17 Dec ON PRADA’S RACIST TROPES: HOW THE FASHION INDUSTRY COULD BE MORE SENSITIVE
A display of expensive figurines in the windows of Prada’s SoHo boutique in New York with dark skin and exaggerated red lips alluded to racist tropes and were especially resonant with the character from popular children’s book “The Little Black Sambo” of the early 20th century. “Sambo” figures were often used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a means of dehumanizing African-Americans. Prada designed and sold this collection of accessories as charms to be used on phone cases, key chains handbags and such. The so-called “Pradamalia” creatures — featured prominently in the window display of Prada’s Manhattan stores and consequently sparked a huge outrage for their oversight and unwitting display of modern racism.
Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights called out this anomaly, describing it as “racist and denigrating blackface imagery.” She says, “I entered the store with a coworker, only to be assaulted with more and more bewildering examples of their Sambo-like imagery,”
“When I asked a Prada employee whether they knew they had plastered blackface imagery throughout their store, in a moment of surprising candor I was told that a black employee had previously complained about blackface at Prada, but he didn’t work there anymore.” In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, Ezie uploaded several photos of these images saying, “I didn’t want to have to grieve in silence, I didn’t want to have to swallow this bitter pill of racism alone.”
Her post has sparked several serious debates online, especially on Twitter where others such as Jumaane Williams, New York Councilman, added their voices to the throng. Drawing the attention of the company, the Prada Group on Friday issued an apology, dismantled the display and announced that it would pull the offending $550 charm from display and circulation. “They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface. Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery,” the company said in a statement. By the following evening, the company had gone further, promising to form an advisory council “to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion, and culture,” and to probe deeper as to determine how such a product reached the sales floor at all.
In retrospect, it has been observed that the fashion industry’s ability to provoke and spread toxicity has no bounds when it comes to sensitive issues such as race, ethnicity, and diversity. The list of companies that have insulted whole religions, ethnic groups and races is long and incidences such as this demonstrate a limited capacity to learn from its mistakes even as companies become more global. The Prada Group in Milan had recently taken significant steps to overcome its struggles with diversity. Designer Miuccia Prada was considered one of the prime instigators of the all-white, homogeneous runways of the 1990s, but in recent times she has been recognized for changing her stance and casting models of color in her advertising as well as her catwalk presentations. Perhaps that could get people to consider the distasteful event as an uncommon error? Unfortunately not. These huge conglomerates are not just entrusted with people’s fantasies, aspirations, and dreams but an insight into the complex workings of human beings and the larger society. Globalism demands to allow more diversity into the creative process and a hyper-awareness of the market to continually promote positivity.
Ezie who has since urged people to boycott Prada gives her opinion on how the situation can be amended. “Take a step back,” she advises, “and reckon with what their company looks like and if diversity is embraced. And since this is not blackface on some college campus, but blackface at $550 [a charm] — divest the profits,” she says. “Donate the proceeds to an organization committed to racial justice.”
In a letter of apology the company sent to Ezie, her input was acknowledged: “Given your suggestion, we will donate proceeds from these products to a New York-based organization committed to fighting for racial justice, which is a value that we strongly believe in. We will learn from this and we will do better.”
Chanel, Victoria’s Secret, Viktor & Rolf, Marc Jacobs are among a host of others who have recently misappropriated product and content to the detriment of their consumers. This stint with Prada, however salvageable, shows that this is a deep-seated issue in the fashion industry. Hopefully, as more cries against these errors come up, the more people are sensitized to take a public stand against it.
Photos by PRADA, Chinyere Ezie.