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After a Huge Racial Gaffe, Prada Launches Diversity Council

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
New Activism
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New York Fashion Week is supposed to be a celebration of the industry’s latest designs, innovation and for some fashion houses, even social responsibility and sustainability. But for Prada, this week has largely been about mending fences after social media fiasco that has been plaguing the 106-year-old Milan-based luxury brand for two months.

After a misstep over a $550 figurine that has led critics to cast Prada as racist, or at least clueless, Prada announced that it will launch a “Diversity and Inclusion” advisory council that seeks to “elevate the voices of color” both in-house and across the wider fashion sector. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay and sculptor Theaster Gates will reportedly co-chair this board.

It’s a step forward for a brand and industry that has long been dismissed as “too white.” As Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran noted last summer, “The fashion community has shown, over and over again, that it is willing to fight for social justice and progressive causes. So it’s worth asking why it hasn’t done more to grapple with the racial injustice within its own ranks.”

And earlier this decade, Melissa Hugel of Mic noted what she viewed as the lack of diversity and racial sensitivity evident in the fashion press as well, describing Vogue and other publications as having “a disturbing history of ignoring racial diversity and even notoriously featured white models in black face earlier [that] year.”

It’s one thing to trot out lily-white fashion models year after year, on the runway or magazine covers, while giving an occasional wink and a nod to the greater cause of diversity. But Prada has found itself mired in a social media frenzy and calls for a boycott after an attorney, among others, posted images of monkey-themed keychains and trinkets that critics said evoked racist imagery. “I want to know who was in the room at Prada when they decided to launch little monkey keychains with black faces and red lips,” wrote Segran during the ongoing December outcry.

The controversy reached a point where New York City’s human rights commission started an investigation over the figurines in question.

Prada is hardly the only fashion brand to find itself in such crosshairs. Some of Katy Perry’s shoes have been pulled from store shelves after many questioned the sensitivity of having big red lips on black shoes. While we’re on the subject of lips, Gucci found itself addressing controversy over an $890 sweater that bore a resemblance to blackface. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Dolce & Gabbana had to do more than wipe egg (and pasta) off its face after videos showing an Asian model struggling to eat a massive pizza, cannoli and bowl of spaghetti with chopsticks were derided as racist - with a heaping side of scorn. Fast fashion brands have had some explaining to do as well, such as H&M’s ill-fated campaign last year that showed a young South African child in a hoodie emblazoned with the caption “coolest monkey in the jungle.”

Details of what Prada’s diversity council hopes to accomplish are still unclear as of press time – the announcement has yet to be posted on the company’s media relations site. Bloomberg has noted that this advisory board seeks to train staff on diversity-related issues and will create internship programs in various communities.

The lesson here for brands (and politicians), within and beyond the fashion industry, is simple. If everyone in the conference room and Slack channels who vet products look, talk and think the same, that’s a clue that what may seem like a great idea in the design room or exclusive fashion show may not necessarily resonate with the wider public.

Image credit: Lorenzo Click/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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