Prada just reached a settlement after its 2018 blackface controversy that'll mandate 'racial equity training' for employees - including the C-suite in Milan. But for some, that's not enough.

Prada runway
  • Three black entrepreneurs and professionals with ties to the fashion industry spoke to Business Insider about Prada's settlement with the New York City Commission on Human Rights
  • As part of the settlement, the commission instructed Prada to work toward diversifying its workforce, in addition to mandating that Prada's Milan-based executives and New York-based employees undergo sensitive and "racial equity" training, The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman reported.
  • Stylist and fashion editor Mecca James-Williams told Business Insider that the black community still "need[s] these acts of non-discrimination" in order to ensure they're treated fairly in work environments.
  • In addition, entrepreneur, social activist, and Uber Head of Strategy & Leadership Meena Harris said that brands need to prioritize being more inclusive and culturally aware.
  • Meanwhile, former Vogue Digital Marketing & Sales Planner Shelby Ivey Christie questioned whether Prada will diversify its executive branch, or if they will only diversify lower-to-mid-level positions.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In January 2019, civil rights lawyer Chinyere Ezie filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights regarding Prada's Pradamalia figurines, which she said resembled the racist blackface caricature Little Black Sambo. On February 4, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times reported that Prada had reached a settlement.

The commission agreed with Ezie, and as part of the settlement, Prada will appoint a diversity and inclusion officer at a director level, while all New York-based employees will have to undergo sensitivity and "racial equity" training, according to Friedman at the Times. Prada's Milan-based executives will also undergo training, since the commission determined that decisions made at Prada headquarters in Italy have repercussions in the United States. 

The brand also established a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, which, per the terms of the agreement, is required to last for at least six years. The council is co-chaired by Ava DuVernay, and its creation was announced in February 2019, shortly after the Pradamalia controversy arose.

This settlement has made waves in the industry and is one of the first major examples of a government intervening in fashion - luxury houses, at least, are typically left to police themselves. Importantly, this settlement has the ability to set a precedent in terms of what might happen to other luxe brands that find themselves embroiled in race-based controversies.

Speaking with Business Insider, three black professionals, entrepreneurs, and fashion gurus gave their thoughts on the Prada settlement and discussed what changes they hope it brings to the luxury sector at large - and why government oversight is still sorely needed in corporate spaces. 

"It's gotten to a point where it has to be [this] way"

Shelby Ivey Christie, former digital marketing and sales planner at Vogue, has worked in corporate fashion for most of her professional life. She told Business Insider that it was "unfortunate" that the government had to step in and tell Prada to diversify their workforce, but that "it has to be that way." 

"That itself speaks to a gaping hole in the industry - that a government agency had to step in and say 'Hey, you need to address this and we have to impose rules and regulations for you to address this,'" she said. "Do I think it should be that way? No. But my goodness, it's gotten to a point where it has to be that way."

Miuccia Prada Runway

Ultimately, Christie hopes that people of color benefit from the Prada settlement - but she is wary of not only what type of working environment these new hires will be heading into, but what positions they will actually hold.

She fears that the new hires will simply be viewed as "diversity hires" brought on to appease a settlement, and that they will be placed and stagnated in lower-to-mid-level ranks in the company, rather than in leadership positions where their voices can have equity.  

"Are they going into an environment like affirmative action, where everyone's treating them like [they're] only here because this agency came in and told us you have to be here?" she said. "[And] what is the level of diversity? Is it going to be entry-level and mid-level, or is it really going to be bringing someone in who will have decision-making [abilities]?"

Prada

Christie also noted that settlements shouldn't be the reason people hire diversity in the first place and that bringing in a chief diversity officer - or, in Prada's case, a diversity and inclusion officer - shouldn't just be implemented as a strategy to "mitigate bad press." 

"The culture inside of the company is going to have to be addressed so that [new talent are] going into a workplace where they're really being received and treated as valued members of the team," she said. "Can fashion begin to hire black talent and POC talent proactively instead of as a reaction to some kind of crisis?"

"Racial equity training is not enough"

Meena Harris - who is Uber's head of strategy and leadership, in addition to being a social activist and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, a non-profit that sells merch to support causes for women of color - pointed out that brands such as Prada and Gucci have been warned before about selling racially insensitive products. In 2019, Gucci was embroiled in a similar controversy and eventually pulled a sweater that many said resembled "blackface."

Gucci Blackface

Harris said that continuous missteps with fashion brands show that the industry is not "prioritizing" being culturally aware, and that it was "unfortunate" Prada needed government intervention in order to become more diverse and inclusive. 

"I think about the fact that if we did not have these things like the Human Rights commission -  and [a commission] that is active enough and has enough power to [implement changes] - then what would happen?" Harris said. "Racial equity training is not enough ... it's about making sure that you are bringing in a multitude of perspectives - and diverse perspectives - to inform the work that you do."

gucci

Harris echoed Christie's thoughts that brands need to make more of a commitment toward enacting change, and added that a lack of cultural awareness is no longer acceptable. 

"Adding more black models is not enough," Harris said. "And once these folks are actually at the table, they can't just be table dressing. They need to have decision-making authority. There must be a culture of inclusivity where they feel comfortable to speak up, to voice concerns, and perhaps even rock the boat when necessary."

"We need these acts of non-discrimination"

Mecca James-Williams, a stylist and style editor at The Zoe Report, said that companies need to take responsibility for the choices they make and that settlements and laws like these let them know that certain types of behavior are no longer acceptable. 

"You're setting a standard and you're starting a conversation," she said. "I do think outside of laws, there has to be an ethics committee, a culture committee that really can educate different [people], because we all come from different walks of life. We all have different cultural boundaries that other cultures don't understand. So I think there has to be ethics involved with the law."

James-Williams also addressed concerns, such as those voiced in Friedman's New York Times report, that governments shouldn't have the ability to impede upon "freedom of expression" in the fashion industry. James-James-Williams acknowledged that allowing governments to say what is and what isn't a proper manner of expression can be a "double-edged sword" for an industry that prides itself on creative expression.

Sometimes, however, that's necessary. 

"[Black people] need these acts of non-discrimination," she said. "We need them or we'll be stifled completely."

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