MILAN — The Prada Group is stepping up its efforts to provide opportunities to amplify the work of artists of color with the concrete help of Theaster Gates.
Dorchester Industries, the design and manufacturing arm of Theaster Gates Studio, in partnership with Rebuild Foundation and Prada, are launching the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab. The three-year program will serve as a platform for Black or brown artists, investing in their development and exposing them to organizations interested in working with diverse talent, such as Prada.
“The premise is very, very simple,” Gates told WWD. “There are people formally trained or who have had a successful career but that are not connected to the fashion world or the creative industry.”
The Design Lab “is an attempt to help people refine their skills, create a couple of significant projects and then deliver those folks to a larger network that creates more opportunities, leveraging myself and working with Prada to try and celebrate the amazing talent that lives in Black and Brown communities but that is so often overlooked,” Gates explained.
Anchored on Chicago’s South Side, the Experimental Design Lab, which will be international in reach and relevance, will act as a space of exchange, training, critical feedback and exposure for creative talents.
Gates underscored that the project is not limited to fashion, but extends to furniture, industrial and graphic design, and the arts while providing a platform for exhibitions, performances and public dialogue. Miuccia Prada, said Gates, was “interested in having a diverse group of creative people who may be able to be a part of the company in different areas, from event planning to filmography or ambassadors to the brand. It’s such a broad house.”
During the interview, a focused and motivated Gates, who is the founder of Dorchester Industries and Rebuild Foundation and is the co-chair of Prada’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, said that “if I am a director of an Italian design firm in Italy, how am I going to know what’s happening in Senegal, Detroit or Chicago? What I love of the Experimental Design Lab is that it’s a way of convening all of these people together, then with friendship and relationship-building saying look at these amazing people who are doing great stuff all over the world. Is there a match? I think that in some ways I am playing the role of matchmaker and maybe that of a mentor.”
Gates said he is often asked about his career trajectory in the art world, or about his clothes, and about his relationship with Prada. “I know that I have a tremendous amount of privilege, almost too much privilege, and the best thing I can do is to try and share this privilege with as many people as I can, and share the rich relationships that I have with others,” he said.
The artist noted that the Experimental Design Lab revolves not merely around wealth or the lack of it, but that “there is no one to encourage the relationships between people who are different. So there will be people who need opportunity in my cohort, yes, but that there are people in Milan who are privileged and who need the same opportunity. This is about exposing the people who have great design abilities and ambition to a great design house. That’s what I’m investing in.”
The first cohort of awardees will be selected and announced in October and Gates believes the number could range between eight to 15 talents. “The reason for the disparity in the number is that there are so many talented people around the country. We are first looking at people from Chicago, New York and L.A. but we want to acknowledge more people than less in this first cohort,” he said.
Each Experimental Design Lab awardee will be nominated by leaders across the fashion, art and design industries. The Experimental Design Awards will honor rising designers who have shown extraordinary creative potential. Award recipients will receive financial support as well as creative opportunities to foster relationships with leading global companies and their networks through annual activations and workshops in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Each year, Prada will award a grant to an artist or designer to encourage their development and allow them to launch a capsule of their choosing in the space.
“The Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab is a critical step in the right direction to ensure that leading design companies have a pipeline of talented creatives who bring with them their diverse experiences and backgrounds,” said Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada Group marketing director and head of corporate social responsibility.
Gates noted that his relationship with Prada is almost 10 years old and said that Fondazione Prada’s invitation to stage his exhibition “True Value” in 2016, “created an opportunity for me, it was such an important platform for me to be given the big room at the foundation.” Gates cherishes the conversations he’s had with the designer and her team over the years, saying he felt he had “become part of a family and already part of the inclusion that Prada had naturally.
“It’s been Mrs. Prada opening my brain, making my art practice bigger. Prada and her foundation have been one of the most important allies to artists in the world. I am really thankful that I can be a part of the council and create this Experimental Design Lab to introduce more of my friends in Chicago to more of my friends in Milan,” Gates said.
As reported, Prada received online criticism in December 2018 that animal-like figurines and charms in its stores and windows evoked blackface, and Gates said, at the time, he called the designer offering to “help people understand that Prada is actually an inclusive organization but in all corporations bad things happen, things get overlooked and slip out. Without intending to, bad design can make racist characters. But this is a reminder that there’s work to do; it’s no reason to close shop but to look closer. It’s reason to work harder to ensure that we are looking at all the different parts and that we use that as an occasion to be as diverse as we possibly can.”
He emphasized that adding diversity makes “the work of the house so much more sexy. The agenda is much more important than responding to the figurines. The agenda is how do we build a great fashion house into the future. In order to do so, you have to grow the number of voices that are designing, touching the fabric, that are marketing, that are the videographers, cinematographers, the front door people, the guards. We need all those people working to demonstrate that the fashion house is a world house, not an Italian house.”
In collaboration with Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, awardees and guests will have the opportunity to engage in public programming at Retreat — Rebuild Foundation’s latest activation providing space for artists to collaborate and create — strengthening the ties between designers and surrounding communities as part of the organization’s mission to empower artists on the South Side.
Gates gave a shoutout to Ava DuVernay, who has long been “identifying talent in the film world, and I am borrowing from her playbook. What can we do to help as many people as possible to be as connected and employed as possible?”
Prada tapped award-winning writer, director and producer DuVernay in 2019 as co-chair of the group’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, with Gates.
Last year, the Italian luxury company appointed Malika Savell chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Prada North America.