Melissa Teitel thought she was bringing a healthy snack for her team.
It was a long day of work looking at samples for the new collection, and Teitel says she bought a bag of trail mix for her co-workers at the fashion house Prabal Gurung to share. Teitel, who was about six months pregnant at the time, took a handful to eat herself.
“You know that’s not a single serving, right?” Teitel says Prabal Gurung, the designer and chief executive of the company, asked her, in front of approximately 10 other employees. Teitel, already uncomfortable with the way her body looked during pregnancy, was embarrassed. One of the other attendees at the meeting also recalled the incident.
When Teitel explained she’d brought the snack for everyone, she says Gurung replied, “You’re not supposed to eat more than the size of your palm.”
Then, she says, he laughed at her.
“He’s doing this in front of everybody,” Teitel told Vox. “I couldn’t even get my words out.”
It wasn’t the only time Gurung shamed Teitel for her pregnancy, her eating habits, or her changing body, she says. Teitel became pregnant with her first child soon after becoming director of sales at Prabal Gurung, and says that Gurung repeatedly made derogatory comments about her weight gain. When she was at home recovering from a C-section and trying to breastfeed her infant daughter, she says, the company let her go.
A company spokesperson for Prabal Gurung said it was “saddening to hear that a former member of our team had a negative experience while working at our brand” and maintained that Teitel “left our company on her own volition.” Teitel’s account “does not in any way reflect the spirit or culture of our work space,” the spokesperson said.
Stories about body-shaming aren’t necessarily surprising in the fashion world, where a recent study showed 62 percent of models had been asked to lose weight or otherwise change their shape. But Gurung was supposed to be different. Last year, he launched his second collaboration with the plus-size clothing company Lane Bryant. He told Cosmopolitan.com, “to me, beauty is inclusion — every size, every color.” The Washington Post recently called him fashion’s “public conscience.” He made black dresses for Issa Rae and Kerry Washington to wear to the Golden Globes this year, and then sold versions of the gowns to raise money for the Time’s Up anti-harassment effort, the Post reports.
Teitel’s story is not one of sexual harassment. But in this moment of reckoning around women’s treatment in the workplace, she believes her experience deserves attention too — especially because the discrimination and belittling she feels she suffered came from someone who publicly portrays himself as an advocate for women. Two other former employees have also accused Gurung of treatment that does not square with his public image.
Fashion is a particular, body-obsessed world. But Teitel’s story may have implications beyond her industry, as America grapples with gender inequality at work and the sometimes mismatched words and deeds of powerful men.
Gurung’s actions were at odds with his claims of feminism, Teitel says
Prabal Gurung showed his first collection in 2009 and soon earned accolades for clothes that noted fashion journalist Robin Givhan at the Washington Post described as having a “romantic, fluid, floating quality.” These days, he gets attention for his political statements and criticisms of the fashion industry too.
“Fashion has a huge responsibility — in what we show on the runway, what we do in editorial, who we dress — to make sure it represents differences,” Gurung told Rachel Torgerson of Cosmopolitan.com last year. “If we don’t, we’re giving into the discrimination.”
Gurung has cast models of color, plus-size models, and transgender model Andreja Pejić in his shows, standing out in an industry where diversity is by no means the norm. He has spoken about the challenges of growing up gay, telling Elle in 2010, “I was taunted and teased, but I had a pile of sketchbooks and a teacher and family who encouraged me.”
Gurung has also been outspoken about feminism. In his fall 2017 show, he sent a model down the runway wearing a T-shirt that read, “The Future Is Female.” Feminist activist Gloria Steinem sat in the front row at his spring 2018 show, Givhan noted. Her story in the Post ran under the headline, “Is Prabal Gurung the most woke man in fashion?”
An enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter, Gurung designed a pantsuit for Katy Perry to wear onstage with the candidate at a 2016 rally. The outfit included a matching cape reading, “I’m with Madam President.”
“I call myself a feminist simply because I believe that women are the biggest path to freedom for any kind of equality in the world,” the designer said in an interview with Fast Company that year.
His fall 2018 show, held on February 11 in New York, closed with models holding white roses, a symbol some guests at the recent Grammy Awards adopted to show support for the Time’s Up anti-harassment initiative. Gurung told T, the New York Times style magazine, that the roses in his show were meant to symbolize the importance of listening at this particular moment. “Especially as a man, my job is to listen,” he said. “If any man or men are to learn anything from this, it is to really listen to women.”
But Teitel says she saw a different side of Gurung as an employee. She was hired in November 2014 and found out she was pregnant in December. She says that her relationship with Gurung became strained starting in February, when she says he screamed at her “at the top of his lungs” for quoting an incorrect price to a client on a blouse whose price had recently changed. But, she says, things got really bad in May 2015, with comments about her food choices and weight.
That month, Teitel participated in a meeting with Gurung and investors from a venture capital firm. She was sure to dress in Prabal Gurung for the meeting, she says.
The next day, Gurung told her that the firm had decided to pass on investing in the company because its representatives were unhappy with her appearance, Teitel recalls. The venture capital firm did not respond to Vox’s requests for comment.
Sensing she was being treated unfairly, Teitel began taking notes on her experiences, saving them as emails to herself. One note, provided to Vox, mentions the conversation about the venture capital meeting.
Gurung made other comments about her body, her clothing, or the food she was eating, Teitel says.
“We know you’re pregnant, but this look isn’t really working for me,” she recalls him telling her, gesturing at her pregnant body.
“No one wants my body back more than me,” Teitel says she told Gurung.
“I certainly hope so,” he said.
Teitel had preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that can cause severe swelling, and her feet and ankles became extremely swollen. But Gurung objected to her wearing flats, she says, claiming that another employee had worn heels throughout her recent pregnancy. He asked if she was “exercising at all.”
“Maybe dresses aren’t the best option,” she says he told her. “Nobody should see those legs.”
“There was never a moment where I didn’t feel like a target,” Teitel told Vox.
Teitel had morning sickness throughout her pregnancy, and at one point she took two days off work to recover from a bout of vomiting that landed her in the emergency room. A company executive required her to submit a doctor’s note to explain the absence, Teitel says. She provided Vox with a copy of the email in which she sent the note.
In mid-August, Teitel was put on bed rest by her doctors. At that time, she says, the company had agreed to give her two weeks’ paid maternity leave, and had not discussed how much leave she could take unpaid after that. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires that employers give employees up to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave per year to care for a newborn child or sick family member, but it does not apply to private companies with fewer than 50 employees. Prabal Gurung had around a dozen employees when Teitel worked there, she says.
Teitel gave birth to her daughter by C-section on September 10, 2015. The company contacted her in October and asked her to come back to work on October 26. Teitel agreed, but asked to work half time from home and half time from the office, returning to the office full time on December 1 — she provided a copy of the emailed request to Vox.
At the time, Teitel was still recovering from surgery and working with a lactation consultant to breastfeed her newborn, and was concerned about being able to breastfeed if she returned to the office full time. She was also concerned about her family’s ability to afford child care after several weeks of unpaid leave.
The company did not agree to her request, she says, insisting she come back to the office full time. When Teitel didn’t come to work on October 26, she was informed that she had effectively resigned, though she says she had no desire to do so. In her view, she had been fired. The company even asked her to repay them for her clothing allowance and health insurance, she says.
The experience not only left her jobless with a new baby at home, it “affected every single part of who I am,” she says. She became so ashamed of her body during her pregnancy that she didn’t want to be naked in front of her husband, she says. “I didn’t go in front of a full-length mirror for months.”
She hasn’t sought another full-time job in fashion sales because her experience at Prabal Gurung was so bad, she says. She took on some freelance work for other companies after she was let go but was anxious going into meetings with colleagues, worried about what Gurung might have said about her.
Text messages to friends and colleagues, screenshots of which were provided to Vox by Teitel, speak to her mental state during and after the pregnancy. “I’m so hurt and angry at the way they’ve treated me,” one message reads. Says another, “I’ve spent the last 3 days in tears.”
“He made me hate my body so much,” says a third message, sent to a friend after Gloria Steinem attended Gurung’s show. “A feminist doesn’t do that to a pregnant woman.”
Teitel’s experience may have been part of a pattern at Prabal Gurung
Teitel isn’t the only former employee to say Gurung’s behavior in the workplace did not live up to his public persona. While some former employees described Gurung as a caring boss, one former intern recalls asking Gurung if she could do anything else for him after completing a task. He told her to go jump out a window, and then laughed, she says.
“Previously I had been such a big fan of his,” the former intern says. She remembers seeing him speak at a fashion event before she worked for him and finding him “so sweet and engaging and very charming,” she adds. By the time she interned at his company, she’d learned “that the people you look up to can disappoint you.” Still, she says, “I was like, ‘Not this guy too.’”
The company in general “definitely wasn’t a positive place to work,” she adds. She remembers feeling that superiors were disappointed in her when she asked to leave early because she was sick, even though as an intern, she was unpaid.
In November 2013, Hana Kim, a former employee, sued the company in New York’s Supreme Court. In her suit, she alleged that after working 70 to 80 hour weeks at Prabal Gurung for years, she experienced an episode of depression and had to take medical leave from the company in April 2013. At first, she said, Gurung and his business partner were supportive.
Soon, however, they became “hostile,” and demanded a doctor’s note confirming her diagnosis, Kim says in the suit. Kim sent the note and told the company that she could return to work on June 17. A few days before the 17th, according to the suit, she was fired. The suit alleged discrimination on the basis of disability and sought at least $1 million in damages. It was dismissed in 2014 on the agreement of both parties. Kim has not responded to Vox’s requests for comment.
In a time of focus on women’s working conditions, it makes sense to talk about pregnancy discrimination too
What Teitel reports experiencing at Prabal Gurung wasn’t sexual harassment, but it still bears talking about in this moment, when Americans are engaged in a conversation about workplace abuses and how to correct them.
The #MeToo moment is about “calling out the ways in which, in too many workplaces today, women continue to really be devalued,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “What we’re talking about here are individuals and systems that still see women as worth less,” she says. As long as that’s the case, “pay discrimination, sexual harassment, and pregnancy discrimination are going to continue to be persistent problems.”
Almost 31,000 pregnancy discrimination charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2010 and 2015, as Elissa Strauss reports at CNN. According to a 2014 survey by the National Partnership for Women & Families, 9 percent of women who requested a change in duty due to pregnancy, like a reduction in heavy lifting, had their requests denied. Another 9 percent were denied their request for schedule changes or time off for pregnancy-related issues such as doctor’s appointments. Larger percentages of women reported never asking for accommodations they needed, perhaps because of fear of repercussions, according to the survey.
Meanwhile, 58 percent of employed new mothers surveyed reported that breastfeeding while working had been a challenge, and 49 percent said their work plans had affected their breastfeeding decisions, including whether and when to breastfeed.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protect pregnant workers from several forms of discrimination, Martin says. It is illegal to fire or demote an employee because of a pregnancy. Under the law, employers have to provide pregnant workers with accommodations they need to keep working — like allowing them to eat or drink on the job, or reassigning them to a less physically demanding role — if they would provide similar accommodations for a worker with a disability. And since employers are required by the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, they are de facto required to provide accommodations for many pregnant workers as well.
Harassment, like unwanted comments about a pregnant person’s body or sexual behavior, can also be a form of pregnancy discrimination, Martin says. Unwanted comments about a pregnant person’s weight or eating habits might be considered harassment under the law if they are severe and pervasive enough, she says: “What a court will look at is, how bad was it? Was this a really consistent and objectively offensive thing that you had to experience over and over?”
A feminist image can be advantageous for companies — but they don’t always live up to it
The #MeToo moment is also a time to talk about what makes a feminist workplace — and whether companies that publicly embrace women’s empowerment really treat their workers fairly.
Today, it can be advantageous for companies to portray themselves as feminist. “Feminism itself has just become a kind of marketable identity in a way that it has never been in American culture and life,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media and author of the book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.
“I’ve talked to a lot of young people who really grew up understanding that feminism was something that was in the past,” she adds, “and it wasn’t until they got to college or into the workplace that they realized that they were hitting this wall.”
“The mainstreaming of feminism in a lot of ways came about because those folks were finding one another” on social media and on feminist blogs, Zeisler says. In response, fashion and beauty brands began to embrace messages of empowerment rather than trying to make consumers feel insecure. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which launched in 2004 and included photos of ordinary women, rather than models, was an early example of the strategy.
Today, many fashion brands use feminist messages in their marketing or their products. Christian Dior drew some criticism in 2017 for a cotton T-shirt that read, “We should all be feminists” — and cost $710 (a portion of the proceeds went to the Clara Lionel Foundation, a health care and education charity founded by Rihanna).
A public embrace of feminism can be interpreted as hypocritical for fashion companies, Zeisler says. She points to an H&M T-shirt reading “feminist.” “You can’t talk about H&M without talking about how their clothes are made,” she says, “and the labor practices inevitably affect young women in the global South more than they do anyone else.”
In high fashion, an industry where whiteness and thinness are still too often held up as ideals, companies can get a lot of credit for relatively small gestures toward feminism. “It’s a pretty low bar,” Zeisler says. “It becomes about sort of who is doing the most relative to what other high-fashion brands are doing, which is, like, nothing.”
For fashion brands, the question is, “If feminism wasn’t this sort of known quantity that American culture has embraced for whatever reason in the past few years, would they still be promoting it?”
For some current and former employees, Prabal Gurung as a workplace did live up to its publicly espoused ideals. A former sales intern said she was impressed with the company’s racial diversity and commitment to choosing models and spokespeople from underrepresented demographics.
“Prabal has no fear in saying that racism is blatantly wrong,” the former intern says. “He’s very willing to take a stand, and you felt that at the company level.”
On a personal level, she says Gurung was “very, very present” and “knew all the interns by name.” And she describes her co-workers on the sales team as supportive mentors who allowed her to work around her academic schedule and take time off when she had bronchitis.
The company also gave Vox contact information for several current and former employees who praised the working environment there. One of these former employees said that working with Teitel was a negative experience, and that she brought “outside stresses” to work.
Margarita Dalisay, the company’s chief financial officer, praised the company’s diversity. She noted that she is an immigrant from the Philippines and said that Gurung’s vision of female empowerment and inclusivity drew her to the company in the first place. That ethos “really manifests in everything that he does and how he leads,” she said.
“Prabal Gurung was founded with the mission of creativity, positivity, and inclusivity,” a company spokesperson told Vox in a statement. “We are very proud of the company we have created and the warm and hospitable environment we nurture among our colleagues here.”
But for Teitel, the company’s feminist public face stands in stark contrast to mistreatment she says affected her for years. “It’s been a very long process and a lot of therapy for me to get to a place where I could love my body again,” she says. She still feels sad when she sees a woman reveling in pregnancy, she says, because she never got to have that experience with her first child.
Teitel considered suing the company but was afraid she’d “never work again” if she did so, she says. She is now working to open a restaurant and event space in the Connecticut town where she and her family live. Her daughter is now 2 years old, and she and her husband also have a 1-year-old son.
More than anything, Teitel says, she chose to speak out because of the loss of her job, a concern too many women still face when they get pregnant.
“A lot of women think about whether they can get pregnant or should get pregnant, or whether they’re going to lose their jobs when they get pregnant,” she says. Her experience only confirms those fears.
Gurung “took away from me the confidence to believe that I was worth anything,” she says. “What he was saying about me became how I saw myself.”