Formal Complaint

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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.

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Michael Kiefer