Miuccia Prada, A Well-Educated Woman in Fashion, Is Content with Remaining Ignorant On Race and Culture. Why?
A familiar feeling of frustration with the fashion industry settled upon me as I read Miuccia Prada’s words on race and culture in a recent WWD article. Her sentiment was crystal clear. Miuccia, a woman who has been described as a “feminist”, a “revolutionary” and even a “genius” by some, is insistent on upholding the most traditional values of exclusion in the fashion industry.
Last December, Prada produced and marketed a keychain with a striking resemblance to Blackface as part of the Pradamalia collection. Chinyere Ezie, a civil rights lawyer, immediately recognized the issue and voiced her concerns on social media. Within a day, Prada pulled the product and released an apology tragically similar to every brand that has been in a comparable position. Prada vowed to improve their diversity training, form an advisory council and donate proceeds from the product to an organization fighting for racial justice. Chinyere issued a letter of her own, requesting a meeting with Miuccia Prada and the Prada team in January 2019. I do not have confirmation on whether the meeting has occurred or has been scheduled.
Just one month after the scandal, Miuccia sat down with WWD to talk about “freedom of speech and cultural appropriation.” On these issues she said, “I increasingly think anything one does today can cause offense…how can we know all cultures? The Chinese protest, then the Sikh, then Mexicans, then Afro-Americans. But how can you know the details of each single culture so well when there can be 100 different cultures in every country?” Miuccia was being frank with the reporter, but in a few sentences she revealed an age-old truth buried deep beneath the glossy magazines, the sparkling runways and the business of fashion: the industry was never intended to include people of color and it is not as interested in including us in 2019 as we’d like to think.
Diversity is a fairly new concept for Prada. In 2013, they cast a black model (Malaika Firth) in a print campaign for the first time in 19 years. As for their runway shows, twenty years passed after Naomi Campbell first opened a Prada runway show in 1997 before another Black model (Anok Yai) would again open a show. In 2018, Fondazione Prada launched “The Black Image Corporation”, an exhibition conceived by Theaster Gates to celebrate Black culture through vintage photographs. Prada has even worked with young black creatives like Kimberly Rose Drew and Tyler Mitchell. But in one fell swoop, Miuccia walked Prada back two decades.
Miuccia further stated, “people want respect because now there is talk of cultural appropriation, but this is the foundation of fashion, as it has always been the basis of art, of everything…Surely, I feel like not saying anything, not doing anything, so I don’t have any problem. Because then the famous web hate is massive…one would have to set up ‘secret societies’ — otherwise there is no progressive thinking. If you are not free to say things that may also not be correct and you have to be careful every time you open your mouth, how can you talk with freedom of thought? This really is a turning point. The world is bigger and I understand this and I also understand that people finally have a voice and speak up.”
To say the least, Miuccia’s views are problematic. It is even more concerning that the fashion industry has been practically silent about her statements, with the exception of a few publications. Her views are just as destructive as Dolce and Gabbana’s actions towards Chinese people, but no one seems to care. She completely dismisses the oppression that people of color have faced in the fashion industry, through cultural appropriation, exclusion and other racist acts. Anyone who is truly invested in making this industry a more diverse and inclusive space would immediately seek to undo and unlearn its traditions, not consider “setting up secret societies.” Just because things have always been a certain way doesn’t make them right. Miuccia is a former activist, surely she understands the concept of resistance even if she has only ever applied it to the plight of white women. What she calls “offense” is what I call “activism,” people demanding a fair and equitable industry.
I also challenge Miuccia’s point on the difficulty of knowing the details of every culture in the world. It is lazy-thinking and falsely suggests that the only way to avoid damaging and oppressive representations of people of color in fashion would be to know the details of all cultures. It also excuses Prada from reckoning with how it’s entire global team missed the likeness of the Pradamalia keychain to Blackface, one of the the most popular markers of racism, even in Europe.
Despite the strides we have made, it is still a reality that the “institution of fashion” was created by white people who in no way envisioned the inclusion of the Black diaspora. Black creatives have existed since the dawn of time but there remains little to no opportunities for entry. In this day and age, we ought to reimagine and build an industry that celebrates the uniqueness of every person and truly strives for inclusivity divorced from tokenism. Miuccia’s clothes are beautiful and she has left an indelible mark on the fashion industry, but neither she or I are beyond reproach or the principles of equality. We cannot continue to claim that fashion appreciates creativity and individuality while holding up its institutional barriers.