Prom Plus

students selecting dresses from multiple racks of clothing

It was like a scene from “Yes to the Dress;” all it lacked was Randy Fenoli and wedding plans. It was, instead, all about proms—and it was taking place on the 8 th floor of Dubinsky on a Sunday afternoon in April. There were racks of gowns; stacks of dancing shoes; tables filled with sparkling jewelry and fancy beaded bags and a hair and make-up station, courtesy of Aveda. Then there were the young women—about 35 of them, seniors from the city’s public high schools. It was their day. They were here to find the dress of their dreams. They were here as part of a program called Prom Plus NYC, and as the program founder, Michelle Castro Douglass, told them, “ You deserve this.”

Michelle Douglass is a friend of mine and she told me all about Prom Plus, which she established in 2015. Designed to support underserved New York City students, it provides mentoring, life skill workshops—and finally, and especially, this special “boutique” day. And it is special: all of the gowns and accessories are gifts to the students. They are free. More than one student asked, “But can we really keep these?” The answer, of course, was yes.

The students come to Prom Plus through recommendations from its partner, Statement Arts, a long-established arts and college prep program that serves the same population. Its founder, Liza Politi, was also present. These were students whom she recruited: talented, hard working, high achieving young people with limited financial means, and she was proud of them. Indeed, all of the students whom I met that afternoon were college-bound—and the partnership with Statement Arts explained not only why they were college-bound, but also why so many of them were expecting to major in dance or media or drama programs.

The real drama took place at the racks and then behind screens set up by a team of FIT student Tiger volunteers under the supervision of Christie Graziano, FIT’s associate director of leadership and civic engagement who, when she learned about Prom Plus, thought it would be a perfect community service activity. The gowns were arranged by size, from 0 to 24. But there was palpable concern: would there be enough to choose from in my size? (There were.) Called up in groups of about eight, they rushed to the racks, grabbed their favorite gowns and went behind the screens to start trying them on. And as each emerged from behind the screens, dressed to kill in siren red jersey or pale grey satin or tiger printed taffeta, the looks on their faces told the whole story. Were they saying “yes to the dress?” Without a doubt!

Then they accessorized, selecting shoes and jewelry—the vast majority of which, by the way, was generously donated through the Accessories Council, and I have to say, the jewelry was beautiful.

It was utterly touching to witness how happy these young people were, the fun they were having, and .the joy they expressed at each step along the way. Not that there weren’t some moments of doubt: was the color right? Was it too revealing? Does it flatter? But in the end, they all seemed to have found a gown that was right for them. One curvy young woman was absolutely ecstatic at having found a gown in her size by her favorite designer (Tadashi Shoji) because, she said, “His designs are not usually inclusive.”

Did I mention that there were two young men in the group? Ms. Douglass said she opened the program up to males this year and had suits , shirts and ties available. The two young men were proud to learn how to knot a tie—and even enjoyed it.

male student chooses prom outfit

As much as the world has changed since I was a teenager, the symbolism of the senior prom has not. It remains even today a rite of passage, a big fancy party that marks the end of high school—a party that almost all teenagers want to attend. Yet the majority of students I spoke with made clear that had it not been for this program, they would not be going to their proms—they simply could not afford it.

I did meet some, however, whose families were saving and sacrificing , hoping they could put enough aside to purchase that coveted gown. One young woman, destined for the media program at Pace College, said that she can’t wait to surprise her mother—who didn’t know about Prom Plus and was working extra hours to be able to buy a gown for her daughter. The student had selected a crowd favorite: a soft yellow romantic chiffon gown with a spray of apricot flowers at the waist. “I feel like a princess when I wear it,” she said. She had expected to attend the prom alone, which I gather is a norm these days. But , she said, “Now that I have this princess look, I want to go with a prince…” and yes, she assured me, she had two “princes” to choose from.

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The Museum at FIT 50th Anniversary

The 50th anniversary party for the Museum at FIT offered a welcome opportunity, in the middle of a dreary February, for celebration. To acknowledge this milestone moment in the museum’s history, its director and chief curator, Valerie Steele, and curator of costume and accessories, Colleen Hill, selected from 33 of the museum’s most influential—and often groundbreaking—exhibits to create yet another sensational show: “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT.” This could not have been easy since there were over 200 from which to choose. Just before the doors to the party opened, Valerie—chic as always in black—conducted a private tour of the show for members of our Couture Council.

Museum guests tour the exhibition.
Museum guests tour the exhibition.

Our own Michael Kors calls the museum “the fashion insiders’ fashion museum”—an apt observation! Indeed, the museum lobby was filled to capacity with festive fashion insiders, many of whom happily walked the red carpet on arrival. The mood was celebratory; the crowd was lively, there was a buzz and a real sense of excitement. Valerie and I both offered champagne toasts as did our guest of honor, Tim Gunn, who acknowledged the museum on behalf of the fashion community. Calling the exhibit a “huge wow moment,” he saluted the museum’s relevance and innovative spirit.

Tim Gunn with Dr. Joyce F. Brown and Dr. Valerie Steele
Tim Gunn with Dr. Joyce F. Brown and Dr. Valerie Steele

The show is so alluring that in the midst of all the merrymaking, many guests who wandered down to see it became fully absorbed, and spent much of the rest of the evening there. I think they all would agree with the Wall Street Journal, whose reviewer wrote, “Thank heaven for FIT” for creating the Museum at FIT which has played a “seminal role in framing fashion as art and the fashion exhibition as a display of ideas as well as clothes.” Amen to that!

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Civility for the Season

It’s holiday time—the time of year for me to say thank you to you—the members of the FIT community for all of your good work…for all that you contribute to our legacy and to the students whose lives are transformed within our walls. Year after year, we send thousands of eager, well-educated young people out into the world to make their mark. Indeed, the work that we do to nurture and educate them—whether as faculty, staff, or administration—is work that builds and fuels civilization.

But what can I say about the world into which they are sent. It is a frightening and discouraging place. It is a place where incivility has become the norm and disrespect for tradition and decency prevails. Here at FIT, we have tried to mitigate that trend with a civility campaign that has started to take root within the community. . Right now, the campus is filled with works of art created by faculty, staff and students that are “expressions of civility”—an extraordinary outpouring of work that interprets civility in ways that are surprising, heartening, and illuminating. It is my hope that our students have imbibed enough of its messages to help them navigate the ugliness they will inevitably encounter.

It is my hope, too, that each of us can use this season to reflect on ways that can have a leavening impact on the incivility, anxiety and vulnerability that so many of our neighbors are experiencing. So be kind, be civil, give back in some way…engage in service: it will be the best present you can give to yourself this season—and every other.

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Bridging Cultures with Language

About a dozen people seated in small separate groups, scattered throughout the room, were deep in conversation. There was occasional laughter—and if you listened closely, you heard a jumble of languages. This was a session of the Language Exchange and it was—happily—just as I imagined it might be. Presiding was Educational Skills Professor Charlotte Brown, who founded the Language Exchange three years ago. She reported on it at one of my faculty meetings not long after. Her goal, she said, was to allow non-native speakers of English practice their English while those studying a language such as French or Chinese or Japanese could practice those languages with native speakers. The hope was that the Exchange would attract enough local and foreign born individuals to satisfy the ambitions of all who entered. And so here they were: a group of three, including students from India, South Korea and Vietnam, trying to master American slang; a duo, one American the other Korean—each practicing the other’s native tongue; and a group of four—practicing English and Japanese. There were more people at this particular session than the usual six or eight, but their demographics were the same: students, staff and faculty—even FIT’s “senior scholars”—those non-degree seeking older students who audit FIT classes. At one point on this evening, a staff member walked in and found a Korean student to simply translate a document for her.

Recently, our Cultural Fellows program began sending two fellows to each session. These are either international students or students with extensive international experience. Warm and empathic, they are vested in making our international students feel at home at FIT.

What particularly pleases me about the Language Exchange is the way its sessions act not just as casual, low-risk language-learning opportunities but also as real cultural exchanges. In fact, that is what attracted a number of the participants. Indeed, Nao Fukaya, from Japan, wanted to meet diverse people from all over the world. Fluent in English, she has picked up some Korean and wants to learn Spanish. She joined a group of four, some of whom were interested in practicing Japanese—and were also interested in the culture, for which she was happy to serve as a resource. Daetchen Reljic, an American-born daughter of Serbian and Dominican parents, was seated with young women from Turkey and China. Speaking English, they, too, found the experience a great opportunity for learning about other cultures. Hang Wang, a fashion design student from Hangzhou, China said it best, I thought, when he simply commented that language “allows you to know a culture better.”

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What a treat it is to experience the many visually stunning, large-scale exhibits on our campus.

Right now, the “Pink” and “Fashion Unraveled” exhibits at The Museum at FIT beckon to passersby on Seventh Avenue, as does the newly opened Gallery at the Fred. P. Pomerantz Art and Design Center—with its soaring glass façade—which is hosting “The Future of  the Human Experience,” a show featuring figurative work by FIT students, faculty, and alumni.

And all this is occurring amid the flurry of activity on our exterior walls as this year’s “Chalk” exhibit, a 300-foot-long, street-level mural, is literally being chalked in place along Seventh Avenue and West 28th Street by our illustration majors to great neighborhood interest and enthusiasm.

But along with the large-scale exhibits on display all over campus, we are fortunate to also host many that are smaller in scale. One that particularly captured my attention is on display in the corridor outside of the Great Hall. Called TRANS: ID, it is no less intriguing and fascinating than our larger productions. The show includes the work of FIT students, as well as students from Manchester Fashion Institute in the UK, and Bunka College of Fashion in Tokyo, Japan.

Participating students were asked to develop a visual interpretation of a word with the prefix “trans.” The response from this international group of students was remarkable. I was especially impressed by the variety of “trans” words that they chose (ie: transpose, translate, transgender, transformation, translucent, transit)—and the way the words were visually interpreted through photography, illustration, graphic design, fashion design, jewelry design, and toy design. One of my favorite features of the show, along with its international reach, are the brief, written explanations by the students that explain what motivated their choice of words and approach to the images. These provide a glimpse into the thought processes behind the images, which I found to be both fascinating and thought-provoking.

The exhibit was co-curated by Professor Melanie Reim, acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design, along with colleagues from Manchester Fashion Institute and Bunka College of Fashion. The team selected 50 images, of which 13 were by FIT students. The poster for the show was created by Jose Martinez, a freshman in our Graphic design program.

The show runs through November 2. I’ve included some images from the show, but I hope you will have an opportunity to enjoy it in person.

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