Formal Complaint

In the rarefied world of women's high fashion, the little black dress can cost as much as $1,000, and an evening gown can run as high as $12,000.

The difference between a $12,000 and a $1,000 gown is rather like the difference between a Lexus LS400 and a Nissan Sentra. They look much the same in size and shape on the showroom floor. But when you slip into the Lexus--or the gown--they are suddenly worlds apart in the way they brake or break, cling to the curves, or make the heart accelerate.

Perhaps 1 percent of the female population can appreciate, much less afford, the luxury of the gown.

"It's like art," says Dick Kovacic. "It's very enjoyable to deal with because there's constant change, a different way things are supposed to look every season."

If you are a woman of a certain age and a certain income, you already know Dick, at least by his first name. Dick is arguably the preeminent salesman of haute couture in Phoenix, an expert in Armani clothing--not the off-the-rack Armanis purchased by mere mortals, mind you, but the black-label garments hand-fashioned in Italy by a select cadre of Armani associates. There are perhaps 20 stores in the nation that carry the line, and some choice garments may not be available at more than three of them.

Inadvertently, Dick Kovacic also has become a national symbol--not one he wanted to become. Nearly four years ago, a Phoenix dress shop called Lillie Rubin told Dick that because he is a man, he wasn't qualified to sell designer women's wear.

Lillie Rubin clearly didn't know Dick.
He was so incensed that he filed a sex-discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which eventually took his side.

Dick assumed the complaint was a private matter among him and EEOC and the dress shop. Little did he know that he was being derided on the U.S. Senate floor and lampooned in the national press, portrayed as panting and lecherous, just for defending his right to practice his profession. Not a word leaked back to Phoenix.

Dick Kovacic is 38, not quite handsome, but tall and willowy and wan in an elegant manner that recalls David Bowie. He pronounces his words precisely, as if speaking in italics. He sighs like a character in a Noel Coward play, a knowing frown spreading over his face. And he is always perfectly dressed in an Armani suit of course that drapes his mannequinlike frame just as Giorgio Armani himself might have intended.

Out of respect for his current employer, Dick has asked New Times not to mention the name of the store where he now works.

Nor will he even hint at what he is worth to them. That is proprietary information that Dick, as the consummate professional, would not dream of revealing. But others in the industry say that a good high-fashion salesperson can generate a half a million dollars or more in sales.

"If they're very good, some salespeople may do $700,000 to $800,000 a year," says Gustavo Tabares, who owns and operates the Gustavo boutique in the Esplanade.

And Dick, by all accounts, is very good. A friend who worked with him at I. Magnin, where he represented the Armani line until that store closed (waiting loyally until the doors were locked before taking his next job), claims that he was always among that store's top ten producers.

Dick especially will not reveal anything about his customers.
"The service is one on one," he says. "It's very personal and it's all clientele. You must keep that clientele to become a good salesperson."

What Dick Kovacic does can more accurately be described as consulting. He knows how many pieces of fabric compose each garment, how many swatches the designer fingered and eyeballed before finding the perfect fabric. He knows who is wearing what to the next social event--and will likely be attending himself. He knows what will look good on whom and will call her when it turns up in inventory. He knows how to accentuate that flattering body part while downplaying those parts a client would rather forget.

"If I sell something that doesn't look good, most women's husbands will tell them," says Dick. "Their friends will certainly tell them, or they'll hear it behind their backs that it does not look good. Guess whose fault that is? Even if they really liked it when they left, it's still my fault."

Last year, Dick Kovacic, the model gentleman, the duke of discretion, became the unwitting symbol of indiscretion and ungentlemanly behavior and the personification of that evil of the '90s: federal overregulation of business.

In August 1992, Kovacic applied for a job as manager of the Lillie Rubin store at the upscale Biltmore Fashion Square on Camelback Road in Phoenix. Lillie Rubin is a national chain of pricey dress shops headquartered in Florida. Its director of stores, one Mary L'Estrange, allegedly told Kovacic that he was unqualified for the job because he was a man, and Lillie Rubin only hired women.

Dick was nonplussed. He had been selling women's clothing for more than ten years already and felt that as a man, it was well within his abilities. And so, as a matter of principle, he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that he had been discriminated against because of his sex, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The complaint vanished into the federal bureaucracy, reemerging in April 1994, when EEOC took sides with Dick Kovacic.

Lillie Rubin's official logic had to do with the fitting rooms in its stores. Because of its ritzy clientele and high-end merchandise, the management reasoned, the salespeople were required to bring garments into the fitting rooms for the customers. Unlike the mirrored cubicles one might find in a Gap store, these were roomy spaces with chairs and couches, rooms big enough for a salesperson and a tailor and a lot of extra space just to be luxurious and feminine. To have a man in the store, especially near the fitting rooms, would be a breach of the customer's privacy.

EEOC questioned that reasoning, and said in its determination: "The evidence, however, shows that males hold similar positions and perform similar duties for other employers without impairing the normal operations of the business and that privacy rights can be protected by means other than the total exclusion of males."

From that determination, it was up to EEOC to try to come to some sort of reconciliation between Kovacic and Lillie Rubin before the issue went to court.

Instead it went to press. It took a year, but reports of Lillie Rubin's plight turned up in the Wall Street Journal as a simple news story. Then it grew.

Senator Lauch Faircloth, a Republican from North Carolina, delivered an impassioned speech to the U.S. Senate titled "A Straitjacket for Lillie Rubin."

"The dressing room of a fine women's clothing store may seem like an odd place for the EEOC to intrude in a way that perfectly illustrates regulatory excess, but that is exactly where we find ourselves today . . . ," he said. "In opposition to its own regulations and its own previous decisions, the EEOC has ruled that a Lillie Rubin store in Phoenix must employ male salespeople, and it is demanding that they be allowed to work in the store's fitting rooms where female customers try on clothes. I know this does not sound like an EEOC case so much as an I Love Lucy rerun, but it is true."

The senator from North Carolina then segued into a rant against the kudzulike encroachment of government regulation on decent businessmen--and women.

The Tampa Tribune picked up the story, as did the Miami Herald and other newspapers. Many of the articles lumped Kovacic's case in with the recent determination that Hooters restaurants had discriminated by not hiring men as barmaids.

None of those big newspapers, incidentally, thought to contact Dick Kovacic about the matter, violating one of the most basic principles of journalistic fairness: The facts just might have gotten in the way of a good story.

"I was not aware that it was mentioned anyplace," Dick says. "I actually thought at this point no one really knew it was going on."

In January of this year, EEOC gave up talking to Lillie Rubin. The agency, like many other federal entities, has no real enforcement capacity, and since it decided not to file suit against Lillie Rubin itself, it issued a Notice of Right to Sue that would allow Kovacic to do so.

Lillie Rubin's lawyers went into spin-control mode.
In February, the Chicago Tribune's syndicated columnist Mike Royko wrote a scathing story about the EEOC decision.

"When you are shopping for a garment and go into the fitting room, would it bother you to have a male salesperson accompany you and be there when you strip down to your undies?" he rhetorically asked female readers.

"No, I am not getting kinky," he continued. "This is a legitimate inquiry. So I will go on.

"Would you be at all embarrassed if this male salesperson helped you on and off with garments? Zipping you up and that sort of thing?

"If your answer is that you don't want some guy looking on when you are down to your bra and panties, I regret to inform you that you are wrong.

"The correct answer should be that you have no objection to his being there.
"At least that seems to be the opinion of an agency of the federal government."

Royko had not talked to Kovacic, either. But he had talked to Lillie Rubin's attorney in Washington, D.C., one Rodney Glover.

Glover told Royko, "Lillie Rubin must put this guy in the store, and they must put him in the dressing room.

"If not, they told us they will file a class-action lawsuit. And any male in the United States who was unemployed at the time and could have applied for the job could be party to the suit.

"They said they would sue us for millions of dollars."
Glover refused to answer phone calls from New Times, perhaps because much of what he told Royko was not true. EEOC had decided not to sue, and instead gave that prerogative to Kovacic.

But that may be a moot point. Lillie Rubin filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 in February.

Dick Kovacic only learned of his national notoriety a few weeks ago when New Times called him up. He was shocked that he had been depicted as a politically correct peeper.

And it was never about dressing rooms anyway.
Men have worked in high fashion for generations--and the higher the fashion, the more men there are to be found.

"If you go to any large department store that carries high-end or top-end clothes, there will always be a man, always," says Dick. "Go to New York. I'm amazed when a woman calls from New York looking for a piece of Armani because most of the salespeople there are men."

Most fashion designers are men; they spend their lives in women's fitting rooms without being considered improper. As one of Dick Kovacic's contemporaries says, "Is Karl Lagerfeld in it to leer and peep at women?"

However, there is some difference of opinion as to how women perceive men in the boutiques.

Ollie McNamara owns the elegant Capriccio boutique at the Borgata in Scottsdale. Dick once worked for her.

"Inevitably you get into a fitting room," she says. "You have to undress women and you have to dress women; it's the name of the game here. You never know what they're wearing underneath. We have people who have complained bitterly because of that, so we have managed to see that those people are not taken care of by the men."

On the other hand, Gustavo Tabares, who once also worked for Capriccio (and whose charming accent suggests the caterer played by Martin Short in the remake of Father of the Bride) says, "I think it's the opposite. I think that women prefer to have a man help them, and I think the reason for that is that basically women dress for men."

Lillie Rubin's contention was that it offers a very special kind of service, and to bring a man into that scenario would be an invasion of privacy.

"There's a privacy issue with every customer and every salesperson," says Dick. "It doesn't matter if the salesperson is a man or a woman.

"I will not do anything a customer is not comfortable with, and I'm only in the fitting room if the customer is dressed to the point where she feels comfortable.

"The dressing-room door is closed and the customer is the one who opens it up. I don't see the problem with that. I mean, the whole idea of selling is not seeing someone in their underwear. I'm not a bra fitter. It's my expertise as a salesperson, my knowledge of the way things look on people and my honesty. I have many people who have been coming back to me for years because of my honesty."

The salesperson who breaches trust does not keep his or her clientele. A peeper would not last long in the business. And so the person more likely to be embarrassed in the fitting room is the salesperson.

"I've never been put in a position where I feel uncomfortable," Dick continues. "It's happened with other people's clients. I've seen people walk out on the floor wearing practically nothing in the middle of a very busy department store, to the point where half the salespeople turned around. And they were all women, because it isn't something women want to see, either."

One of Dick's close friends, on hearing from Dick that he had been depicted coast to coast as the sort of lecher just waiting for such scenes to unfold, quipped, "They certainly haven't met you."

That is, she managed to choke those words out after she had finally finished laughing.

Dick Kovacic grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a Lake Michigan beachside burg known more for bratwurst than boutiques. He studied chemistry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee until the middle of his senior year when, for reasons left unsaid, he decided to flee to the Southwest with his longtime girlfriend Wanda.

Like many Midwesterners who don't want to be Midwesterners, he had somehow managed to unlearn the grating flat vowels, hissing s's and engine-racing r's of a Wisss-kaanssan accent, exchanging it for a vaguely mid-Atlantic pronunciation.

Dick's friends and his customers--which are often one and the same--describe him as warm and humorous, though on first, second and third meeting, he seems dauntingly formal. He is very private and became incensed when New Times began to ask his friends about his charmingly quirky character.

One of those friends described him as a man who brings the same lunch, sits in the same spot while eating it, day after day, and then refolds the foil that wrapped his peanut-butter sandwich in the same way before heading back to work.

He doesn't believe in religious holidays except as one more day off, that friend continues, and yet he is going to school at night to get a degree in religious studies, just out of anthropological curiosity.

When Dick first came to Phoenix in 1980, he worked for a record-pressing factory and a consumer-research firm before settling into retail.

"I needed a job very quickly," he offers as explanation.
He was hired for a part-time job at Broadway Southwest in Biltmore Fashion Square, but after his first day at work, he was offered a full-time position. Within three months, he was assistant manager of the luggage department, then shortly after promoted to manager of women's accessories.

He fell in love with women's clothing, in part because women are such enthusiastic and social shoppers, in part for the merchandise itself.

"It changes. It's always new," he gushes. "Men's clothing is always the same: Suits are always the same, tee shirts are always the same, shorts. Boring!"

Before the next year ended, he had been promoted to assistant buyer, a year and a half later to assistant store manager. But then he longed to return to women's clothing.

He moved into a very elegant and expensive women's boutique called Femina, then was hired away by another called Capriccio. But he found that managing a small shop was like an overbearing marriage and he wanted the free time that he had while working for a department store.

Dick easily landed a position managing designer sportswear at Bullock's, which he kept until the economy forced Bullock's to close that department. Rather than move out of women's designer clothing and into another area, Dick decided to move on.

And, so in 1992, ten years into his retail career, Dick Kovacic applied for a manager's job at Lillie Rubin. It was a step down in the quality of merchandise as far as he was concerned.

"The merchandise is not top-designer," he says. "I've sold all that merchandise and managed areas that carried that merchandise, so I have sold on their level."

The store's management might have found some excuse not to hire him, but instead chose to say that because its salespeople spent a lot of time bringing clothing into the fitting rooms for its pampered customers and because Dick is a man, he would just not work out at all.

"I was very upset after being told that I can't work in women's areas," he says. After all, he had spent ten years doing so already.

He marched down to the Phoenix office of EEOC and filed a five-line complaint.

"I was not hired for the Manager position on August 17, 1992," it began.
"Ms. Mary L'Estrange, Director of Stores, said it was not their policy to hire males for this position.

"I believe I have been discriminated against because of my sex, male, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended."

He then went about his business. Within months, Dick had a new job in the Armani boutique at I. Magnin.

"I did not come in saying 'I want to work in such and such an area,'" he relates. "They looked at my experience and said, 'He'd be great for Armani.' They just put me in the position."

When I. Magnin closed in 1994, Dick Kovacic already had been recruited for his current job.

The EEOC complaint, meanwhile, was percolating through the federal bureaucracy.

Even though it is against federal law to discriminate on the basis of race, sex or religion, you must go through EEOC before you can sue anyone for such civil-rights violations. EEOC can then try to negotiate with the employer on behalf of the offended party, it can file a class-action suit or, as in Dick Kovacic's case, can issue a notification of right to sue.

It is not unlawful to discriminate, as the law says, "in those instances where religion, sex or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification."

One supposes, for example, that it would be hard to be a rabbi if one were not of the Jewish faith. But figuring exactly which jobs require being female as a bona fide occupational qualification is a bit more difficult.

Women sportswriters, after all, have bullied their way into men's locker rooms despite any claims athletes have to privacy. (We have personally seen female sportswriters in the act of interviewing athletes with exposed private parts.) No one would question the credentials of a male gynecologist, who has far more access to women's privacy than any man handing a gown through a dressing-room door.

In some rolling-eyes media accounts, Dick Kovacic's case has been likened to the EEOC decision that the Hooters chain had no legal right to ban male employees from its restaurants.

"They both have to do with what is a bona fide occupation qualification," says Ellen Vargyas, legal counsel for EEOC in Washington, D.C. "It has been reported that Lillie Rubin refuses to hire men for a wide variety of positions and Hooters refuses to hire men for a wide variety of positions as well. The questions both go to Title VII. Sex discrimination is prohibited and the only defense of sex discrimination is where sex is a bona fide occupational qualification."

But the Hooters and Lillie Rubin cases differ greatly in the professional qualifications the jobs require. The Hooters case seems frivolous, in part because it forces the restaurant chain to admit that the only reason it needs to hire women is for their bust lines. And it's a ridiculous premise that a man would even want equal status in a bar whose whole reason for existing is so that other men can stare at busty waitresses in tight shirts. But there is no justifiable legal reason men should be excluded from such a job.

Dick Kovacic, on the other hand, just wanted to continue working in his chosen field, a field that required a certain amount of professional expertise. To focus on dressing rooms is to reduce his experience to that of a washroom attendant.

Nevertheless, EEOC at first planned to rule against Dick.
"They just listened to Lillie Rubin and said, 'No, it's a privacy thing; men just can't do this,'" he says indignantly. "I went back and said, 'Excuse me, I am doing this everyday.' They went, 'Oh!' They had never even checked into it. They checked into it and said, 'You're right! They are doing something wrong.'"

Meanwhile, Kovacic has not yet decided if he wants to sue at all, but he is looking for lawyers willing to take the case on contingency. But with Lillie Rubin filing for bankruptcy, he is not optimistic.

He doesn't expect to reap great financial rewards from litigation.
"I wouldn't care, if the policy changed," he says.
When New Times suggested that he be photographed in front of the Biltmore Lillie Rubin store, he refused.

"That would be a cheap shot," he says.
At Gustavo in the Esplanade, salesperson Marcie Pound is expounding on the reputation of her competitor, Dick Kovacic.

"People don't really know him by his last name," she says, "but they know who Dick is. He's a legend in this town."

And then almost as if on cue, a well-coiffed woman in the process of plunking down a sum equal to the Gross National Product of Burma for a few dainty little things, turns and says, "Dick who? Oh, you mean Dick.

"I just met him about three weeks ago. My close friend, who's also his close friend, suggested I meet him. I wasn't buying that day, but I went up just to introduce myself for the future."

Why any business would turn away a salesperson with that kind of drawing power is a mystery.

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Michael Kiefer