Prada is scrambling following backlash over a figurine many call racist.
Part of the Pradamalia collection, the figurine in question is called Otto and is an updated version of one of Prada’s recurring motifs, the monkey. It was created in collaboration with 2x4inc (which also did Prada’s pop up at the recent Art Basel: Miami Beach). However, the reworked figure now bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the 1890s book character Little Black Sambo.
The company describes the product line as a “new family of mysterious, tiny creatures that are one part biological, one part technological” and have names like Otto, Toto and Disco.
The black and brown versions feature oversized red lips — a common characteristic of historical blackface imagery.
Prada received a tide of backlash after Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, posted the figurines next to Sambo images on Facebook and Twitter:
— Chinyere Ezie (@lawyergrrl) December 13, 2018
Ezie’s Facebook post has been shared more than 11,000 times on Facebook and has racked up more than 2,500 comments.
Following criticism, Prada pulled the figures from its store and issued a statement:
We are committed to creating products that celebrate the diverse fashion and beauty of cultures around the world. We’ve removed all Pradamalia products that were offensive from the market and are taking immediate steps to learn from this.
Full press release attached. pic.twitter.com/rKhnKjasDz
— PRADA (@Prada) December 16, 2018
In its statement, the designer said it was “committed to creating products that celebrate the diverse fashion and beauty of cultures around the world” and promised that it would “learn from this” and “do better.”
Prada then apologized in two tweets, saying it “abhor[s] all forms of racism and racist imagery”:
[1/2] #Prada Group abhors racist imagery. The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.
— PRADA (@Prada) December 14, 2018
[2/] #Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. In this interest we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation.
— PRADA (@Prada) December 14, 2018
Though the figures are now gone and Prada has apologized, many consumers are still criticizing the decision to produce “Otto.” Some say the move shows a lack of diversity in product and marketing meetings within the fashion company.
To some, the damage had already been done. The New York City Commission on Human Rights announced late on Friday it had immediately sent the company a cease and desist letter and opened a formal investigation into the incident on behalf of the city.
“In a time when reports of anti-Black discrimination and racism are increasing, it is appalling to see this kind of blatantly racists displays and merchandise from Prada,” assistant commissioner Sapna V. Raj said in an emailed statement. “Black New Yorkers face discrimination and bias every day. To see racist Jim Crow-era imagery so patently on display at an international luxury retailer’s storefront is appalling and not tolerated in our city.”
Prada’s misstep follows a line of culturally insensitive moves by fashion designers.
Dolce & Gabbana’s apology, given last month after the designer received backlash over its commercial depicting a Chinese woman struggling to eat spaghetti with chopsticks. Dolce & Gabbana canceled its fashion show in Shanghai as the crisis grew. In January, H&M was slammed for an online ad featuring a black boy wearing a sweatshirt that read, “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
The list of companies that have insulted whole religions, ethnic groups and races is long. Chanel scrawled a verse from the Koran across the bodice of a dress and appropriated Native American headdresses. Dutch label Viktor & Rolf covered white models in black body and face paint creating a look that called to mind a high-fashion minstrel show. Even American designer Marc Jacobs caused a stir when he incorporated fake dreadlocks on white models in a New York runway show.
Fashion companies aren’t just selling gadgets. They are selling personal identity, intimate fantasies and even self-esteem. They are treading in sensitive territory. And as fashion companies have become ever more international, with their products reaching wildly diverse audiences, these brands still struggle to inform themselves in a deep and considered way about the customs and sensibilities of the countries in which they are doing business. Yes, they have public relations offices around the world. And today, every company has its roster of paid micro-influencers.
But they have few safeguards to assure that they have a sophisticated understanding of their various markets. If there are employees who are informed enough to raise a red flag about possible cultural insensitivities, are those same employees empowered to do so? And if employees do speak up, will they ultimately be heard?
How would you advise Prada to mend its image and repair trust, PR Daily readers?