FIT launches social justice center
The Fashion Institute of Technology plans to establish a Social Justice Center, intended to propel designers of color into the fashion industry by offering them scholarships and training opportunities at different stages of their academic and professional journey, from college. to higher education.
The move comes after the institute staged a widely criticized fashion show in February 2020, featuring accessories that looked like racial stereotypes, and after the police murder of George Floyd sparked a nationwide awareness of racism. in higher education institutions that summer.
The controversial show featured the work of recent graduates of FIT’s Masters of Fashion Design program and featured models wearing oversized plastic ears and lips and bushy eyebrows, which critics said looked like caricatures of Black. Amy Lefevre, a black model who refused to wear the accessories on the show, said the show’s director tried to force her to wear the accessories when she expressed concerns about the racial imagery offensive. The FIT Black Student Union called the incident “offensive and racist” in a Twitter statement at the time.
Almost two years later, FIT leaders are working to put the incident behind them and move forward.
âIt was a very dark and terrible moment, I have to say,â Joyce Brown, FIT’s first African-American president, said of the controversy. âObviously the students, and students of color in particular, were very upset. We were thinking together what kinds of things we could do to make sure that something like this didn’t happen again. “
Brown said many college and university leaders have responded to the national moment by “throwing money” into racial justice initiatives, such as scholarships. But she wanted to create a multi-pronged plan for a long-lasting career in the fashion industry through the center, which will provide “a full array of opportunities that will hopefully enrich and ultimately transform the lives of these women. youth”.
FIT, which is part of the State University of New York system, has partnered with a group of luxury apparel and accessories companies, such as PVH, Capri Holdings Limited, Tapestry Inc. and G- III Apparel Group, which donated $ 4.5 million to launch the center. Brands such as Ralph Lauren, Prada and Saks have donated and will also participate in the centre’s programs.
The companies will fund a scholarship program, covering full tuition and expenses such as transport and books, for a cohort of FIT students from under-represented backgrounds. Students in the program will do an internship in partner companies and will be supervised by company employees and placed in paid apprenticeships upon graduation.
âWe spent time really thinking about how we could really create something lasting that would be transformative and make a real difference in the lives of young people of color who were talented and willing to work hard and motivated – and businesses. who were really grateful that something had to be done but didn’t know exactly what it was, âBrown said.
Bethann Hardison, founder of the Diversity Coalition, which promotes racial diversity in the fashion industry, said students of color are barred from entering the fashion industry by a lack of “exposure to what is possible and financially to help get the learning opportunity. “
She was one of the watchers who weighed in on the FIT fashion show and is now one of 16 members of an industry advisory board formed in the summer of 2020 that will guide the Social Justice Center.
âEducation, employment, scholarships and mentoring are all essential,â she said in a statement. “Once prepared for the opportunity … having the experience of learning by actually doing is all.”
Brown said the goal of the training and mentoring efforts is for companies to eventually hire the students. She plans to start identifying students to participate in the program as early as this spring, with up to 10 students participating in fall 2022, and the program will eventually accommodate around 40 students per cohort with potential for growth.
The center will also offer programs to younger students. Retail giant Target is funding scholarships to recruit more students of color for FIT’s pre-college program, which will expose minority college and high school students to fashion and related careers and help them prepare for the process of admission to university.
âI know the students are there,â Brown said. “I know they are talented and I know they haven’t recognized the opportunities available to them.”
She noted that even when color designers successfully enter the industry, they continue to face obstacles in reaching the top positions in their companies.
âThere are people of color who have walked through the doors of a lot of businesses, but they’re also stranded,â Brown said. âThey’ve hit a glass ceiling. It’s not like you see a lot of people who have reached the management or leadership level.
FIT Trustees will work with industry leaders to develop a series of college-level diplomas, designed to help people of color already in the fashion industry advance in their careers. For example, the institute may offer a program focused on culturally sensitive marketing, among other possible fields of study.
A survey of more than 1,000 workers at 41 companies in the fashion industry found that half of employees of color described the fashion industry as not being equally accessible to all qualified applicants, according to a report released last year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and PVH. Most black employees, 68 percent, said they faced barriers entering the industry, compared to 37 percent of white employees. Additionally, 38% of black employees said they felt unprepared – ânot at all equippedâ – for their first job search, compared to 19% of white employees.
The report also cites a 2019 study by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, which found that people of color made up just 16% of leadership positions in the apparel and beauty industry, while representing 32% of entry-level positions.
Jeffrey Tweedy, an alumnus of the FIT Men’s Clothing Program, called the Social Justice Center “a unique model of higher education / industry partnership that will benefit the youth, students and professionals of BIPOC.” Tweedy, former chairman and CEO of men’s clothing company Sean John, will serve as special advisor to Brown while FIT develops the center.
âThis effort is extremely important to me because diversity in the industry has been lacking for too long,â he said in a press release.
Ben Barry, dean of fashion at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, said underrepresented students face many obstacles when pursuing fashion studies, including few color mentors among the faculty members and the high cost of living in cities like New York City, where Parsons is also located. He saw the summer 2020 racial justice protests as a powerful reminder to fashion business leaders that “social justice must be at the center of everything we do.” For example, he said the design school is currently looking to hire three professors with a focus on fashion design and social justice and will create a group of black students and alumni starting this spring.
âSocial justice is a project of rethinking the very heart of fashion education,â he said. âThis is manifested in the way we think about our curriculumâ¦ It is about intentionally hiring faculty from underrepresented communities and especially in ways that honor and value their lived experiences as knowledge in design, and it’s about partnerships – partnerships with the community and industry, with other fashion schools to bring social justice to fashion, at large.
The lack of inclusion at FIT was the subject of lively town halls and Zoom FIT listening sessions held in the aftermath of the controversial fashion show. Students of color who attended the forums described the micro-aggressions and racial insensitivities they experienced on campus, Brown said.
Jonathan Kyle Farmer, chair of the master’s program in fashion design, and Mary Davis, dean of graduate studies, were put on paid administrative leave due to the incident, and Davis was ultimately fired in November 2020, a lawsuit says brought by the former dean. against Brown and the institution.
College leaders subsequently mandated annual diversity and cultural sensitivity training for all staff, and faculty members established committees to ensure programs have diverse voices.
The center appears to be a “very big response,” but that’s what FIT leaders needed to do to deal with the scale of the problems the fashion show revealed, said Simon Ungless, executive director of the Academy of Art University fashion school, a for-profit art school in San Francisco that has an annual graduate show at New York Fashion Week.
âThis incident kind of took the lid off a box of worms for them,â he said of the 2020 fashion show. âAny kind of school is going to react to that kind of bad publicity from a somehow … I think it’s really fantastic that they’re running this at such a huge level, getting the industry involved, getting that kind of funding, I think that’s great.
Brown is hoping the Social Justice Center is a raffle and a career launching pad for students of color. As of fall 2020, only 9% of FIT students were black, compared to 41% white; Latinx students represented 22% of the Institute’s 8,191 students. Brown wants to increase the number of students of color.
âOur own numbers should definitely be higher than they are,â she said.
Brown also wants to contribute to a culture change in the fashion industry.
âHopefully the long-term impact of the center will be that we’ve really transformed the culture within some of these companies,â she said. “And that we are transforming the lives of these young people who may not have had the opportunity to demonstrate how valuable they could be within these companies as they expand their reach and consumer base.”