially assumed she was of Italian descent, she said, but once they became aware of her ethnicity, coworkers started commenting on her looks and asking if one of her parents was white. One colleague made fun of her name. She recalled her direct manager saying to her: “Your diction is so good. I’m surprised.”
One time, supervisors sent her to New York to pick up samples, and said she had to take the bus, because there was no budget for the train. They would not buy her a return ticket to Philadelphia until she had completed certain tasks, leaving her to track down someone in the office to get her a ticket at 11 p.m. “I was hazed repeatedly – verbally abused – to the point that I had to see a doctor and be prescribed Xanax,” she said.
She said there was no HR, and no protection internally to be able to speak up. “It’s definitely a culture that promotes bullying and verbal abuse and discrimination, and the company protects the worst offenders.”
The company did not answer questions about workplace bullying. Urban Outfitters insists that it makes workers aware, through a weekly newsletter, of an “employee relations” department that handles complaints and concerns, and that every “function of HR can be found in our organization.”
Another former employee, who is Black, said that when she arrived on her first day, she was not given a desk or a computer, and her boss would not speak to her. She had been hired as a freelance designer, but was expected to sew instead. When she reached out to her company recruiter for help, she was assigned to another department, and later moved to a different team again.
Lamarr Nanton remembers how the job weighed on him, to the point he called his wife crying from the office.
After 25 years of working in fashion, he views racial barriers as an industry-wide problem. Every job title that he’s missed out on along the way adds up, and makes it that much harder to advance.