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 scholarship and training opportunities at different stages of their academic and career paths, from middle school through graduate education.
The move comes after the institute held a widely criticized fashion show in February 2020, featuring accessories that resembled racial stereotypes, and after the murder of George Floyd by police sparked a nationwide reckoning with racism at higher ed institutions that summer.
The controversial show featured the work of recent graduates of FIT’s master’s degree program in fashion design and showcased models wearing oversize plastic ears and lips and bushy eyebrows, which critics said resembled caricatures of Black people. Amy Lefevre, a Black model who refused to wear the accessories during the show, said the director of the show tried to force her to wear the accessories when she voiced concerns about the offensive racial imagery. The FIT Black Student Union called the incident “offensive and racist” in a statement on Twitter at the time.
Nearly two years later, FIT leaders are working to put the incident behind them and move forward.
“It was a very dark, terrible moment, I have to say,” Joyce Brown, the first African American president of FIT, said of the controversy. “Obviously the students, and the students of color particularly, were very upset. We were thinking together about what kinds of things we might do to ensure that no such thing happened again.”
Brown said many college and university leaders responded to the national moment by “throwing money” at racial justice initiatives, such as scholarships. But she wanted to create a multipronged plan for a long-lasting career pipeline to the fashion industry through the center, which will offer “a full panoply of opportunities that will hopefully enrich and ultimately transform these young people’s lives.”
FIT, which is a part of the State University of New York system, partnered with a group of apparel and luxury accessory companies, such as PVH, Capri Holdings Limited, Tapestry Inc. and G-III Apparel Group, who donated $4.5 million to launch the center. Brands including Ralph Lauren, Prada and Saks donated and will participate in the center’s programs as well.
The companies will fund a scholarship program, covering full tuition and expenses such as transportation and books, for a cohort of FIT students from underrepresented backgrounds. Students in the program will intern at the partner companies and will be mentored by company employees and placed in paid apprenticeships when they graduate.
“We spent the time really thinking about how could we really create something that was sustainable 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 companies that really were recognizing that something needed to be done but didn’t know exactly what that was,” Brown said.
Bethann Hardison, founder of the Diversity Coalition, which promotes racial diversity in the fashion industry, said students of color are held back from entering the fashion business by a lack of “exposure to what is possible and the finances to help achieve the opportunity to learn.”
She was among the observers who weighed in on the FIT fashion show and now serves as one of 16 members of an industry advisory council formed in summer 2020 that will guide the Social Justice Center.
“Education, employment, scholarship, and mentorship are all key,” she said in a statement. “Once prepared for opportunity … to have the experience to learn by actually doing is everything.”
Brown said the goal of the training and mentoring efforts is for the companies to ultimately 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 about 40 students per cohort with potential to grow.
The center will also offer programming to younger students. Retail giant Target is funding scholarships to recruit more students of color for FIT’s precollege program, which will expose minoritized middle and high school students to fashion and related careers and help them prepare for the college admissions process.
“I know the students are there,” Brown said. “I know they’re talented and I know they have not recognized the opportunities that are out there for them.”
She noted that even when designers of color successfully enter the industry, they continue to face obstacles to reaching the highest positions in their companies.
“There are people of color who have gotten in the door with many companies, but they are also stuck,” Brown said. “They hit a glass ceiling. It’s not like you see large numbers who have made it into management or the executive level.”
FIT administrators will work with industry leaders to develop a series of graduate-level credentials, 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 across 41 companies in the fashion industry found that half of employees of color described the fashion business as not equally accessible to all qualified candidates, according to a report released last year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and PVH. Most Black employees, 68 percent, reported facing barriers to entering the industry compared to 37 percent of white employees. Additionally, 38 percent of Black employees described feeling underprepared—“not at all equipped”—for their first job search, relative to 19 percent of white employees.
The report also cites 2019 research from McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, which found that people of color only made up 16 percent of executive roles in the apparel and beauty industry while making up 32 percent of entry-level positions.
Jeffrey Tweedy, an alumni of FIT’s menswear program, called the Social Justice Center “a unique model of a higher education/industry partnership that will benefit BIPOC youth, college students, and professionals.” Tweedy, former president and CEO of the menswear company Sean John, will serve as a special adviser to Brown as FIT develops the center.
“This effort is extremely important to me because diversity in the industry has been missing for too long,” he said in a press release.
Ben Barry, dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design at the New School, said underrepresented students face many barriers when they pursue fashion education, including few mentors of color among faculty members and the high cost of living in cities like New York, where Parsons is also located. He saw the racial justice protests in summer 2020 as a powerful reminder to fashion school leaders that “social justice needs to be at the center of all we do.” For example, he said the school of design is currently looking to hire three professors focused on fashion design and social justice and will create a Black student and alumni group starting this spring.
“Social justice is a project that is about redesigning the very core of fashion education,” he said. “That manifests in how we think about our curriculum … how we provide access to students and support them to flourish on their own terms as they make their way through fashion college. It’s about intentional hiring of faculty from underrepresented communities and in particular ways that honor and value their lived experiences as design knowledge, and it’s about partnerships—partnerships with community and industry, with other fashion colleges to manifest social justice in fashion, broadly speaking.”
The lack of inclusion at FIT was the subject of heated town hall meetings and Zoom listening sessions FIT held in the aftermath of the controversial fashion show. Students of color who attended the forums described microaggressions and racial insensitivities they had experienced on campus, Brown said.
Jonathan Kyle Farmer, chair of the fashion design master’s program, and Mary Davis, dean of graduate studies, were put on paid administrative leave because of the incident, and Davis was ultimately dismissed in November 2020, according to a lawsuit the former dean filed against Brown and the institution.
College leaders subsequently mandated annual diversity and cultural sensitivity training for all employees, and faculty members established committees to ensure curricula feature diverse voices.
The center seems like a “very grand response,” but that’s what FIT leaders needed to do to address the magnitude of the issues the fashion show uncovered, said Simon Ungless, executive director of the school of fashion at the Academy of Art University, a for-profit art school in San Francisco that has an annual graduate show at New York Fashion Week.
“That incident kind of took a lid off of a can of worms for them,” he said of the 2020 fashion show. “Any kind of school is going to react to that kind of bad publicity in some way … I think it’s really fantastic that they’re kind of leading that at such a huge level. To bring industry in, to get this kind of funding, I think it’s very neat.”
Brown hopes the Social Justice Center will be a draw and a career launchpad for students of color. Just 9 percent of FIT’s student body was Black in fall 2020, compared to 41 percent white; Latinx students made up 22 percent of the institute’s 8,191 students. Brown wants to increase the numbers of students of color.
“Our own numbers should certainly be higher than they are,” she said.
Brown also wants to help lead a culture shift in the fashion industry.
“I hope the long-term impact of the center will be that we’ve really transformed the culture within some of these companies,” she said. “And that we transform the lives of these young people who might otherwise not have had an opportunity to demonstrate how valuable they could be within these companies as they expand their outreach and their consumer base.”