Fashion Institute of Technology

...Joanne Arbuckle, Dean of FIT, speaks about success, sustainability and business

by Jemma Gray
Joanne Arbuckle is Dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology; better known as FIT and one of New York’s most important Design schools. Arbuckle is an industry professional with more than 30 years experience. Before teaching she worked for several companies as a designer and merchandiser. She has also served as a consultant and industry expert witness for law firms on matters concerning Childrenswear safety. She divulges that educators are perfect for such a role because of their innate objectivity and lack of vested interest. FIT enrols 4,000 students and has a faculty of 537 teaching staff. Arbuckle joined FIT in 1986 before being appointed Dean in 2007. She speaks candidly to NJAL about the prestigious support of FIT’s highflying alumni. A recent generous gift from Calvin Klein raises the bar for an even more spectacular show this year.

We greatly appreciate Arbuckle’s frankness when delving into what she feels FIT must do to move with the technology-accelerated reality of today’s industry. She identifies what students must do to excel in today’s tougher climate - including how she plans to implement such support into the curriculum. FIT has excelled in recent CFDA scholarships and Arbuckle praises the initiative for the extensive, cooperative feedback it offers to schools. We ask Arbuckle what her role as Dean of one of the finest fashion schools in the world entails. She openly reveals how FIT views the ‘business of fashion’ in direct parallel to creative design itself - in fact it always has done. FIT's annual BFA catwalk show, Future of Fashion is on the evening of 2 May, 2012. NJAL awaits this new group of talented graduates' wonderful work.

How would you describe what you do as Dean of the school of Art and Design at FIT?

I think first and foremost I am the supporter and the promoter of what the chairs view as the important goals for their programme. I naturally work with them in identifying these goals, but I really serve as the person that brings it all together and am the voice of the whole school as opposed to being the voice of separate programmes. Therefore, I am the advocate for their needs and the promoter of all the wonderful things that they do. I serve as the vision for the school of Art and Design and we work together to move the school forward.

What single task takes up the majority of your time on a day-to-day basis?

There are the usual administrative tasks, which I don’t think any of us die to jump up in the morning and accomplish, but they are very important. And then there are what I consider the fun things – like piecing the puzzle together. If I would like to accomplish something, how can I find a creative resolution to accomplish it? What do I see coming down the pipe in the future that I think we should be thinking about as an Art and Design school? It’s really the big picture that I see as the fun part and doing the day-to-day as the necessary part, but equally as important.

You worked as a fashion designer yourself before moving into education, from your experience how has the environment for emerging designers developed since then?

Yes, I did work as a designer and how has it changed? Well, I grew up in the day when everything happened here. Fashion Avenue was a very vibrant community. Life was the racks of garments going up and down the streets. New York is not that way anymore. There is a different way of being a designer and I think that for some it has been an easier shift than others. I think that as an industry we probably haven’t embraced technology in the way that other industries have. And I think that’s been a little hard for some of the creative’s in this industry. This is a major change in the last 25 years for the industry. As educators, it’s so critical that we don’t get left behind in the world of what was important when we started out. It’s a totally different world to that of our students and a much smaller one in many ways too.

I noticed you have worked extensively as an Industry Consultant for almost 10 years. Of course FIT offers world class degrees on the business side of fashion. Am I correct in thinking FIT prides itself in being predominately a fashion business school? Ie, it views fashion first and foremost as a business?

A big part of that is because my background was in intimate apparel and childrenswear. The children’s Sleepwear industry in the United States has a significant amount of regulations associated with it. Most of those have to do with flame retardancy, so in essence, real health and safety issues. You might be aware that for instance in Europe you are allowed to have a string in the hood or jacket but in the US that is against the law. My role as an industry consultant has been to serve as an expert witness in legal cases where perhaps a child has been burned. I’m sure as you are aware the United States is a very litigious society – so if a child is burned, perhaps the parents are suing the store where the item was purchased or the manufacturer. And even if it’s a licensed product, the licensor is still liable. I think educators are a desirable group as expert witnesses because we are there to tell the truth. I have no vested interest in any party. It’s really to be a voice of reason, so to speak, and be able to give an opinion on what was the responsibility of the manufacturer and where it makes sense and where it doesn’t. In regard to import, sometimes there are customs issues – should it be classified as this, or as that... so I have been asked to serve in that capacity.

In regards to FIT I think that we pride ourselves on being both a business and creative fashion school, which I think is the unique thing about FIT. Many institutions are either the ‘fashion’ or the ‘business of fashion’ and we are both. We are a business school that has a focus on the business side of the industry and we are a school of art and design, whose focus is totally on design.

How is FIT unique to the other fashion schools in New York? Does FIT think about the afterlife of the student more because it instils in them the significance of needing to think in a business sense post graduation?

I think what’s unique is that we have all of those strengths mentioned, where most schools may not. Most schools can be very strong in the world of design, but they don’t offer business. I think FIT is unique for this and it has a global presence. I think at this point the Post-Graduate school is still maturing and finding its place in the world. We just launched two programmes in the last year, an MA in Sustainable Interior Environments and an MA in Illustration and now it’s a decision about where we are going to go with Fashion. At the moment the Graduate school’s only fashion programme is in Global Fashion Management and it’s a business programme. So now it’s the move forward with how we might launch with an MA in Fashion Design.

How does the Museum and exhibition space at FIT facilitate spotlighting your students?

We are so lucky as a community. It’s a great space, but it’s also a wonderful resource for our faculty and our students. Students have the ability to call up and say 'I’m working on a project where we are talking about American designers and I need to pull some samples'.

They will do two things for us at the museum; they will pull the samples that they call our classroom tools and students get to touch them and look inside them, so maybe you want a student to look at a Chanel suit so they can feel the lining and see how it fits together. Then there are those special requests where, with the support of a faculty member, a student can go into the archives of the museum with one of the curators and then they pull the materials that are very special and not something to be handled. So I think it’s pretty wonderful that our students have access on both levels as well as of course the rotating exhibitions that take place at the museum throughout the year.

FIT recently won honours in each of four scholarship categories from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). What gave you the edge?

You are right! We have really excelled in the CFDA Scholarship competition in the last few years – I applaud the CFDA because they really have worked very hard to make this an educational experience for the students and by getting back to these schools with what they really think alongside a critique of why they select what they select. From a student’s perspective, of course it’s fabulous that they win and we are thrilled, but really it’s about learning from this. The CFDA has been wonderful. We are just so happy that in the last few years we have done very well and I think this speaks to the faculty and curriculum

Your annual ‘Future of Fashion’ BFA catwalk show, taking place on 2 May, 2012 is set to a high professional standard, with esteemed visiting critics and judges, such as Calvin Klein and Carolina Hererra. Is it hard to keep expectations satisfied?

It’s wonderful that this has moved into an arena of being noticed and with that comes a lot of responsibility! I guess I could say that you are only as good as your last line, so each year just has to get better and better. I am happy to share with you that we received a wonderful donation from Calvin Klein, a gift of $2 Million in support of the show. So we are very excited about this. It means that the pressure is on though. The forthcoming show has to better than it has ever been before. We have some phenomenal critics this year. We have Diane Von Furstenburg, Josie Natori, who just launched her first Sportswear line, so she serves as a critic for sports clothing, Michelle Smith doing Childrenswear, Betsy Johnson for Intimates.

We have a great mix of critics that are not the same critics as last year. We have lots of classes and so need lots of critics. We then move onto the judges, which are the Nina Garcia’s of the world. The judges are always different from the critics and the judges come from the more editorial side of the industry because, to be honest, they are the ones judging fashion and putting into the news and press who they think is the next big thing. We want to be very careful to make sure that none of the designers serving as critics are involved in the judging as they become personally attached to the students. They look at around 200 garments and edit down to a show of about 90…I am also very much aware that the bigger this show grows the more in tune we need to be with making it absolutely perfect.

What does the future look like for FIT? Will you be embracing digital technology as a means to accelerating what you produce or will you be more focused on the slow fashion movement in developing sustainable design?

The two biggest things are sustainability (so I think that someone like Sass Brown is really a leader in that area) and secondly, social media and the role that plays in the world of design in a way that no one dreamed it ever could. I think those are two directions that we need to look at and how we best integrate it into the technology. I think that one of the mistakes with technology in the world of fashion is that it was always separate and that’s not what it is at all. I think it’s getting everyone to understand that it's part of fashion and it shouldn’t be that you just go to your CAD class and leave it there; it should be integrated. What are your fashion blogs doing? As a designer you need to be able to do this, because that’s the world that everybody lives in. So this and sustainable design will be our focus.

We try and instil a marketing and PR aspect into the course and we try and do it in enrichment components of the course. But I believe it needs to be integrated better into the curriculum. At some point the curriculum is bursting at the seams, but what we need to do a better job of is making sure we remove the redundancy so that the students are not overwhelmed with projects, but that we give more breadth to what they do. In that respect I think that we are working very hard at this point to look at the curriculum and give the students a little more choice. By our nature we have always had a very restrictive curriculum and that is not the world today. What we are struggling with is both keeping true to what is the core FIT experience, while allowing the students to really experiment in ways that support where they would like to go as designers as opposed to us deciding where they would like to go.