After pulling her team together to spruce up Wet Seal's King of Prussia store for a visit from corporate, manager Nicole Cogdell walked up to the chain's executive vice president, intending to welcome her.
Instead, Cogdell said, she overheard the executive vice president telling a district manager that Cogdell, an African American, "wasn't the right fit for the store," Cogdell said, quoting the executive, Barbara Bachman. "She wanted someone with blond hair and blue eyes."
Cogdell is among three African American women from Delaware County who have filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against teen-apparel company Wet Seal Inc. Cogdell was fired March 3, 2009, a few days after the visit to her store.
Wet Seal, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., denies the allegations and says it will mount a vigorous defense.
The suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in California, seeks class-action status. Wet Seal has 470 namesake stores and 83 Arden B. shops across the country with 7,000 full-time and 2,000 part-time employees.
Cogdell, Kai Hawkins and Myriam Saint-Hilaire all are African Americans living in Delaware County. Hawkins worked at several Wet Seal stores, including at the Gallery mall in Center City and as a manager in the Cherry Hill Mall. Saint-Hilaire was an assistant manager at the King of Prussia store.
All three seek to be rehired with lost pay, along with benefits and damages. They say the chain set out to fire African American employees because they did not fit the retailer's "brand image."
The complaint mentions e-mails and testimony from former managers that allegedly show high-level Wet Seal executives instructing managers to fire African American employees and "diversify" by hiring and promoting white employees "who fit the Wet Seal brand image."
Cogdell said she was told by her district manager that she was being fired because she is African American.
In an e-mail Bachman listed a number of marketing and visual appeal issues but also mentioned: "Store Teams — need diversification African American dominate — huge issue."
In a statement, Wet Seal touted the diversity of the company's work force. "Wet Seal is an equal-opportunity employer with a very diverse workforce and customer base," the company said.