In Japan, the Prada 'Look' Comes with a Side Order of Discrimination

In September 2009, Glamour magazine made waves in the fashion world with its decision to feature a full-figured model. Over the ensuing weeks, as readers enthusiastically supported the magazine and fashion mavens attacked it, Glamour promised to focus attention on normal-size women. Unfortunately, it seems that not all of the fashion world hasn't received the memo: The average model is still in the 95th percentile for height and the 10th percentile for weight, a bizarre combination that is not only uncommon, but actually dangerous.

Even worse, the trend toward discrimination over physical attributes has moved off the runways and into retailers. For example, Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) has drawn fire for its apparent discrimination against Muslims, people of color, and the handicapped. And rumors are leaking out that American Apparel (APP) CEO Dov Charney has gotten in the habit of firing employees that he considers unattractive.

Recently, a complaint filed in Japan made it clear that this trend extends well into the highest echelons of the fashion industry. Rina Bovrisse (pictured), a former senior retail manager at Prada Japan, accused the famed fashion retailer of sexual harassment and appearance-based discrimination. On Monday, Bovrisse announced that two more Prada employees are joining the lawsuit, making similar allegations.

The Prada "Look"

During her 18 years in the high-fashion business, Bovrisse worked for some of the biggest luxury fashion companies in the world. In 2009, when she accepted a position as a senior retail manager at Prada Japan, she thought she knew what to expect. She would oversee more than 500 employees, 40 Prada shops in Japan, and customer relations in Japan, Guam and Saipan. She never would have imagined that her stint at Prada would end in a legal battle that included claims of sexual harassment and discrimination of workers based on their appearance.

Bovrisse says she was in her first month of employment -- still in her probationary period -- when she began to notice the unfair treatment of Prada's older female staff. While "cute" women in their 20s met with approval from Prada's male executives, many women in their 30s were given "demotional transfers," under which they were moved to less prestigious stores. According to Bovrisse, these moves often carried significant salary cuts, and many employees were given less than two weeks -- sometimes as little as a day -- to relocate and start their new jobs. Rather than accept the transfers, some of the employees quit. Bovrisse also notes that female workers were sometimes "illegally terminated" and were often threatened with bad recommendations if they refused to sign resignation letters.

Hiroyuki Takahashi, was the senior human resources manager for Prada Japan, a key position to investigate -- or halt investigation of -- harassment cases. According to Bovrisse, he often told his associates who were in charge of hiring that "Females over 30 without husbands and children are disgusting." At the time, the average Prada employee's age was 32. Bovrisse says Takahashi and some of the other managers harassed much of the female staff, including "store managers, senior sales staff, store supervisors, retail operations assistants and others."

The complaints that she says were leveled against these employees were vague: "If the female [did not fit the Prada] type -- such as face, body shape, hair, teeth, the way they smiled -- they were demoted from management positions to the entry level, basically to push them to resign," Bovrisse says. Officially, many of the women were demoted or transferred because of poor sales or having "too many VIP customers" -- a charge that makes no sense. According to Bovrisse, "These women were top salespeople."

Bovrisse claims that human resources took photos of sales staff to ensure that they were staying slim and keeping in shape. Soon, she found that the harassment had hit close to home: "My retail operations assistant was touched, hugged from behind and asked to check into a hotel room by a general manager of merchandising department from Italy who was living in Tokyo." This incident occurred before Bovrisse started work at Prada, but it left her assistant "traumatized and scared to work around the general manager of merchandising." When she reported this to Prada Japan CEO Davide Sesia, he allegedly responded by asking "What is harassment?" Takahashi's response was even more blunt: "He said, 'Whatever. By the way, she has to change her hair style. It is so old-fashioned.'"

A Couture Career Crumbles Apart

It was when Bovrisse began protesting the transfers and demotions that she started feeling like a target. She claims that, on Sept. 30, 2009, Takahashi called her into a meeting room: "He said, 'I have to give you a warning. You need to change your hair, need to lose weight, and need to change to the Prada look. (I was dressed in Prada head-to-toe when he told me). Mr. Sesia is ashamed of your ugliness, so you won't be introduced to any Italian visitors from Milan."

In his testimony to the Tokyo District Court, Takahashi recalled the meeting: "I was advised by Mr. Sesia, the CEO, to tell her, 'I want you to change your hairstyle to match the Prada image, and Mr. Sesia is concerned that he will be in trouble because of your hairstyle when visitors comes from Italy.' I also told her 'You have to make an effort to lose weight.'" While Takahashi's testimony dovetails with Bovrisse's claims, his take on the matter is far more benign: "[Bovrisse] is a Senior Retail Operations Manager who represents all stores, so she has the responsibility to maintain Prada's brand image for all shop staff, so of course, it was not a big deal. This was just a normal level of advice, telling her to make an effort to represent the shops."

CEO Sesia's testimony also supports Bovrisse's claims although, like Takahashi, he presents his actions as an attempt to maintain Prada brand value: "I didn't want to talk too much about body shapes, but Prada's customers, Prada's brand image, the dream and the value of the company that customers know, this is what convinces our customers to make purchases. Our shop staff must maintain this image and represent the Prada dream because customers see what sales staff are wearing and they are inspired." Sesia goes on to argue that a large part of Bovrisse's job was maintaining the high standards of the Prada style in all her stores: "Ms. Bovrisse was in charge of training our staff to be aware of this, so I thought it was necessary to train her to make an effort, in order to avoid lowering shop staff morale."

After the meeting, Bovrisse's morale was at a low ebb: at 9:00 that night, she e-mailed Sebastian Suhl, Prada Group's global COO, who was based in Milan. After she detailed the criticisms that she and her fellow female employees received, Suhl responded favorably, agreeing that the abuse she described was unacceptable. "He also said that he was very happy to have me at Prada," she says. But Bovrisse's problems soon got worse. A few days later, Sesia called her into his office: "He told me my position was terminated for reporting harassment to Milan, and said that he was glad that he wasn't going to see me again. Takahashi took away my work PC and told my team that I had been fired. I went home and waited for my termination letter to arrive."

The letter never came, but Bovrisse got an e-mail from Takahashi: "He explained that I was not fired and my contract was still on, but I was in trouble because of unexcused sick days. I provided a doctor's note, but Takahashi said that it was not acceptable." Confused, Bovrisse then called in sick for a few days as she considered her options. When she returned to work "My PC, everything was gone from my desk," she says. She was told that "I wasn't fired, but I received a demotion transfer to a store sales staff position in the countryside," a position change that would cut her salary by 80%, according to her calculations.

Fashioning a Legal Defense

On December 11, 2009, Bovrisse struck back, filing a complaint case, a preliminary move required for a civil lawsuit. She asked to be reinstated as a senior retail manager and requested compensation for emotional distress. On January 19, her employers denied harassing her, but Sesia's testimony was extremely critical of her appearance: "She had her hair bleached blonde ... She is Japanese, and she has a [sic] black hair naturally ...She wore something different from Prada's brand image, she didn't care for her hairstyle...She didn't take care of her blonde hair and it was obvious, it was disgusting." Taken in concert with Takahashi's testimony about Bovrisse's weight, Sesia's statement paints a portrait of a company in which body-based harassment was common and accepted.

Bovrisse, who has naturally brown hair, found herself in the odd position of having to demonstrate that her hair was not bleached while she worked at Prada Japan. Ultimately, the Complaint Court determined that the case was "unsettled," paving the way for a civil lawsuit in an open court, where evidence will be shared with the public. Bovrisse filed her civil case on March 19, and it will commence on May 14. In the meantime, she has discovered that Takahashi has been embroiled in similar cases at Timberland Japan and Motorola.

Admittedly, talking about discrimination in the fashion industry is tricky: everyone knows it's there, but few people want to discuss it. Then again, with Glamour's recent decision to gamble on plus-size models, it appears that the standard, anorexic notion of beauty is facing increasing challenges from consumers who want a broader notion of style and more respect for the women who buy -- and usually sell -- fashion clothing. On May 14, Rina Bovrisse and Prada will find out if Japan's legal system is ready to make the leap.