The fashion company Prada has agreed to remove a controversial product line amid mounting backlash against "racist and denigrating blackface imagery" seen in a Soho storefront display.
The "Pradamalia" merchandise—which included wallets, earring sets and $500 keychains—elicited online outrage on Thursday following a Facebook post by Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ezie wrote that she encountered the "bewildering examples of their Sambo like imagery" after an emotional visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and that she was "shaking with anger." [UPDATE: More from Ezie below]
Photos of the display drew widespread condemnation on Twitter for the apparent resemblance to anti-black caricatures. "This is extremely racist and dehumanizing imagery that needs to stay in history books... to learn from, and NOT repeat," wrote one user. "Is this move ignorant, or deliberate?"
When Gothamist reporter Jennifer Hsu arrived at the Broadway and Prince Street location at around 10 a.m., she witnessed an employee lowering the blinds on the offending display. Moments later, the items were removed from the window and brought to the back of the store.
Reached by phone, an employee at Prada's New York corporate headquarters told Gothamist to "do some research" in response to questions about the display. The company later provided us with the following statement: “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. We abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. We will withdraw all of the characters in question from display and circulation”.
Ezie noted on Facebook that she'd asked a Prada employee about the blackface imagery, and "in a moment of surprising candor I was told that a black employee had previously complained about blackface at Prada, but he didn't work there anymore."
The display is the latest in a series of high-profile instances of alleged racism in the fashion industry. The co-founder of Dolce & Gabbana, which has repeatedly drawn criticism for its marketing campaigns, was caught last month sending damning messages on Instagram referring to Chinese people as "dirty" and accusing them of "eating dogs." Zara has been accused of using Nazi imagery in their products, while Dior recently came under fire for using Jennifer Lawrence in ad celebrating Mexican heritage.
In a description of Pradamalia on their website, the company says that the product line was created after "a team of researchers set out to study Prada DNA that has proven to be so extraordinarily generative for over a century. The result of these experiments is Pradamalia, a new family of mysterious tiny creatures that are one part biological, one part technological, all parts Prada."
Last month, Prada announced it would present its Resort 2020 show in New York City in March.
UPDATE / 4:00 p.m.: In a phone interview with Gothamist, Chinyere Ezie said that she was calling for a full boycott of Prada "until there is a meaningful reckoning for its disgusting dance with racist imagery." While the company claimed earlier today to be removing the products from circulation, she pointed that they continue to list the "Sambo" items on their website.
"Even in a world where Prada just didn't know what they were doing, that is an indictment of the lack of racial diversity there," Ezie added. "The fact that this was green-lit at headquarters tells me, indisputably, there are no black faces, no one who looks like me, in the company's decision making tree."
The civil rights attorney also elaborated on her interaction with Prada employees on Thursday night: "Perhaps the most shocking part of all of it was when I went into the store and said, 'Don't you have any black employees? Don't you know this is blackface?' and they said, 'Why yes, our black employee told us this was black face. He doesn't work here anymore.' So it's not like they didn't have people trying to bring this to their attention—they just didn't have the power to make the company move."
She added that representatives from Prada had not reached out to her directly, and she was not accepting their "non-apology apology" statement. "This company is completely tone deaf when it comes to race and I don't think people should be shopping there anymore," Ezie concluded.
We reached out to Prada earlier today with a list of follow-up questions and have not yet heard back.