With nearly $4 million in funding, the school wants to build a pipeline of diverse fashion talent from middle school to the C – suite.
Change takes time: That was the sentiment underlying many corporate responses in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, as the fashion industry, among others, faced new calls for systemic change.
But it is also the sentiment underlying a sprawling, still – in – progress plan from the Fashion Institute of Technology to open the Social Justice Center at F.I.T.
The center will aim to expose Black, Indigenous and people of color to fashion careers early in life (in middle school and high school) and support them through the executive level.
‘When you talk about building a pipeline, you’re not talking about immediate gratification’, said Joyce Brown, the president of F.I.T., one of the world’s top fashion schools.
The plan began taking shape in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s murder, Dr. Brown said. At the time, F.I.T. was already dealing with criticism of racial insensitivity, particularly after a runway show in March 2020 in which models wore oversize lips and blown – up ‘monkey’ ears.
‘There was a lot of rhetoric, a lot of talk, a lot of concern, a lot of guilt’, said Dr. Brown, who in 1998 become the college’s first African American and its first female president. ‘But to really take advantage, if you will, of all that concern, and try and create something that would make a meaningful and systemic difference – it really felt like an obligation to try and figure out what that might look like’.
The objective F.I.T. ultimately landed on: increasing the number of people of color who choose and advance in careers in fashion and adiacent fields (like advertising, communications and beauty).
Several specifics are still being finalized, the school said, but the center will include efforts to educate young students about career paths and prepare them for college admissions (through seminars or workshops with professors, students and professionals, for example).
At the college level, there will be scholarships for students of color provided by Ralph Lauren, Prada, Carolina Herrera and Capri Holdings (owner of Versace, Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo), and also paid internships for the students with these companies.
Dr. Brown acknowledge that the first reaction of many companies to the racial reckoning, back in June 2020, was to ‘throw money’ at the problem. They donated money to schools for scholarships but dit not provide further opportunities for those students. Nor were they ‘really looking internally to see what they ought to be doing in their own companies’, she said.
F.I.T. also plans to offer career guidance after college, with programs for mentorship and management skill building, and to advocate promotion opportunities and develop executive training. Additionally, F.I.T. has promised ‘ongoing accountability’ to track progress in the industry, an effort that has remained challenging in the aftermath of the fashion industry’s reckoning, as most companies still don’t disclose much diversity data.
According to the school, the Social Justice Center has received nearly $4 million in funding, including $1 million each from PVH Corp (the parent company of Calvin Klein, whose namesake is an F.I.T. alumnus, and Tommy Hilfiger), Tapestry Inc. (Coach, Kate Spade) and Capri.
Jeffrey Tweedy, the former president and chief executive of Sean John and an adviser to the Social Justice Center, said he hopes a stronger link between F.I.T. and the corporate world will lead to ‘drastic changes’.
As an F.I.T. alumnus who studied men’s wear design and marketing, Mr. Tweedy said he rarely saw other students or faculty of color and has over the years seen firsthand fashion’s tendency to treat racial progress as a trend.
”I want to make this a permanent movement and not fall back to the patterns that we’ve succumbed to in the past’, Mr. Tweedy said. For him, such a program ‘could have opened the doors quicker’.