FIT Goes to Washington

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“Is this not cool?” Those were among First Lady Michelle Obama’s opening words when she addressed the crowd of high school students and famous fashion designers at a luncheon as part of her recent Fashion Education Workshop. I watched Mrs. Obama’s speech on my Ipad as I traveled to Washington by train for the reception to celebrate the fashion industry that would culminate the day.

Indeed, how cool is it that the First Lady of the land has not only recognized the importance of the fashion industry to our country’s economy—but also, and perhaps especially, has consistently made such a strong link between the future of the industry and education? How cool is it that she brought in 150 high school students that morning to participate in workshops led by the elite of the fashion design industry—Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg and Phillip Lim? How cool is it that she approached FIT last spring with a secret request that we sponsor a contest to design a dress for her to wear to this event?

As I think most members of our community now know, Mrs. Obama selected designs by two of our students: Natalya Koval and Chelsea Chen. At the luncheon, she was wearing Natalya’s design and next to her, on a mannequin near the podium, was Chelsea’s dress. I could not have been prouder.

We met up with Natalya and Chelsea that evening as we waited, along with many of today’s fashion industry luminaries, inside the East Gate to enter the White House. They were elated—and wearing, I should add, newly created dresses of their own design. Many of FIT’s good friends and “family members” were there, including trustee Robert Savage and his wife Nanette Lepore ’83, Lafayette 148 designer Edward Wilkerson (which is trustee Deirdre Quinn’s company), Carolina Herrera, Fern Mallis, Michelle Smith’93, and Zac Posen. The corridor leading to the East Room, where the party was being held, was lined with mannequins dressed in designer gowns that Mrs. Obama had worn to a variety of formal occasions. The mood—enhanced by a small music combo and champagne—was exuberant. I am estimating that Mrs. Obama shook about 300 hands that night as the receiving line snaked through the East Room, the Green Room and finally, the Blue Room where she stood. And although, under the circumstances, none of us had an opportunity to hold a “real” conversation with her, her appreciation of FIT—and her dedication to education—was palpable. She could not have been more gracious or more impressive.

This is not the first time I have had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Obama. Last spring, she invited 10 FIT students to join her as she cut the ribbon to open the Charles James exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our students joined a large contingent of fashion’s most celebrated names, but Mrs. Obama nevertheless took the time to meet separately with them and to speak with them individually. Her message to them was the same one she delivered to the students at the White House luncheon while wearing Natalya’s dress: combine your passion for design with higher education and hard hard work…take risks, because, she said, “Risks, failure, it’s all part of being great.”

With great good humor, Mrs. Obama reiterated her own love for fashion and respect for the fashion industry in the East Room that evening. Wearing a blue embroidered Oscar de la Renta dress, she cheered the designers but circled back, as she always seems to do, to the centrality of education and the role it must play for the industry, and young people, to succeed.

Natalya and Chelsea had a life-changing experience—one clearly only available to FIT students. I am thrilled for them. I am also thrilled for FIT and grateful to our fashion design faculty—whose members nurtured our two students every step of the way—allowing them, and FIT, to have this memorable White House moment.

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College Rankings

I am not a fan of college rankings. Their quantitative approach to educational institutions and questionable criteria invariably fail to capture the true zeitgeist–and quality–of a college. Nor can they predict if a college is the right fit for a particular student, no matter how highly it is ranked. But choosing a college can be an overwhelming experience, and it is easy to understand why college applicants and their families look to them so often for guidance.

Recently a new and insightful college ranking system was developed by a research company that wanted to learn where students who are admitted to more than one institution actually enroll. It found that colleges with a special mission far outrank the Harvards and Yales. The top ranked national liberal arts college in this survey turned out to be the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is number 25 on the U.S. News & World Report list. Mt. Holyoke, one of the country’s few remaining women’s colleges, is number 38 in U.S. News’s rankings, but number 13 in this survey.

Where does FIT fit in this picture? Well, because we do not “fit” into the categories used by U.S. News, we are not part of its survey. But in a recent article in the New York Times about this research, FIT was mentioned as one of those mission-specific institutions–like RISD or Brigham Young–with a great, if hidden, advantage. As the article pointed out, “many students have found that the best school for them is not necessarily the highest ranked, but one that is most tailored with respect to type of education or fellow students.” So if they are looking for a specific kind of education or even environment, they might choose a religious institution like Brigham Young, for instance, over Carnegie Mellon or Wesleyan.

This is no surprise to me. FIT has no shortage of applicants. Moreover, a remarkable 82 percent of the students we accept actually enroll–which tells me that those who apply to FIT really want to be here. On the other hand, I worry about the thousands of prospective students who rely on U.S. News and other such guides, and never learn about schools such as FIT that do not appear in the rankings–or even why those that do, such as Mt. Holyoke or Brigham Young, may be just the right ones for them.

The numbers that make up rankings are incapable of telling a story–of reflecting quality. They cannot convey a college’s atmosphere, the tenor of its student body, the rigor of its programs (and which among them are special or unique to that college), the quality and passions of its faculty, indeed, the quality of campus life, its physical environment, its co-curricular programs–or a host of other related matters that prospective students should consider. They cannot tell why a particular student would–or would not–fit a particular college, regardless of its ranking. That is why U.S. News & World Report, and all of the other metric-based guides, do such a serious disservice to the American public.

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Couture Council Honors Carolina Herrera

Last month, FIT helped kick off Fashion Week at Lincoln Center with our annual Couture Council luncheon. We had the pleasure of honoring Carolina Herrera who drew a house full of admirers, including the crème de la crème of the fashion world. Spirits were high, thanks in part to Seth Meyers, whose repartee as emcee kept everyone laughing–and in part, of course, to the warmth everyone present felt for Carolina. It was all in a good cause: the luncheon raised almost $900,000 for The Museum at FIT.

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No Impact Week

As a college, FIT does a good deal to promote the goals of sustainability. But in the end, those lofty goals will go nowhere if we do not make them personal and take individual responsibility for putting them into practice: recycle our trash, consume mindfully, turn out the lights and so on. This week, FIT is joining a host of other colleges and universities for seven days of “green” activities–designed to raise our collective consciousness–called “No Impact Week.”

Sponsored and organized by the FIT Sustainability Council, it has already generated great buy-in from our entire community: students, faculty and staff–and this does not surprise me given our record on sustainability. Over the course of the week, opportunities to improve the quality of our lives will be offered in many different ways: field trips–to a recycling plant one day to see what happens to our waste and to Coney Island Beach another day to observe marine wildlife; safe biking lessons; a green market on our breezeway with local farmers selling fresh produce; a “weave-a-thon” using salvaged yarns and textiles ; lessons in LEED and a potluck vegetarian dinner–among many others.

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Weave-A-Thon is a crowdsourced art project using salvaged yarns and textiles. Everyone is invited to contribute.

I don’t know if any of us will ever be able to match the “achievements” of Colin Beavan, the man behind “No Impact Week,” who, with his wife, children and dog, famously lived a zero-impact life in the middle of New York City for a year. They used no paper goods, no electricity, no carbon-fueled transportation; they ate only local organically grown foods, etc. and he lived to write about it. The experiment became the subject of a popular book and documentary. I don’t know how many of us want to go that far in our attempt to heal the planet. But certainly we owe it to ourselves and to our community to try–if even with small steps–to do as much as we can to lower our impact on the environment.

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Prince Bebe

10FO4210One day last month, I was going through the pages of Womens Wear Daily and saw an article entitled Dog Days of Summer: Designers Discuss Their Canine Companions. There was Rocky, a Norfolk terrier owned by Georgina Chapman; LouLou, a Maltese belonging to FIT alum Reem Acra; and Gaspar, a toy poodle in the arms of Carolina Herrera. Sitting at my side was Bebe, my bichon frisé, wondering–just as I was–why he had not been included.

Of course, I am not a designer, but FIT is the wellspring of designers who are featured in WWD every day! And I think of Bebe as one of FIT’s most popular and important ambassadors. After all, he welcomes members of the FIT community and industry insiders whenever I host an event in my home. Every time we go for a walk–be it right here on campus or on the surrounding streets in Chelsea–he is greeted with a smile, and often by name. Indeed, I sometimes forget myself and think that the approaching person is smiling at me …but no…the smile is directed at Bebe. Invariably, too, there will be conversation, but again, not with me: with Himself! So since WWD did not think to include Bebe in its article, I have decided to blog about him today, using WWD’s Q & A format and some of its questions.

Dog’s favorite summer activity: chasing geese by the lake in the country and running without his bad-weather boots

His biggest guilty pleasure: eating doggy ice cream and duck treats

His greatest talent: teaching me how to speak and understand “dog”

What he still needs to work on: telling the truth about how many treats he has eaten and controlling his princely attitude and “king of the jungle” self-image

His favorite place on campus: my office desk

His favorite summer outfit: none–and especially not boots.

Now boots or no boots, Bebe can’t live on the FIT campus and escape from the demands of fashion. He positively struts in his cashmere or shearling coats or his Burberry plaid-lined raincoat, all of which complement his snowy white fur. And I am proud to say that he is frequently a featured presence in FIT’s annual pet runway show. He is a very special member of the family and a source of joy and amusement. So I confess that if Bebe has a somewhat privileged and regal air about him, it is because he has no idea he is a dog, and no-one has dared to tell him!

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