The Devil may not only wear Prada but he may also work there. Many people see the fashion industry as a super glamorous place to work, especially after events like this week’s Met Ball. But when you hear the story of Rina Brovisse, a former Prada employee, you may look at it quite differently.
Bovrisse was already a vet of the fashion industry when she went to work for Prada Japan in April 2009 as Senior Retail Operations Manager (she had previously worked at Chanel And Prada USA.) The Parsons graduate oversaw 500 Prada employees at 42 stores. It seemed like a great job and was worth the relocation to Tokyo with her young son.
But that vision of great opportunity quickly fizzled when she immediately began observing blatant discrimination by the company’s HR department. She recalls Prada Japan CEO David Sesia ordering the demotion and transfer of fifteen female employees (many of them long-serving, top saleswomen) because they were “old, fat, ugly, disgusting or did not have the Prada look.” Wow. This guy could give Michael Jeffries a run for his money.
Though she knew the repercussions would be bad (though she never could have imagined how bad), Rina chose to speak out against this injustice. Immediately Rina started being criticized for her own appearance, got demoted to an entry-level sales staff position and was urged to resign.
In 2010, Rina and two of her Prada colleagues decided to take a stand. They filed a lawsuit against the luxury fashion label, arguing that Prada’s appearance-based discrimination and harassment violated Article 709 of Japanese Civil Law.
Seems like a pretty open and shut case, right? Not so much. In October 2012, Tokyo District Court Judge Reiko Morioka ruled in favor of Prada, saying their alleged discrimination was “acceptable for a luxury fashion label” and that a well-compensated female employee should be able to withstand a certain level of harassment. That’s right. Because Prada charges obscene amounts of money for their items they are also permitted to discriminate against people’s looks and if you get paid a lot (though I am sure it was less than the male colleague working at her level), what’s a little harassment here and there?
Oh but wait. It gets worse. Now Prada is countersuing the single mother in Japan for $780,000 for “damaging the Prada brand.”
Fashion is a tough industry and people do get treated terribly as we have seen recently with more than 100 prominent fashion houses are being investigated by HMRC concerning the payment of their interns, but this is really terrible.
But Bovrisse refuses to let the industry get away with this kind of inhumanity. She decided to launch a new discrimination suit in the U.S., with the help of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Her case has also been picking up steam at the UN — last week, she was in Geneva for The United Nations’ CESCR’s 50th Session.
A Change.org petition, calling on Prada to drop its countersuit, has been created on Rina’s behalf as well. The petition gathered thousands of signatures over these past two weeks. It’s already up to over 122,500 signatures and it is still climbing.
The UN and Change.org are championing Bovrisse because this is more than just taking down a giant company. This is about empowering women. Japan is way behind when it comes to gender equality. Last October the World Economic Forum’s annual report on gender gaps downgraded Japan’s rank from 99 to 101, alongside Tajikistan and Gambia in terms of political and social equality. Gender discrimination, as evident in this case, is deeply engrained into the country’s institutions.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to talk with this remarkable woman about why she has chosen to lead this very tough crusade that could be a game changer for the fashion industry and women in Japan.
Can you tell us about what you first started to see in terms of discrimination?
Two weeks after my arrival in April 2009, I witnessed the Prada Japan CEO, Prada Milan Merchandising Director and Prada Japan HR head judging female employees “work skills” based on their body shape, aging condition, hair style, etc.