In 2017, the French magazine L’Officiel announced the creation of an American edition, L’Officiel USA, with a promising coverage of high fashion, art and travel through an international lens.
Over the next four years, that coverage included a series of video interviews about beauty; shipments of the men’s fashion shows in Florence, Italy; articles about a vegan restaurant in SoHo and a nationwide chain of marijuana dispensaries; and profiles of singer Chaka Khan and writer Elizabeth Wurtzel.
But this week, those articles were one of many cited in a lawsuit filed against L’Officiel USA Inc. by the city of New York, on behalf of writers, producers, photographers, illustrators and more who said they were not being paid for their work. or not paid on time. Peter Hatch, the commissioner for the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, described the case as “corporate theft by zealous creatives in New York City.”
Combining the experiences of two dozen employees, the lawsuit is the first major so-called pattern-of-practice case in New York, Mr. Hatch, brought forward under a 2017 law called the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. A provision of the law allows freelancers to pursue late payments by filing complaints with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.
When the department receives a complaint, it responds by sending a written notice to the company named in the complaint, giving it 20 days to respond with either proof that the freelancer has been paid in full or confirmation that the freelancer has not has been paid (and explanation why).
Often this is enough to make freelancers pay the money they owe, said Mr. hatch. But when the department started sending messages to L’Officiel USA in 2018, “it went quiet about us,” he said. There are 24 complaints cited in the lawsuit; All but two, the city said, the magazine did not respond to reports from the workers’ protection department.
The magazine’s top executives – the president of L’Officiel USA, the chief executive of L’Officiel Inc. in France and the chief creative officer of L’Officiel USA – did not respond to several email requests for comment on this article.
Freelancers who filed complaints against L’Officiel described feeling ghostly. Many consider late payments to be a disturbing, but quite typical, aspect of their working life. Sometimes, publicly mentioning a delinquent company can expedite payment. But that wasn’t the case here, said Natasha Stagg, a writer who said she owes $1,000 for her article on Ms. Wurtzel.
“I tweeted about the L’Officiel thing,” she said. “Instead of getting paid, I just got a bunch of DMs from people who weren’t paid either.”
It was also demoralizing, Ms Stagg said, to see the fashion magazine undergoing some sort of rebrand in 2020 — allegedly boosted by several million dollars from a US investment company — as some freelancers were already battling L’Officiel in French courts.
In recent years, the fashion industry has come under critical scrutiny for its longstanding practice of low wages for interns, entry-level workers, and contractors or freelancers. This practice often created conditions that allowed only those with wealth or a strong safety net to enter the field.
“I think the industry is so full of people who don’t work for money but for clout, or even the joy of being involved in fashion or publishing, so not getting paid isn’t the biggest problem for them,” said Ms. M. Stagg said. “They don’t want to mess up feathers or make it look like they need money because that contradicts the image they’re trying to project.”
Dean Quigley, who was working on a contract as art director for L’Officiel USA in the fall of 2019, is cited in the complaint as $15,320 in debt — money, he said, that could have provided more stability to the onset of the pandemic or helped him pay off student debt or medical expenses.
Now that he has a full-time job at a major retail chain, getting involved in the lawsuit was “less about getting compensation, which I’d love to see,” said Mr. Quigley. “But more because I don’t want these kinds of companies to operate in this way.”
The lawsuit asks that the freelancers receive double their unpaid wages, in addition to civil fines paid to New York City and the installation of a court monitor to ensure L’Officiel changes its practices.
Commissioner Hatch acknowledged that court resolutions may be slow to come, but filing the lawsuit would help “make this industry aware,” he said.
“If such a company has the resources to maintain a luxurious corporate image, it is all the more unscrupulous for them not to pay the actual creators of the content they sell.”