Sunday, September 12, 2010

Prada Wears the Devil in Japanese Lawsuit

Rina Bovrisse isn’t Japan’s Gloria Steinem. Yet she may just be the heroine for which economists have been waiting for.

Bovrisse, 36, became a cause celebre because of her sexual-discrimination lawsuit against Prada. The former senior retail manager claims she was harassed as “ugly” by Prada Japan’s top executive and was unfairly dismissed.

This drama might garner modest attention in Milan, New York or Paris. Coming in Japan, where women’s rights are often a novel idea, it’s a shocking spectacle. Japanese women are supposed to maintain a stiff upper lip when being mistreated in the workplace. That’s how it is. Deal with it.

Bovrisse is having none of that, and good for her. In her frustration, she’s doing more than anyone in recent memory to highlight a major cause of Japan’s malaise: A chronic disregard for the female work force. It hinders growth, adds to public debt, reduces competitiveness and feeds other challenges like the nation’s falling birthrate.

“So many smart, driven, talented Japanese women are tired of not being treated equally,” Bovrisse told me in a Tokyo cafe last week. “I am speaking out for them. We must have the courage to demand to be treated fairly.”

The 18-year fashion-industry veteran and Parsons School of Design graduate has worked for Prada and Chanel in the United States. She has worked in New York, London, Paris (the name Bovrisse comes from her marriage to a Frenchman) and Hawaii. Presumably, it was that resume that prompted Prada Japan to hire Bovrisse in April 2009 to oversee 500 employees in 40 shops. And then, she says, the trouble began.

Bovrisse says she was told to get rid of 15 managers and assistant managers for being “old, fat, ugly, disgusting or not having the Prada look.” Later in her six-month stint there, she claims to have been told to lose weight and change her hairstyle. Bovrisse says she complained to company headquarters in Milan and was fired soon after.

Prada spokeswoman Mia Morikawa said the company wouldn’t comment for this column, and referred me to previous statements dismissing Bovrisse’s claims. Last month, Prada Japan countersued her for allegedly damaging its image.

I find Bovrisse’s story persuasive. Two former Prada staffers have joined her lawsuit. There’s a reason why representatives from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met with Bovrisse last month.

Japan’s per-capita-income rankings tend to mirror those reflecting women’s participation in politics and corporate management. At present, none of the companies in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average is run by a woman.

Women have fared poorly since the Lehman Shock of late 2008, being hit disproportionately by Wall Street’s meltdown. Because many are hired on part-time contracts, they are easiest to cut when corporate profits evaporate.

Japan’s seniority-based and male-dominated model has been slow to better utilize fully one half of the nation’s 126 million people. Neglecting 50 percent of your labor force is terrible economics.

“It pains me to think women haven’t come further than this,” Bovrisse said.

Japan needs more women like Bovrisse to step forward. If Japanese women are waiting for their male leaders to champion their cause, they’re mistaken.

Societal norms are a powerful dynamic and they’re sometimes summed up with a proverb: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Cases of sexism often don’t get reported for fear of making waves. Yet women should make waves, and big ones. Gender discrimination in Japan often seems like one of those unfixable issues. When you talk about it, people nod knowingly and shrug.

The literary and cinematic worlds tell us “The Devil Wears Prada.” In Bovrisse’s story, you could say Prada wears the devil. Yet, as even our heroine will admit, this tale is much bigger than the experience of one woman. It’s about the future of the third-biggest economy.

And grudgingly, Bovrisse is sensing her Steinem-like role in this economic drama. It’s on her new business cards, which read: “Fashionista Feminista.”

By William Pesek Bloomberg News columnist.

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