Rina Bovrisse (Hidemasa Ishii)

Prada, suicide and sexual harassment: A whistle-blower speaks out

Rina Bovrisse brings Salon behind the scenes at Prada: "They used to call outlets 'garbage bins for old ladies'”

Josh Eidelson
November 14, 2013 6:30PM (UTC)

This spring the United Nations urged Japan to make workplace sexual harassment illegal, a move reportedly spurred by the four-year legal saga of Prada ex-employee Rina Bovrisse, who was routed in Tokyo court and now faces a countersuit for alleged defamation. In a recent interview, Bovrisse told Salon that when she challenged “pure discrimination,” including regulation of women’s weight and teeth, Prada responded by purging her from the company and accusing her of mental illness. “They thought I could be eliminated from society,” charged Bovrisse.

Asked about Bovrisse’s allegations, a Prada spokesperson emailed Salon, “In our opinion, this is just an instrumentalization, that is to say an attempt to use highly ethical issues for mere personal interests. Prada is now aiming to establish before the Tokyo District Court that the initiatives promoted by Ms. Bovrisse in the media and through public demonstrations were a defamation against Prada, causing damage to Prada.”


In contrast, the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, which will host Bovrisse for an address next month, bills her as a “global advocate for women’s rights.” Suki Chung of Labor Action China, one of the NGOs supporting Bovrisse, emailed that her battle with Prada was “something like a David vs. Goliath struggle.” A condensed and edited version of my interview with Bovrisse follows.

What led you to go work at Prada in the first place, and what did you experience there?

I was always in fashion, based in New York for almost 20 years. My friend at Prada said there is an amazing opportunity in Japan -- and my home was Japan -- first female executive, reporting to the CEO of Prada, overseeing 42 stores in Japan, Guam and Saipan.

I was hired on April 2009 and so this is when the fashion industry in Japan started to fall. Because of the financial crisis. So everyone was stressed and depressed … Whenever sales went down someone was picked and then harassed … I was shocked, because I had never seen women treated that way at work …

[Before, in New York] I always had female bosses. "Devil Wears Prada" is exactly what I went through -- maybe a little worse, but that’s how it was. So it’s not like I couldn’t take any level of craziness. But what I witnessed in Japan was pure discrimination, harassment -- something that I’d never seen.

Japan was about 105th in gender equality this year … Even [later] during my lawsuits, I went to interviews in Japan, and I had the hardest time because I was female … I had interviews at competitive brands, and they were European and American, and they [had] no shame to tell me that “you’re 35 years old … you’re out of the category.” It wasn’t only domestic [Japanese] people, it was also foreigners. Their standards changed …


[Prada] didn’t know how to increase sales, so they came up with this idea that if staff buys the bags or whatever, you can boost the sales … Whoever raised opposition with the management, they received a warning letter from human resources …

Another thing is that my assistant reported that she got sexually harassed by someone from Milan who was relocated to Tokyo, who was on a business trip with her and tried to get into her room at the hotel. And she was terrified, because he was a higher position than her, from Milan, but she still wanted to work for Prada so she was scared to report it …

[Another woman,] she doesn’t have hair due to stress and depression from work. And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Well, I’ve been harassed … but I’m not worth, I don’t have anywhere to go.” She’s 40 years old, and every time the boss was angry, he would call her into the office and yell at her for an hour and throw a mobile phone at her face. So I said, “That’s physical abuse.” And she said, “Yes, but I’m not worth anything …”

I saw that any woman who has worked for Prada in the stores for five, 10, 15 years, salesperson – the H.R. officer visits the store and says, “We don’t like her teeth or body shape.” Then they send a demotion or transfer to the most remote area, and then if you refuse you have to give in your resignation … Ladies were just over 30 years old and they were considered old … They were normally demoted to and transferred to some countryside outlet from top No. 1 salesperson as manager, to entry-level salesperson at an outlet. They used to call outlets “garbage bins for old ladies.”


I finally raised the petition [issues] after my three-month training period, because I became full-time … And I was said to have mental illness, sent home –

You were accused of mental illness by whom?

On Sept. 29, 2009, the H.R. manager came to my office at 7 p.m. and said, “Can I talk to you for a second?” … He said, “I’m giving you an H.R. warning.” … He said, “You will have to change your hairstyle. And you will have to lose weight.” … He said, “The CEO is so ashamed of your ugliness that he won’t introduce you to any visitors from Milan.”


So of course I was so shocked, and I said, “What you just said wasn’t appropriate as a human resources manager.” And he laughed and said, "Well, I fired [Prada brand] Miu Miu’s manager because she didn’t have good teeth." So I said OK, and I was furious, and then I left …

I was just so shocked, and I didn’t know what to do … I didn’t know where to go. And then I said, you know what? I know the global COO of Prada … He was from New York, and he grew up in New York, in Paris, and he would know where I was coming from. I just emailed him … He called me when I was in Guam, and he said [that the manager] “said he didn’t even talk about that, he talked to you about presentation.”

I said [employees] are being forced to buy expensive, $1,000 Prada products. They can’t pay their bills and their rent and they are afraid they will lose their jobs … The boss from Milan told me to send him all the evidence and no one would get fired. A few days later, I was called in the office by the Japan CEO and he said I was fired. I asked why, and he said I brought negative energy to the company by voicing sexual harassment …


Are those exactly the words he used?

“You brought negative energy to the company.” … [I] went to my desk to collect my stuff, with the human resources manager in front of me … I emailed the CEO … and I got no response, no information. And I contacted HR assistant -- no response …

Finally, the human resources manager calls me and says, “We have a serious problem, because you haven’t shown up to work.” And I said, “I’ve gotten fired” … He said, “No, that never happened. Lately I’ve heard you have had a mental illness, and you are creating these things that never happened …”

Around this time, I started getting in touch with a lawyer, because I don’t know the law in Japan. I got in contact with my friend … They recommended that I just go back to work … I put a tape recorder on my leg under my skirt …


I got to work at 10. All of my things, my computer, were gone … They said, “Why are you here?” I said, “I have been accused of unexcused absence, after I thought I was fired, and the H.R. manager said that was my imagination, so I came back.” And they said, “We’ll get in touch with you.”

Who said that to you?

Human resource assistant. I kept calling H.R. every half-hour. Finally I went to the bathroom and ran into him … We went to a meeting room … We had a discussion about how I was creating trouble by voicing these complaints [about] company policy, and making up a story, and bothering people’s work and because of these troubles, because of that I was getting demoted and transferred from senior executive to salesperson …

What was motivating you at this point in the conversation? What was driving you?


First they fire me. Then they accuse me of unexcused absence. Then they say it’s my imagination, and I go back to work -- but there is no work. Then they say they are giving me demotion transfer, but without any paperwork …

Then my lawyer received a pre-written resignation form that said, “As was discussed and agreed, please sign your resignation” … We went back to the recording, and there was no such conversation. Then he went back and the H.R. person said, “Oh yes, we did talk about resignation. She was the one who said that she feels really bad that she created all this trouble at work, so she wanted to resign” … The lawyer told him that “the last conversation she had, she had recorded and printed it on paper, and there is no conversation of resignation.” When he said that, the H.R. person hung up the phone. After that, Prada cut my health benefit and pension plan, everything.

And how did you feel at that point?

Horrible … I started thinking I was having mental issues, and I had to check with my father -- [we were] living together at the time – like, “Did I tell you this?” “How did I come home when I was fired?” “I was fired, right?” “Maybe I am going crazy, and maybe I have some disorder.” I started thinking maybe it was my fault. I had to go to a doctor, and the doctor told me this is quite typical tactic of companies in Japan. And he had me tested and the result was extreme outrageous stress from workplace. And I hadn’t been back to work in a while, because I was terrified of work …


I didn’t know what to do. And I had just moved with my son who was 2 at the time. And I had just become a single mother. So it was [a] really hard time. And I didn’t know how to live. So all I wanted was to clarify my position and get my benefits back …

My lawyer said … you can file a labor complaint … [Prada] submitted testimony that because I was Japanese, I should have black hair … They said because I had bleached hair they found me disgusting, and it was not discrimination … They said because a woman was overweight and that is not inspiring or Prada’s brand, so of course I told her to lose weight …

So I decided to file the case … the case became public.

Are you glad that the case went public? Were you concerned that it would be public?


… I didn’t think twice … I had an interview with the Japan Times … I thought it was going to be a tiny little article in the back … who reads Japan Times? And it’s in English … [But] it was cover story … I was all over the place … and they completely changed the story, to I was fired for being ugly. I was fired for reporting sexual harassment, and people thought I was fired for being ugly … And people started using my Facebook picture … All the TV reporters came from every town, and I couldn’t go anywhere.

So this is 2010, March. I think, “Great … this is exactly the issue that we all know, but no one wanted to talk about, because they are all scared. You should talk, not for yourself, but for everyone too.” And at this point, I can’t go back … Any job interview I went, first thing they talk about was not my skills, but the Prada case.

And it was really hard for me … This wasn’t my life. My life was about my career and my family. And overnight, I am this Prada case lady. And I never did a lawsuit in my life, I was never part of the labor movement. It was just common sense, American standard in New York …

I was [a] Japanese national working for American company, and the law didn’t work. But in my mind, because I had been educated by American standards, nothing worked in Japan. And after that I went to U.N. women …


The case was dismissed … The one law [the judge] used was defamation, saying that because I had said something in public it was legitimate to fire me at criminal level. And sexual harassment and discrimination were acceptable for fashion industry.

How did you feel when that happened?

Oh my god. I wanted to commit suicide. It was horrible. For two weeks, I couldn’t go out from my apartment. How could this be possible, that they openly admitted everything, and it was acceptable? … [I was in the] private office of the female judge, with my four lawyers, and she screamed at me … She said, “If you don’t settle the case, I am going to make you lose, and you are going to have huge trouble financially and socially, because  you have created so many problems in society.” … I said, “I can’t settle the case. I need a ruling. Society needs a ruling.” My lawyer said, “Yeah, she didn’t have to wait for three years if she was going to settle the case …”

After the ruling, for two weeks I was unconscious, I didn’t go out, and I had to ask someone to take my son, because he still had to go to school, and it was all over the TV news in Japan ...

I could not even appeal my case because I knew something else was going on -- something political. And then, instead, I thought I could go to the U.N. … in May, U.N. High Commission of Human Rights released a statement against the Japanese government, in response to my case …

Then, Prada countersued me …

What was your reaction, when they countersued you?

I was shocked … They thought I could be eliminated from society, and they thought I would disappear if they put pressure … And of course Prada was in shock because they thought I was just depressed and that I was staying home -- and then the U.N. released a statement …

When you say they thought you would “disappear,” do you mean they were trying to make you disappear?

Yeah ... I knew they would escalate it until I never came back, just adding petitions so that I could just be bank-robbed, by myself. I have my son here … no health insurance, nothing – so they were all putting all this pressure on me.

… People thought I’d disappeared. And then I came back with the U.N., and then people started saying, “Oh, she did the right thing.” And I was in Hong Kong last week to meet with a U.N. person, they said they want to really fully support this thing …

So what does this case reveal about the fashion industry?

The fashion industry is one of the worst industries for work conditions, human rights and all this – they’ll ignore everything. Japan – there are no rights. From the outside it looks beautiful, but people don’t speak up for their rights.  There is no education about human rights or women’s rights …

Because Prada countersued me, I still had to be here for hearings … Spent my son’s precious 2 [years old] to 6 years here because of the case, radiated with Fukushima. Now I understand why no one raises their voice against sexual harassment. When they warned me, when I said, “My god this is so crazy, why don’t you say something.” They said, “You don’t know what it's like, you’re not from here.” And I’d say, “But I’m Japanese.” They’d say, “No, you don’t understand. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you.” Right now I’m happier because the U.N. supported the case …

So do you regret that you spoke up?

Right now … I feel like I’ve done something important for the first time … All of this struggle, these horrible experiences, I feel like I’m contributing to the society. And it does feel good. I feel like I’ve found something more important than owning skirts.

Before this case, did you identify as a feminist?

I was never a feminist. I was a Hello Kitty lady. I never had to deal with these issues … I never felt handicapped just being a female …

I really don’t understand this society. It’s four years that I’ve been dealing with this, but I still don’t understand how women can live here [in Japan] ... In India, women speak for their rights, women’s issues. In Pakistan, women speak for their rights. In Japan, no one speaks. They want clean, quiet silence, and just be polite, smiles all the time, but they’re depressed inside.

Do you see a relationship between the issues you experienced as an executive at Prada and the conditions of women who are working as fashion models wearing Prada clothes, or women who are working in sweatshops stitching clothes for Prada?

Yes. [When] I was countersued for voicing sexual harassment -- then I understood that was the whole Prada ethic … Every single direction is decided by [executive director] Miuccia Prada. Because when I worked for Prada in New York 10 years ago … Prada is a very particular company … everything has to be the same … it took me a couple months to receive my garbage bin because it had to be imported from Milan …

So I understood at the end of the lawsuit, this is not Prada Japan -- this is Miuccia Prada’s policies …

Do you have regrets about the approach that you took to your job as an executive, or about any policies of Prada that you supported when you were there?

I don’t know … I didn’t think it was this bad to work in Japan, and I didn’t know Prada was that bad. I was so happy before … I thought I could be really happy here.

And I was only seeing Japan from the outside … all I saw was Hello Kitty land … I could take in any crazy work ethic of fashion industry, because I love fashion, but this is something different …

I was living in Harlem because I didn’t get paid well, because they pay in samples instead, so I was wearing $20,000 dress in Harlem … But still I was happy -- because I was working for something I had passion for. To be discriminated, harassed, to feel so handicapped as a woman -- it’s something I’ve never experienced in my life [before]. I mean, I’ve been discriminated against as Asian before, but that’s kind of spontaneous …

I felt like I was a crazy person, and, “Oh, maybe I’m crazy. I’m really crazy.” Because they accused me of mental illness. And I think this is how Japanese depression hits, and there is no choice. So people commit suicide.

What needs to change about Prada, and how do you think it could happen?

I think people should just stop supporting Prada’s business …When I see celebrities supporting women’s rights while they’re wearing Prada, for me it’s a joke. When I see Prada logo or Miu Miu logo, it gives me the chill of discrimination, of being harassed -- for me, the logo, it’s speaking itself. “Like, ‘I’m going to harass you.’”

What fashion industry is doing still now is, “OK, if you’re in fashion, we don’t talk about discrimination -- but if you’re in Pakistan, we’ll … make it as part of our charity.” That’s wrong …

All these women like Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Nicole Kidman, these are the women who are U.N. ambassadors for female equal and human rights. If they are U.N. ambassador, they should stop wearing Prada.

Josh Eidelson

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