Prada accused of maltreatment

Boss wanted 'old, fat, ugly' out: manager

by Minoru Matsutani

A senior manager at Prada Japan has filed a legal complaint against the Italian fashion label, accusing the company of harassment and discrimination based on appearance and alleging it maltreated other employees in the past.

Last May, Prada Japan CEO Davide Sesia visited some of the 40 Prada shops in Japan with Rina Bovrisse, its senior retail manager. Afterward, he asked her to “eliminate” about 15 shop managers and assistant managers he described as being “old, fat, ugly, disgusting or not having the Prada look,” Bovrisse said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Prada Japan Senior Human Resources Manager Hiroyuki Takahashi gave demotional transfer orders to about 13 of those employees, citing poor sales and other problems but without mentioning their appearance, in May and June, Bovrisse said. Most of them chose to quit, she said.

Speaking to the Japan Times on condition of anonymity, one of the managers and two of the assistant managers confirmed that Takahashi had given them the orders.

But according to Bovrisse and the three, the shops run by the trio regularly ranked among the top 10 in Japan sales.

“The level of harassment is beyond human understanding. My responsibility is to protect hardworking women and make sure their working environment is safe,” Bovrisse said.

Bovrisse, who is Japanese and oversees 500 employees in 40 shops in Japan, and one each on Guam and Saipan, has been on involuntary leave since November on Takahashi’s orders.

In December, Bovrisse filed a labor complaint with the Tokyo District Court, demanding compensation for emotional distress and cancellation of her demotion and leave.

Neither Sesia, nor Mia Morikawa, Prada Japan’s senior manager for external relations, returned phone calls requesting comment.

Both Takahashi and Morikawa’s associate, Hisako Kagawa, declined comment on Bovrisse’s allegations.

Marta Monaco, a spokeswoman at Prada’s Milan headquarters, said by e-mail: “Besides underlining our serene position and our flat refusal of all the allegations put forward by Ms. Bovrisse, we believe it is inappropriate to add any comment regarding this matter whilst the judgment is still pending.

“After the panel’s (court’s) decision, we will be available to give full explanation about the matter.”

Tokyo-based lawyer Reiko Shiratori, who specializes mainly in workplace harassment cases, said it would be illegal even for a luxury fashion house to order the dismissal, demotion or unfavorable transfer of a worker on the grounds of physical appearance because that isn’t the only relevant job requirement.

“Even though good-looking shop clerks may arguably be a plus for Prada’s business, elements other than appearance are also important,” said Shiratori, who is not involved in the dispute.

“Prada employees are not fashion models,” she said.

Bovrisse, who began working for Prada Japan last April after spending 18 years working in high-end fashion worldwide, including at Prada USA Corp. headquarters in New York, said she became a target of harassment herself when she began disagreeing with Sesia and Takahashi after the end of her three-month probation.

The complaint is being handled by an industrial tribunal, a simpler version of a labor issues trial. Sessions are closed to the public.

In an industrial tribunal, the two sides try to reach a court-mediated settlement. If they can’t, the judges recommend settlement terms.

If either party is dissatisfied with those terms, the case can be brought to a civil court.

The final hearing in Bovrisse’s case is set for Friday.

Bovrisse’s complaint cites the alleged harassment of the shop staff, saying they were given a choice of either resigning or taking demotions and involuntary transfers, as examples of employee mistreatment. But the main point at issue is the alleged harassment she herself suffered at the hands of Sesia and Takahashi.

According to copies of Bovrisse’s written complaint obtained by The Japan Times, Takahashi called her into a meeting room on the night Sept. 29 and told her Sesia wanted her “to change her hair style, to lose weight, and that Sesia is ashamed of Bovrisse’s ugliness, so he doesn’t want visitors from Italy to see her.”

Bovrisse talked with senior Prada executives in Milan about what she felt was severe harassment against her and other employees. She also reported to the executives that store staff were often forced to purchase handbags with their own money, the complaint alleges.

According to Bovrisse’s account, on Oct. 13, Sesia told her at work that she was being fired for “bringing negative energy to the company by reporting the harassment to Milan.”

She then stopped going to work and asked for a dismissal notice in writing, but Takahashi said on Oct. 29 she was actually not terminated but only demoted and accused her of having an unexcused absence, according to the complaint.

She returned to work Nov. 4, and Takahashi blamed her for the absence and ordered her not to come to work until further notice, the complaint alleges.

She continues to receive her full salary as senior retail manager, she said.

According to copies of written testimony submitted on Jan. 11 to the Tokyo District Court by Sesia and Takahashi, also obtained by The Japan Times, both said that on Sept. 29, Sesia instructed Takahashi to ask Bovrisse to change her hair color from bleached blond and to lose weight because appearance is an important aspect of Bovrisse’s work at Prada.

Bovrisse said she submitted to the court photos of herself taken while she worked at Prada Japan to prove her hair was never bleached blond.

“I don’t want to mention (Bovrisse’s) body shape, but Prada’s customers recognize value in Prada’s brand image and admiration toward Prada, and thus it goes without saying that it is desirable that customers looking at shop employees build admiration to wear Prada products just like Prada shop employees do,” Sesia said in his written testimony submitted to the court.

“I thought it is necessary to ask Ms. Bovrisse, who supervises shop employees, to make efforts to be a role model, in order to avoid lowering shop employees’ morale,” he stated.

Sesia claimed in his testimony that Bovrisse tried to fabricate evidence of forced employee purchases, adding he never heard such practice happened in the company.

However, Prada’s Aoyama shop manager, Chizuko Kawasaki, and the Ginza shop manager, Tomoko Ochiai, said in written testimony filed with the court Jan. 7 that they received a request, not an order, from Takahashi in August to have employees buy Prada products.

And a former regional shop manager, requesting anonymity, said in her testimony filed with the court Feb. 7, “Takahashi has ordered me to buy Prada products, saying otherwise (the company) will cut employees in her shop. Such orders always came via telephone,” according to copies of the court testimony.

Sesia claimed in his written testimony that Bovrisse falsely told the executive in Milan that she had “received heinous verbal harassment” and that “I power-harassed her.”

Bovrisse said she is taking this opportunity to raise the issue of harassment against women in the workplace because she wants to improve their working environment.