FIT’s First Ever Summer Institute

For four intensive days in June, FIT was a hotbed of sustainability study and activity as we inaugurated our first Summer Institute–an interdisciplinary program that focused specifically on sustainability in fashion and textiles. Designed for industry professionals and academics, it answered a growing need for information on the part of those who want to broaden their understanding of sustainability and, where applicable, integrate it into their businesses. And clearly the need was there because the Institute quickly attracted over 90 applicants from around the world–three times more than it could accommodate. In fact, the Institute’s organizers capped attendance at 30 in order to maintain an optimal learning environment, one in which participants could comfortably and effectively interact with the instructors and with each other.

Participants came from companies as diverse as Eileen Fisher, Karen Kane, and Harley Davidson, and institutions as far reaching as the National Institute of Fashion Technology in India, Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, the University of Idaho, and Mesa Community College in Arizona–not to mention some “closer by” such as Purdue and the University of Kentucky. Indeed, the international component was strong with participants from Ecuador, Denmark, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and numerous individuals from the UK.

Mornings were devoted to lectures and panels on topics such as world fiber consumption, conscious consumerism, eco-fashion design, and 3D design while afternoons were spent in hands-on workshops and labs devoted to screen printing, quality assurance, zero waste, color, and weft knitting technology. Throughout their busy days, the participants came to know one another and got the benefit of their diverse professions and geographic locations–coming to understand the issue of sustainability from many different perspectives. And in a farewell survey, they gave a resounding “thumbs up” to the organizers–many of them expressing an interest in future such opportunities.

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FIT’s Rooftop Natural Dye Garden

I love gardens and have always enjoyed the greenery on the 9th floor terrace of the Marvin Feldman Center. But little did I expect that one day we would have growing there a veritable kingdom of plant life: fennel and hollyhocks, indigo, purple cabbage, rosemary and zinnias, Black eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, purple basil. This profusion of vegetation is the work of three enterprising FIT students who conceived, designed and developed what is FIT’s first natural dye plant garden. Amber Harkonen, Meghan Navoy, and Caitlin Powell–all Textile Development and Marketing students who graduated in May–took their shared passion for preserving the planet and translated it into this tangible, hands-on corrective for the toxic processes so commonly used in the production of textiles around the world.

Their idea for the garden began to germinate just as last year’s Student Government president David Hamilton invited FIT students to come up with proposals that address global issues, proposals inspired enough to be submitted to and selected by the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU). I am proud to say that this proposal was selected and in late March, Amber, Meghan, and Caitlin attended the Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Arizona in Tempe.

When they returned, the students worked with Brooklyn Grange, one of the country’s leading rooftop farming businesses, to build the garden, and its staff will continue to guide them. Today, just weeks after they went into the ground, the plants are flourishing–growing in two 10 x 14 foot beds–some of them “as high as an elephant’s eye.” The first harvest will be ready for sale at FIT’s Thursday Flea Markets in the fall.

The students also met and were mentored by knitwear designer and natural dyer Liz Spencer. They hope that the garden generates enough student interest to justify a series of natural dyeing workshops. Indeed, as members of the Class of 2014, they see this garden as their gift to future FIT students–a place where students from all disciplines can learn about the beauty of natural dyes and their benefit to the environment.

Even though they graduated in May, Amber, Meghan and Caitlin will be on campus–on the terrace–throughout the summer, tending to the garden. I look forward to seeing them there and reporting on the garden’s progress throughout the year.

Read more about the Rooftop Natural Dye Garden

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Expanding Arts Education in New York City

New York City got some excellent news the other day when Mayor De Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that as part of the new fiscal budget, $23 million will be spent to expand arts education in the city’s schools. This news follows a report issued by Comptroller Stringer in April which found that many of the city’s public schools offer no education in the arts; that 20 percent had no arts teachers—and that the shortage is particularly stark in low-income areas.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new: for years, the arts have been treated as a step-child in our country’s primary and secondary schools, and as a life-long educator, I find this heart-breaking. Over the years, first as a student, then as a professor, advisor, mentor, and administrator in New York’s public higher education system, I have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of education. And it is especially here at FIT, that I see—almost daily—talented, passionately motivated, and creative students determined to learn and to turn their dreams into reality. However, I think that few of our students—however bright and gifted—could have reached FIT’s doors without the kind of educational background that provides sustained encouragement, training, and exposure to the arts. As Dana Gioia, the former NEA chairman, once said, “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination.”

I myself recall the influence that my school’s art appreciation classes–and even piano lessons–had on me as a child. And yet today, education in the arts is considered, as Mr. Stringer said, “expendable.” Federal testing mandates and plummeting public funds notwithstanding, many people—even educators—think of the arts as add-ons: hobbies, fun extracurricular activities, but certainly not pivotal to a child’s education.

They are wrong. As studies show again and again that youngsters who participate in the arts on a steady basis for just one year are far more likely to achieve academically in every area from math and science to writing. Their attendance records soar; they read for pleasure nearly twice as much as their peers and become far more likely to participate in community service. Some may grow up to become artists or designers, as many of our students do, but all of them are indelibly enriched and undoubtedly become more complete human beings.

That is why I believe we are fortunate to have leaders in New York who understand the necessity of arts education in our schools and are willing to invest in it. I hope their efforts encourage others across the country to do the same.

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Sustainability Shapes Millennial Shopping Habits

One of the most interesting outcomes of one of the latest polls on the Millenials came as a kind of a footnote. The poll was designed to examine the purchasing patterns of these 18 to 34-year olds–probably the most intensely and frequently studied generation in research history. And while the findings on how they buy were certainly interesting and no doubt of great value to manufacturers and retailers, I found one small outcome perhaps the most intriguing. The researchers found that almost one-third of Millenial customers have stopped buying from companies “when they’ve become aware of social practices they deem unacceptable.”

That is promising. We know that this generation cares about the environment and embraces, in general, the values and ethics of sustainability. Here at FIT, sustainability is an issue that our student body has, for a long time, supported, promoted, and rallied around.

But they are consumers, after all. They love to shop. Moreover, many of them are out and out fashionistas–and like their peers at other colleges and universities, they can develop a touch of amnesia when they walk into the latest fast-fashion shop…or fall in love with a cute top from a notorious brand. So to learn that almost a third of Millenials–no doubt all from FIT–are making ethical decisions in their personal shopping habits is good news indeed. I think the next question is how we can boost that percentage higher–and then influence the next generation–teens from 14 to 17–to follow suit.

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What a Wonderful Evening

What a wonderful evening! Our annual gala in early June, which drew over 600 high-spirited people to Cipriani, honored three very loyal friends of FIT: our own trustees Joan Hornig and Dr. Jay Baker, as well as Linda Fargo, senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman.

The room was beautiful, enhanced by the tall exotic multi-colored birds perched everywhere that were created by students in our Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design program. But what turned the room electric was the great warmth that the audience felt towards our honorees. And as they made their individual remarks, they did not disappoint!

Linda Fargo was introduced by the witty Alber Elbaz–and the affection between the two of them was palpable. It was a pleasure to hear her own delightful account of her journey from the suburbs of Milwaukee to the pinnacle of fashion success in New York City.

Joan Hornig’s husband George did the tribute to his wife and surprised her with the announcement of a $100,000 scholarship fund for a jewelry design student in her name– as his own gift to her. We all were moved, but no one more so than Joan, I think. Joan is a jewelry designer who turns the proceeds from her work to charitable organizations of the purchasers’ choice; there is no question but that her husband knew exactly the kind of gift that would please her most.

Jay Baker, wearing a uniquely festive sparkling tie, hosted more than 30 of his “Baker Scholars,” students who have received scholarships from him since 2001, when he contributed an unprecedented $10 million to the college. Two Baker scholars did his presentation–both very gracious and grateful. And Jay, in his upbeat and exuberant remarks, surprised all of us by announcing a $1 million gift to the college.

The audience was attentive and enthusiastically responsive to our honorees as they made their remarks–contributing to the warm and joyful ambiance throughout the room. And thanks to the great hearts and generosity of all in attendance and especially to George and Jay, the college raised $2.5 million. As I said–a wonderful evening!

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