Rina Bovrisse became famous overnight, but it wasn’t the type of fame anyone wishes for. Bovrisse is suing renowned Italian fashion label, PRADA, for discrimination. Bovrisse is a graduate from the Parsons School of Design in NYC and has been working in the fashion industry for 18 years giving her the opportunity to live in top fashion cities such as Paris, Tokyo, and New York. Although there are mix and imprecise reports as to why she is suing, she says only WWD and The Japan Times reported the story accurately. Willing to make all crooked lines straight (no pun intended) she explains to us the immense emotional distress, prejudice and harassment she underwent under Prada’s Japan administration. Suing a huge company like PRADA is overwhelming enough. PRADA is a multibillion dollar business, but in this big world filled with little people Bovrisse is determined to play David meets Goliath. She stresses how fashion is her life, “I only wanted to be in fashion because I found fashion beautiful and sensational.” BUT there is an ugly side, she tells us how Davide Sesia (Prada’s Japan CEO) & Hiroyuki Takahashi (Prada’s Japan HR Senior manager) are chiefly the ones to blame. She says, “I was told to fire 15 shop managers and staff members during my first months due to them being ugly, fat, old, disgusting, or with bad teeth, not Sesia’s and Takahashi’s type… they liked cute rather than smart, highly skilled female employees.” Bovrisse could not fathom, as someone with a family of her own, acting on Prada’s request to give the shop staff an incarcerating liberty to choose a resignation or demotion just because they weren’t, according to them, attractive enough.
It was only a matter of time before Bovrisse’s image also came in question. The Japan Times reported:
“According to copies of written testimony submitted on Jan. 11 (also obtained by The The Japan Times), both said that on Sept. 29, 2009, Sesia instructed Takahashi to ask Bovrisse to change her hair color from bleached blonde and to lose weight because appearance is an important aspect of Bovrisse’s work at Prada. “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.”
Bovrisse also alleges that Prada employees are obligated to buy Prada goods in order to meet their monthly sales quota. Any refusal would only jeopardize their employment with the company. She recalls, “They threatened store staff to purchase Prada products in the store. They received a call from the Human Resources Manager to do so if not they will get fired. They purchased over $1,000 items out of their salary to increase their daily sales in order to keep their jobs. This happened almost every month. As soon as I started opposing such requests and disagreeing, I started getting power harassment such as receiving a warning letter by Senior HR Manager without a valid reason stating that ‘I didn’t respect company’s communication,’ etc.”
Sesia denies such allegations, although, some Prada employees have come forth attesting to have had in fact received a “request” not an “order” to buy Prada products. Bovrisse opens up to us about those who helped her at Prada. those who didn’t, the abuse women on staff suffered and what she would like to accomplish out of this ordeal. In details and uncensored, she talked— we listened.
How long did you work for PRADA?
Prada NY for 1.5 years, and Prada Japan physically for 6 months, then I received grounding order for 5 months.
There are various articles regarding your case, but they differ, can you clarify?
Only The Japan Times and WWD reported accurately. I was told to fire 15 shop managers and staff during my first months there due to them being unappealing. After my 3 months probation period (I started working on April 2009, I became a permanent employee on July 2009) I openly showed my disagreement to wrongful human resources management and other harassment issues to female employees such as demotion transfer without a valid reason (because of physical looks) to push them to resign. They normally give a demotion transfer from manager of a store to a countryside outlet as entry level sales staff (they used to call this outlet “garbage bin”). Ultimately, they chose to resign. This works in Prada’s favor as they don’t have to provide any layoff or termination package. As soon as I began disagreeing, I started receiving power harassment such as receiving a warning letter from the Senior HR Manager that “I didn’t respect company’s communication,” etc.
What other forms of abuse you encountered?
Once, my direct report didn’t return one phone call to the CEO (Sesia) on her day off because she was sleeping. She always answers his phone calls (even at 3 am), every day, 365 days a year, including holidays, but for not doing so that one time she received (the next day) a warning letter from the Senior HR Manager for “not respecting company’s communication.” The CEO also throws his mobile phone at her when he is in a bad mood, hitting her on the face with it, but she never spoke back because she was scared. No one wants to lose their job in this tough economy.
When and how was the request made for you to change your overall appearance?
- September 30th, at 7pm, I was called in a meeting room by Senior HR Manager and I was told that I was on a warning because “I had to change my hair, lose weight, didn’t have a Prada look” (albeit, I was dressed head to toe in Prada when he told me). It happens the CEO was too ashamed of my ugliness, therefore I was not to be introduced to any Italian visitors from Milan.
- I was originally introduced to this job by my friend who is a chief buyer of the Prada NY head office, so I asked her advice and she said the Global COO, Mr. Sebastian Suhl is a fair person that I should contact him about this. I e-mailed him that night on September 30th explaining exactly what happened in a meeting room. Oct 1st, he asked me to call him and we spoke. I told him what I was told in a meeting room and also told him about the other local issues. He said it wasn’t legal; especially, the threatening of employees to purchase items to increase company sales was illegal. He said he was there to support me.
- Oct. 13th, I was called in an office by Sesia (PRADA’s Japan CEO) and I was told I was fired for “reporting harassment issues to Milan and created negative energy to the company.”
- I explained to my team I was fired for this reason and I returned my company’s cell phone, packed up my stuff and went home.
- I waited for my paperwork confirming such, but never received it. I made the request twice to the CEO. A week later, I received an e-mail from Takahashi, the Senior HR Manager, stating I was “actually not fired,” but I now was accused of having unexcused absences. I told Takahashi I believed I was fired but even if not, I still had a doctor’s note (as I was already seeing a therapist from the shock and received 3 months order to take leave from work), but the Senior HR Manager said he couldn’t approve my sick days.
- Nov. 4th, I showed up to work after being accused of having unexcused absences. Then, I was told by Takahashi not to come to work anymore because I received a demotion transfer (without a valid reason) and he gave me a grounding order to stay home until further notice, and I was not allowed to speak with anyone in the company.
- A week later, I received a resignation letter stating “As discussed and agreed” though I never had a discussion or agreement.
That’s when you took action?
I then filed for a complaint (industrial tribunal). Complaint court, there is no trial; it is just a total 6 hours of discussion in a meeting room with complaint judge and 2 parties (Prada and myself). Once it is closed as “unsettled or rejected by the complaint judge,” it is then approved to file for a civil lawsuit, which is at the Supreme Court, open to public. It is a one year civil lawsuit where details are shared with the public.
The complaint case was filed on December 2009 requesting to go back as Senior Retail Manager and compensation for emotional distress. The case closed unsettled on March 12th, then filed for Civil Lawsuit on March 19th. The 1st Civil Lawsuit hearing is on May 14th, 2010.
As a person who works in fashion, and knowing this industry has to do a lot with image, did the request really come to you as a surprise?
Yes, it was a shock. I didn’t work as a model on the runway, but I worked to support fashion business. I worked in this industry for almost 2 decades worldwide and I never thought I would face anything like this. The females I respect who taught and inspired me in my career all fall into their “not Prada look” category. Even the famous ones like Oprah/Suzy Menkes, they are not young or size zero.
Do you feel you were let go because you didn’t act on the request?
I was fired twice and given different reasons by Prada Japan.
- Oct. 13th, 2009 fired with a reason “reporting harassment to Milan and creating negative energy to company.”
- Jan. 2010 at 1st hearing at complaint court, they changed a reason to “creating untrue story such as threatening employees to purchase to increase sales.”
- March 13th, 2010 fired with a reason “sharing comments to media.”
All are NOT legally valid reasons to fire an employee in Japan.
Also, March 13th, 2010 firing was wrongful (illegal) firing, but Prada announced “Complaint court judge ruled to fire her” which was a total lie. The judge never ruled to fire, in fact the complaint judge doesn’t have such rights as there is no trial at this court, it is a court to decide settle or unsettle to decide an approval to take it to civil lawsuit. Prada Japan basically gave a false complaint court statement to Prada Milan as if they won the case to make Prada Milan happy and Prada Milan announced to worldwide press with false information.
Both The Japan Times and WWD Japan realized right away Prada Milan’s comment was false after comparing to the actual Japanese court documents, they ran a new story that Milan’s comment didn’t make sense as now my case is filed for a civil lawsuit. Prada Milan then realized through the media that they had made a false statement.
Many people are claiming that you are after money. How do you respond to those claims?
My complaint case was going on for four months in Japan and Prada Milan pretended they weren’t aware of this case thinking it would be settled at complaint level by offering me money. I refused the money to close the case “unsettled” so that it is approved to file for a civil lawsuit. In Japan, we don’t fight for money, we fight for human rights.
If I am after money, I would have had taken Prada’s offer at complaint court level so that I could get the money and move on to a new job. I don’t think anyone in fashion takes a risk this far unless the situation is really horrible. Everyone knows everyone in fashion and I know my fashion career is over by doing this. Yes, I wanted to stay in the fashion industry till my 60 years of retirement age, in peace, but I got unlucky.
PRADA caters to women, why do you think Prada Japan treated the females on their staff as such?
Prada is selling their products to women, yet they are abusing hard working females who supported their company for decades. Their customers’ image will one day perish, beauty is ephemeral. Does this mean they will not be worthy of Prada‘s products then? This is wrong. What they asked of me is wrong.
Female rights in Japan are way behind especially in the workplace because culturally, some Japanese feel it is “not polite” to talk back to their superiors because they pay their salary. Nevertheless, I will not ignore that Japan is a country that practices freedom of speech so we have a right to speak up when mistreated.
What made you go forth with the lawsuit?
I am a mother and I was convinced by my son. He goes to school every morning really happy to learn new things. One day, when he grows up dreaming to work in what he loves I thought what if he experienced harassment, got mentally abused or someone lowered his self-esteem? If no one speaks up when there is a problem in front of us, it will probably continue and be repeated even to our children’s generation in Japan. That’s why Japan is 50 years behind the US when it comes to women’s rights because no one spoke up as do BRAVE American females. If we left a problem like this in our generation, it won’t change even for a century, unless someone takes a stand.
Prada issued a statement saying “the Japanese competent Court has dismissed all of the employee’s accusations and has ruled that the termination of her employment was perfectly legitimate.” Is this so?
This was a completely false translation of actual court documentation and they made a huge mistake. The case was dismissed at complaint court level approving one to file for a civil lawsuit. If the case was not dismissed = settled, then, the case was finished at complaint level (just 6 hours discussion without a trial). Milan later realized they made a grave mistake and made a revision to this comment to the press. Due to their false statement, I was called a “liar, did it for money, etc.” Japanese media were the ones (The Japan Times) who advised Prada Milan they were wrong about Japanese court procedure and they were actually in a lawsuit now.
I never made a false court statement nor complained to anyone even the ones who wrote false information on their articles. I only appreciate that people support this case and spend their time to write an article to keep this story going.
I have a response to their “fight back in the appropriate way.” If so, they shouldn’t:
- Make a false court statement to worldwide media.
- Threaten their current Prada Japan employees to write false testimonies.
- Send warning letters to journalists and call them liars while they are the largest and most reliable local newspaper journalists who write from actual evidence.
Not only as a Japanese woman, but as a woman in general who is standing up for your rights and that of others, do you think this case will contribute towards encouraging women to stand up to all sorts of harassment and discrimination in the workplace?
I hope so. To be honest, I never thought this case would get any media attention. The complaint case was going on for four months since last December and all of a sudden, once The Japan Times wrote the story, it went worldwide overnight.
What shocked me the most was when I received grounding order from PRADA, most of the female employees at Prada Japan distant themselves from me in fear of getting fired too. They reminded me of women repressed of their rights decades ago. That was when I was like, wait a minute, this is 2010, are they for real?
Any good news?
I heard Gucci just announced worldwide managers to be careful about discrimination mentioning about what happened recently to “another luxury brand” as a case study to learn from. If it helps minimize any potential harassment and discrimination in the workplace in any or all industries, I think my enormous stress is worth it.
What I did for this case was what many in the US consider “educated common sense.” My parents instilled in me to have integrity and pride for life. My family comes from a Samurai background and they have pride for living with faith and morals. My mother died of a heart attack a few years ago while I was on a business trip. She always told me to have faith in what I have my passion in, no matter how long it takes, the fighter is the winner.
What is it that you would like to accomplish?
Doing the right thing is often misunderstood. My only strength is my friends, family, supporters and the TRUTH. I have nothing else but my e-mails and Facebook. I came this far only from this against a huge worldwide corporation, so I am positive with what I am doing. Someone needs to take a stand. I just did what was necessary hoping to give more confidence to harassed hard working females everywhere.
Images of Rina remain property of Bovrisse
Above image property of PRADA