Earlier this month, The Fashion Institute of Technology held their very first show for the new MFA fashion design program. The show, which was meant to celebrate a variety of grad students’ work, ended up featuring a line of models wearing bright red oversized lips and monkey ears, evoking extremely strong and offensive racial implications.
The controversy led to the suspension of Mary Davis, the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, and Jonathan Kyle Farmer, the Chair of the MFA Fashion Design Department, while an external law firm investigates the incident.
In a statement released earlier this month, President Dr. Joyce Brown admitted that the administration “failed to recognize or anticipate the racist references and cultural insensitivities that were obvious to almost everybody else.”
After further investigation, it was determined that the work by student Junkai Huang was in no way meant to implicate race.
“The styling and accessorizing used in the show were provided to him rather than chosen at his discretion,” stated Dr. Brown.
Huang said his thesis was to create a distorted perception of body features, “and perceptions of their enlarged proportions, which should be celebrated and embraced.”
“My understanding of American cultural references is still developing,” stated Mr. Huang. “In the future, I’ll be more aware about political correctness, cultural differences and history.”
Prior to the show, students tried to voice their concerns to faculty, to no avail.
Model Amy Lefevre refused to wear the accessories, as they were “clearly racist” and made her uncomfortable. Lefevre told NBC News, “I almost broke down in tears when the leadership of the show was pressuring me to wear these accessories.”
The director of the show, Richard Thornn, a creative director of the London-based fashion agency, NAMESldn, allegedly pressured Lefevre to wear the accessories. She said Thornn told her that she’d “only be uncomfortable for 45 seconds.”
Two other student designers (who chose to remain anonymous) told the New York Times that they approached the organizers the day of the show after seeing the accessories. Their concerns were allegedly “laughed off” and dismissed.
In a statement released on Instagram, Farmer wrote, “It was never our intent for the show’s styling to be interpreted as racist or to make people feel uncomfortable, but I now fully understand why this has happened.”
“The school should be more aware of what students are creating and putting out into the fashion world because they are being given a huge platform to display their minds and voices,” student Mauricio Zelaya told Blush.
Similarly, student Jasey Valezquez said, “I feel like the only way to prevent this from happening again is to put staff not only through Title 8 training, but racial sensitivity training as well.”
To begin the healing process and start planning for change, the FIT Student Government Association, Black Student Union and FIT Administration hosted a town hall meeting for FIT students to speak directly to administrators and voice their concerns.
The emotional meeting shed light on the larger issue at hand: students of all colors, shapes and sizes need to feel at home on our campus—racism and xenophobia are not welcome at the FIT, nor are they welcome in the fashion industry.
The fashion industry is no stranger to racism. After a slew of racist campaigns, products, and commercials within the past few years, companies like Prada, Gucci, and Dior are being forced to take racial sensitivity training.
Perhaps the school should take note.
Supportive spaces such as Affirmative Action Officer, Counseling Center, Health Services, the Department of Student Life, Diversity Council, Residential Life, and the Dean of Students are all available to students processing the experience. Here is a link to a student feedback questionnaire. All responses, while anonymous, will be shared within the FIT SGA and with FIT Administrators.