Addressing Design Insensitivity Requires Real Reforms
2/15/19 – – Even casual corporate crisis-watchers have probably noticed that the luxury fashion industry has been in the news a lot lately. Offensive fashion items such as Gucci’s blackface turtleneck sweater, blackface shoes from the Katy Perry Collection, and Prada keychain figurines resembling monkeys with oversized red lips (you can’t make this stuff up) have been flying off the shelves for all the wrong reasons. Faced with international shaming and boycott threats, these respected merchants have been forced into serious crisis-response mode.
For the most part, the embattled retailers have limited the short-term damage to their iconic brands by quickly apologizing and pulling the offending products from their stores and online sales platforms. That’s the easy part of crisis response. What’s harder is convincing your customers that you understand why and how you made the mistake and are taking meaningful steps to make sure it never happens again.
In Chapter 12 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient: Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”) we discuss five elements of effective crisis response: Regret, Reform, Restitution, Reaffirmation and Recovery. In this blog post, I’d like to focus on Reform, using Prada’s recent reputational storm for illustration.
In December, the week before Christmas, the Italian design house issued this statement, apologizing for its racially insensitive figurines:
We would like to convey our deep regret and sincere apologies for the Pradamalia products that were offensive. They have been removed from the market and will not be sold . . . Going forward, we pledge to improve our diversity training and will immediately form an advisory council to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture . . . We will learn from this and do better.
It’s the “going forward” language that deserves our attention and praise. Pledging to “improve our diversity training” and establishing “an advisory council to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture” demonstrates a commitment to addressing the issues within the company — from design through marketing — that allowed these offensive products to be developed in the first place.
Just promising reform, however, is not enough. Key audiences, especially customers and the media, want to see evidence of follow through. Again, Prada deserves high marks for announcing this week that its diversity council will be directed by two prominent chairs: artist/social activist Theaster Gates and Oscar-winning film director/producer Ava DuVernay. The council’s ambitious mission will be to “elevate voices of color within the company and fashion industry at large.”
Welcoming the participation of Gates and DuVernay, the company’s CEO and Lead Creative Director Miuccia Prada stated, “Prada is committed to cultivating, recruiting and retaining diverse talent to contribute to all departments of the company.”
As I emphasize in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient, only adequate reforms quiet reputational storms. It looks like Prada is taking the steps necessary to regain the trust of its customers and keep insensitive, brand-threatening designs from showing up again in its showroom windows.
UPDATE: Underscoring the need to go to school on other people’s crises, Burberry and Vogue Brazil have encountered similar reputational storms since this posting. A noose was featured around the neck of a model on the runway of Burberry’s London Fashion Week show, and visual references to colonial slavery were front and center at the 50th birthday party for Vogue Brazil’s Style Director Donata Meirelles.