New York City Government Is Getting Involved With The Fashion Industry’s Race Problem

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It’s no secret that the fashion industry — despite some attempts at progress — is still often quite insensitive about race. While brands like Gucci, Dior, and Prada have apologized for recent offenses on social media and declared their intentions to prioritize diversity, the New York City Commission on Human Rights has now officially stepped in to address recent racist incidents, according to a new report by Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times.

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Back in 2018, Prada put Pradamalia figurines — monkeys that looked like blackface — on display in its downtown New York store. At the time, Chinyere Ezie, a civil rights lawyer, posted a picture on Twitter of the figures, writing on Facebook, “I don’t make a lot of public posts, but right now I’m shaking with anger.” Following that, the commission sent Prada a cease and desist letter, while Ezie filed a formal complaint with the commission in January 2019. Ezie reportedly started having “positive” conversations with the brand that month, and by February, Prada had announced its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, chaired by the director Ava DuVernay and the artist Theaster Gates. Ezie also met with the company’s chairman Carlo Mazzi, who, she said, “Confirmed something I had suspected: There were no black employees working at Prada headquarters at all” during the time of the Pradamalia incident.

According to The New York Times, the commission which oversees human rights laws in regards to housing, retail establishments, has officially reached a settlement with Prada, signing a deal on February 4, 2020. “Prada denied any discrimination but has committed to internal re-education, engaging in financial and employment outreach with minority communities, and submitting to external monitoring of its progress for the next two years,” The Times reported. 

With the new commission agreement, The Times reports that Prada will hold sensitivity training, including “racial equity training,” for all New York employees and executives in Milan. And this includes Miuccia Prada. Following the training, the outlet says the general counsel of Prada will report back to the commission on the employee’s compliance. Under the agreement, the luxury fashion brand will hire a diversity and inclusion officer, and candidates will need to be approved by the commission. Responsibilities will include “reviewing Prada’s designs before they are sold, advertised or promoted in any way in the United States.” Moreover, the brand’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council will be required to continue for at least six years. Nearly every six months for the next two years, Prada will report the company’s progress to the commission. 

The Times pointed out that many of these conditions reflect commitments Gucci has already announced, including the creation of scholarships and guarantees to diversify its design and executive team, while also reporting that Gucci declined to comment on the status of its discussions with the commission, though it did not deny the conversations were taking place.

“I don’t know that we realized previously so many major fashion houses had this ignorance of the history of racism in this country,” Sapna V. Raj, the deputy commissioner of the law enforcement bureau of the commission, who has been overseeing the negotiations with the fashion companies, told The Times. “We hope companies realize they need to be very careful about how they market and advertise — that they need to have a larger social and cultural consciousness.”

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It is reportedly uncharted territory for the commission to focus its efforts on the fashion industry’s products and imagery, marking the dawn of a new era of corporate accountability. “This sounds to me like the law being stretched in a new direction that is based on a more expansive and scientifically accurate — according to social science research — interpretation of how racism operates in current society,” Ellen Berrey, an associate professor in the sociology department at the University of Toronto, and the co-author of “Rights on Trial: How Workplace Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality” expressed to the Times. “It indicates an understanding that one of the most powerful mediums for communicating racism is through cultural imagery.”

While these efforts are long overdue, with Prada being a major fashion leader it’s only a matter of time before more companies follow suit. 

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