Thom Browne Honored at Couture Council Luncheon

What a pleasure it was to honor Thom Browne at our annual Couture Council luncheon earlier this month. The designer, whose innovative collections for men and women have been universally celebrated by his peers, accepted the Artistry of Fashion award with great humility from his long-time friend, Whoopi Goldberg. “This man brings joy,” she said—and she was right.

Across the David Koch Theater, where the luncheon was held, 500 people smiled broadly throughout the ceremony, both touched and charmed by Mr. Browne. It helped, of course, that his Hector handbag—a witty take on his beloved dachshund—perched on a podium nearby. Unlike the tailored Browne outfits so many admirers, male and female, wore that afternoon, Ms. Goldberg was dressed in a large bold and brilliantly colored robe, also designed by Thom Browne.

This year’s luncheon raised $943,000, the second highest grossing luncheon in our 12-year history, a tribute to the hard work of the Couture Council, its treasured beneficiary, the Museum at FIT, and of course to Thom Browne.

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Reflecting on Charlottesville…and FIT

I am something of an idealist when it comes to educational institutions. After all these years, I think of them still as the pathway to knowledge and reason, wisdom and understanding, and lives transformed, all for the better. And so I believe that those of us who have the privilege of living and working in an educational institution have a special obligation to protect, as best we can, our democracy and the free and open society we cherish. The malevolence, ignorance and egregious behavior recently on display in Charlottesville must be repudiated. That is not only the job of our leaders, it is our job as well. FIT is a remarkably diverse community. Our offices, corridors and classrooms are filled with people of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity– -not to mention geographic origin. Each one of us must be made welcome here. I can think of no time more urgent than now for us, as educators, educational administrators and students, to disavow the ugliness of Charlottesville by modelling civility, and by dedicating ourselves to our common humanity—to live and teach the values of brotherhood, tolerance and cross-cultural respect—and to honor at all times the spirit of our national motto: E pluribus unum—out of many, we are one. But this must be more than a response to a momentary event, because all too soon, we will be tested again. Our commitment must be constant and real and authentic—enough to transform our distress and outrage into the kind of dialogue and meaningful action that characterize the best of us—and the best of FIT.

The question is: how do we, as a community, do that genuinely. I have spoken frequently on this theme throughout the years, in particular emphasizing the importance of every day civility in our environment, not just as an ideal, but as actual individual behavior. Behavior that is owned and acknowledged. That is where it starts. That is why I am reaching out to you so early in the academic year. I can try to lay the groundwork by supporting programs and other services. But to approach this wisely in a determined and meaningful way, I need your ideas and suggestions—your engagement. Ours is a community rich in creativity and idealism and I believe that now is our opportunity, as an educational institution, to develop a plan that speaks to us as a community—a community that thrives on understanding, reciprocity, civility and inclusion. I have set up an email account so that you can share your thoughts and ideas and I look forward to hearing from you. Please write to me at

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FIT Grows a Pair of Baby Shoes

baby shoeIf you had told me when I first arrived at FIT—almost 20 years ago—that during my tenure, FIT students will be creating their own color dyes from plants they grow on our terraces, developing knitting yarn from fungi, and “growing” baby shoes from plant materials, I would certainly have accused you of indulging in too much science fiction. Yet here we are having achieved all three and becoming a growing institutional presence in that elevated realm of innovation where design, science, and technology converge.

It was just a year ago that FIT took first place in the first annual Biodesign Challenge, an international competition created by a group of leading scientists, designers, and educators. Its goal is to encourage students to explore the potential of biological design to make a difference in our environment. I have been bragging about the infant tee-shirt our team of fashion design students created from algae ever since. While we didn’t take home a trophy this year, our team was one of only 20—out of 400 who submitted projects from 22 universities throughout the world—selected to present at the competition Summit this summer.

Using all natural processes and materials, our three students—Arianna Wong, a fashion business management major, and Danielle Esposito and Dylon Shepelsky, both Textile Development Marketing majors—“grew” a pair of baby shoes from plant material in just eight weeks.

Guided by Science and Mathematics Professor Theanne Schiros and Textile/Surface Design Professor Susanne Goetz , with assistance from Accessories Design Professor Ann Markia Veploegh Chase, the team employed a remarkable mix of cutting-edge science and old-world technology.

team members

First, I am told, they used bacteria, yeast, and mycelium to transform wood-shop waste into a very organic “leather.” Second, they turned to Native-American tanning and preservation techniques to make the shoes water-repellent and flame-retardant. Pineapple fiber was blended into a thread that team members used to stitch the pieces together. Oh, and as though that weren’t enough, the team also infused plant seeds into the material itself so that, upon reaching the end of their useful lives, the shoes can be planted in the ground to grow a batch of carrots.

Twenty years ago, it would not have occurred to me that one of our business students might be part of a team designing and developing a shoe. That kind of interdisciplinary participation, while not science fiction, was still on the distant horizon. Today, one of my mantras is the strength of interdisciplinary activity to fuel innovation, and I think that this amazing biological shoe, developed by an interdisciplinary team of students, advised by faculty from science and design, is proof. I congratulate the students and their advisors for their outstanding effort. Their selection into the narrow circle of competitors in the Biodesign Challenge underscores the numerous ways that FIT, as Professor Schiros so aptly put it, is actively working to dissolve the boundaries between art and science.

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Keeping FIT Cybersafe

It is not if, but when.

The “it” I am referring to is a malicious cyberattack on FIT’s digital infrastructure—one that does serious damage. That is the prediction of Walter Kerner, our acting Chief Information Security Officer, and it’s one we should take seriously given the most recent worldwide ransomware attack.

Walter came to us a little more than a year ago from a career protecting digital assets and infrastructure in the corporate world. He is FIT’s first chief information security officer. He and Greg Fittinghoff, our acting vice president for Information Technology, as well as everyone on the IT for FIT team, are working diligently to roll out an Information Technology Strategic Plan—an ambitious and forward-looking initiative to improve and reinforce FIT’s cybersecurity for today and for the future. This initiative includes our Cybersafe website, newsflashes on cybersecurity matters, and a wide range of tech awareness activities and training for everyone on campus.

While it is reassuring to know that our IT operation is aggressively plotting protective procedures, Walter has made it clear that FIT is nevertheless no more or less a target than any other institution, and I’m sure it keeps him on high alert.

“We need to get the idea across that someone, somewhere would be only too happy to attack us, for any number of reasons, even to use FIT as a conduit to some other party,” he told me. “This is a real and present danger.”

Human error is a big part of most cyber-crime. Without thinking, we click on unknown links, open messages from unknown parties or get careless with our passwords. And this is true both for older “adapters” and for young people who are “digital natives.”

So a big part of the Cybersafe effort is aimed at teaching us how to protect our information and reduce the risk of attack. And I am glad to report that FIT students—those digital natives—are getting an opportunity to aid in that process.

Walter is working with Loretta Volpe, associate chairperson and professor in the Advertising & Marketing Communication Department, to get students’ help in spreading the Cybersafe message to their peers. This fall, her students will be asked to develop ideas for campus-wide information security awareness campaigns aimed specifically at the student body. One campaign will focus on general cyber awareness and another on cyber bullying—an unfortunate reality for more and more college students. The most effective ideas will be adopted and implemented.

Our students always amaze me with all that they accomplish so I look forward to seeing the Cybersafe campaign they create. And as always, I am grateful that so many members of the community are working to keep the college as safe as possible from the inevitable cyberattacks that keep Walter and our IT for FIT team up at night.

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Fair Highlights Student Research

Every time I turn around, it seems, I learn about another exciting project taking place here on campus. With such a dynamic faculty and resourceful student body, it should not surprise me. One good example is the Presidential Scholars Research Fair which took place in early March. The reason I found it so exciting, and worth blogging about, was that it exemplifies so many of our strategic goals and ambitions: it’s all about undergraduate participation in research, interdisciplinary exploration and innovation; it promotes the campus-wide culture of research that we seek, and it certainly encourages greater academic and co-curricular intellectual engagement for our students.

The Fair was inspired by Professor Yasmin Celik Levine, the director of the Presidential Scholars Program. She wanted to set the bar higher for her honors students—and for FIT—by challenging them to explore topics of their own choosing and to learn to use a range of research methods that would create new knowledge about or perspectives on these topics. A tall order. Together with Brian Fallon, our Writing Center director, she developed the Presidential Scholars Senior Seminar, a new course, that required students to produce a capstone project—a 25 page thesis or creative project—on a topic of personal, social, cultural, political, or scholarly interest, along with a presentation of their findings. In addition to Dr. Fallon, the course was taught by Professors Rebecca Bauman and Richard Turnbull.

Initially not every student was thrilled with this new mandatory course. Not only were they being asked to do original research (often from primary sources), but for those not developing a creative project, they also were required to write a 25 page paper, significantly longer than the kind of writing they typically are assigned at FIT, and a prospect that some found to be “scary.”

The Fair was the culmination of the course. It was arranged like a scholarly conference with oral presentations as well as a showcase for all of the students work. An evening event that included dinner, it took place in the Great Hall and made use of the adjacent seminar rooms for concurrent presentations. About 180 people attended.

The students more than rose to the challenge. They tackled a wide array of diverse topics. Here are some of the tempting titles:

  • Elite Class Portrayals of Rural, White America
  • The Inauthenticity of the Personal Brand
  • Not Sorry: Analyzing the Rise of Anger, Power, and Black Womanhood through Beyonce’s “Lemonade” Lens
  • Psycho: The Evolution of Stigma around Mental Illness
  • Media Representation of Feminism with a Focus on TV Commercials
  • How to Find the Most Cost-Effective Place to Live in the Big Apple
  • The Wounds May Heal, but the Scars Remain Forever: The Comfort Women
  • Taming the Wild, Wild Web: Ethics and the World of Hacktivism

Among the fascinating creative projects on display were photos on for a topic called “Inside Anxiety” and a coffee table and coffee table book created by an interior design student, all inspired by an engraving by the 16th century artist Albrecht Durer on the theme of melancholia.

Among the attendees were Presidential Scholars in their junior year getting a taste of what awaits them next year. I hope they are excited by it. I certainly am!

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