MILAN — “This is just the beginning of the journey, and there’s much more to come around the world. Every part of the world has its own priorities, and Prada takes things seriously, so stay tuned.”
Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada Group head of marketing and corporate social responsibility, expressed his pride in the new series of initiatives aimed at deepening the company’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and increase representation within the industry.
In his first joint interview with Malika Savell, who was named chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Prada North America last September, Bertelli said the company is launching internship and mentorship programs, also partnering with the Fashion Institute of Technology to develop scholarships focused exclusively on aspiring fashion industry professionals and undergraduate students of color in the United States and Africa.
At the same time, Prada is working closely with the United Nations Population Fund to develop an educational fashion module to promote gender equality in Africa, initially launching in Ghana and Kenya, which uses fashion and design as a tool to affect social change and promote gender equality. This module will be developed for and with young women in Kenya and Ghana to empower them socially and economically.
“Since Malika joined, we’ve been meeting multiple times a week in a very effective way. Since we created the diversity, equity and inclusion team, it has become part of my everyday job,” said Bertelli. “I have a constant conversation with Malika and her team, and we work side by side. I like the fact that a part of the DE&I team is in Milan and in the United States, but we work on a global level. I learn from regular exchanges with people of different backgrounds and cultures to understand how people from different countries and cultures think compared to how we used to think in Europe. This cultural difference supports a mutual learning process. In the end, it’s about getting more cultured and a 360-degree view of issues that every country has around the world. It’s a very nice, mutual relationship, and there’s a lot of data we take into consideration. We learn from each other, it’s a kind of mutual understanding across different cultures.”
Asked about her first impressions on joining Prada, Savell, who was previously the director of cultural diversity partnerships and engagement at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said the company “was very much in good shape. I’ve had the fortune of working at various companies across industries, and Prada is one of the strongest in this area. It’s such an enjoyable experience, we are agents of change. From what I see optically and data-wise we have a very diverse team, with 104 different nationalities at retail and corporate. Diversity is already here and embedded in the organization, reflective of the rest of the world and our consumer base organically. Our designers come from all walks of life. Diversity means many different things for different people. We have many initiatives, such as the Valuable 500 program in support of disability inclusion. We are just trying to close the gaps where we see them, tailoring programs around different needs.”
Savell underscored the constant collaboration with Bertelli and ongoing communication. Embedding herself in the organization and company culture, she said her priority was “to understand how the business works and immersing in the group’s core values. I continue to speak with employees around the globe, actively listening, observing and evaluating. What I can say is that it’s absolutely apparent to me how committed this company is to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s part of who we are at Prada Group. There’s still work to do and it’s evolving, but it’s great to hit the ground running with the support of the team.”
The programs to be unveiled today include the Generation Prada Internship, a paid internship experience for diverse talent, across the group’s corporate and retail teams, working with several organizations to attract and recruit a diverse set of applicants.
Prada will cover full tuition of the scholarships, which are expected to initially number around 20 students, as well as room and board for their respective AAS and BA programs. The scholarship recipients will be mentored by industry leaders and have the opportunity to work at Prada Group. The first scholarships will be awarded for enrollment in fall 2021.
Asked about the focus on Ghana and Kenya, Savell said “UNFPA has a very strong footprint” in both countries, “which allowed us to have an impact across these two regions. When we were thinking of where to focus our initial efforts, we were really interested in these cultures where design will play a unique role. Fashion and design have long held a role to help to tell stories in African culture. The education module is a tool for young women in these communities to advocate for themselves, where they can gain exposure and learn the ins and outs of fashion and design. The module’s development will be led by an expert whose primary focus will be in creating concrete activities in fashion as a means to promote gender equality, and create more inclusive and equal societies. The first cohort of this internship program will be in the U.S. — we are looking at the second half of the year — but we will explore internships in other parts of the world.”
Bertelli said “every country has its own priority so we cannot be generic and we are going to tackle [issues] where we see gaps.”
Asked about the amount of the investment in these programs, Bertelli said he could not disclose it, “but it’s necessary to be effective.”
“What I want to underscore is that this is not a reaction, as diversity has always been at the core of the company,” continued Bertelli. “Through the DE&I trainings that we have done across the company including our headquarters, at the management and top level, I am so happy to see the level of involvement and participation, because it’s something everybody thinks about but doesn’t talk about enough. The key is to talk about these topics. I believe we need to be a leader, especially in these times, so it’s important to not be indifferent and share our values. If everybody is an agent of change in their small community, only we can influence and spread those values. It looks like a tiny thing but all together we can make a difference and change.”
In 2018, Prada faced online accusations that animal-like figurines and charms in its stores and windows evoked blackface, to which the company responded by firmly stating it “abhors racist imagery” and by withdrawing them from display and circulation.
“We were really disappointed about what happened in the past, but at the core of Prada Group’s values, we were planning many initiatives,” said Bertelli. “We asked ourselves why people didn’t remember that and we realized that we simply didn’t talk about it. It was already there, we just needed to share and talk about it, and we want to do so even more. This is a historical period and we want to build bridges and talk about these topics.”
Other initiatives include the Prada and Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab. The partnership with Dorchester Industries, founded by Prada Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council co-chair Theaster Gates, also the founder of Rebuild Foundation, is conceived to create a three-year Design Lab that will recruit and award talented designers of color in Chicago, New York 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.
Savell said that “when it comes to race, gender, religion, age, LGBTQ, socioeconomic status, for these programs, the ongoing comprehensive strategy is to create a culture of inclusion within our group in efforts to increase representation at Prada but also in the fashion industry and beyond.”
She underscored that Prada strongly condemns any act of violence against the AAPI community. “Our programs will help increase that representation and expand it. The career and professional opportunities are for all people of color and that includes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders within Prada and the fashion industry.”
The launch of the programs is “a symbolic moment,” she said. “We are all in this together as an organization, and it’s exciting to look ahead to more projects.”
Asked about the reaction to these steps within the company, Bertelli said that, in addition, Prada is “implementing a platform for inside and outside communication that is completely anonymous and covered by privacy to guarantee more participation. What I can say already is the fact that people know that there is somebody listening and is there to solve their problems. I have received so many positive messages from within the company so this is already a big success.”