A figure that resembles racist imagery will be removed from Prada stores following complaints from the public, the company said Friday.
“Prada Group abhors racist imagery. The [characters] 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,” the company said in a statement. “In this interest we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation.”
The complaints arose after Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who works on LGBT and racial justice issues, wrote a now-viral post on Facebook about the figurines after she spotted them on display at the Prada in Manhattan. She posted pictures of them alongside historical images of caricatures of black people that have similar features, including very dark skin and large, bright red lips.
“I was astonished,” Ezie told BuzzFeed News. “I was being confronted with images I had just seen in a museum” dedicated to documenting racism.
“The reaction was immediate,” she added. “There is no ambiguity in those images at all.”
Ezie decided to speak out after asking an employee at the SoHo store about the imagery.
“What is this campaign? Who’s responsible? Don’t you have black employees on staff?” she recalled asking.
She was told that another employee who was black had also complained about the figures, and that “he didn’t work there anymore.”
“The response was honest, ‘you’re not the first person to say this,’” Ezie said.
However, a store manager contacted by BuzzFeed News denied Ezie’s account, saying, “No one has left in about six months, since before the installation appeared, so it’s impossible.”
According to marketing materials, the figurines are “mysterious tiny creatures that are one part biological, one part technological,” and draw on Prada’s signature design elements, including “printed lips,” along with metal studs and leather. A promotional video, which appeared to have been taken down following the complaints, featured a jail-break scene in which the figurines are shown in surveillance video–style breaking out of the “Prada Labs.”
Although the company says that the images were not intended to be offensive, a client services employee acknowledged that Prada had received “tons of feedback that this is offensive.”
Blackface objects in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture bear a striking resemblance to the Prada figurines, and the museum connects blackface directly to racism.
“White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote,” the museum said in a blog post on the subject. “The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated.”
The response online appeared to take Prada by surprise, and Ezie said that’s part of the problem.
“It’s clear that, to be tongue in cheek, Prada has no black friends,” she said. “It’s irrefutable evidence that there is a diversity problem in their boardroom, in their decision-making areas.
“I don’t know if this is anything other than a poor attempt to sweep racism under the rug, rather than the soul-searching that is needed.”
Beyond the statement and the removal of items from the SoHo store, some items featuring the characters were still available online Friday afternoon.
Ezie said she had not been contacted by Prada but hopes customers will hold the company accountable to its commitment to remove the products, and that any proceeds from the figurines will be donated to social justice organizations.
“This country forces black Americans to continually have to educate the public about things that should be obvious,” she said. “No one has apologized to me or asked me how it felt to be confronted with Sambo on my way to work. It’s just exhausting.”