Even as a child growing up in Westchester, N.Y., Mark-Evan Blackman was unstoppable. When his older sister, Drusilla, couldn't sew an A-line dress with a mandarin collar and inverted pleat for her home economics class, the confident 5th grader said without hesitation, "I can sew that." And he did.
"It was just logical to me," the youthful 47-year-old recalls as he sits in his FIT classroom dressed in a navy suit, peach tie, and aqua Puma sneakers. "I didn't know about design but was interested in making something three-dimensional from something else."
It's this kind of determination that has helped the energetic Blackman meet an even bigger challenge recently: reinvigorating the Menswear program at FIT.
When he was named chairperson of the department in 1999, Blackman knew he had his work cut out for him.
"When I came here, Menswear was considered very much a stepchild at FIT," he says, explaining that a lack of marketing led to a lack of perception. "That changed when I took over. I make it my business to do what ever I need to do to let people know what amazing things go on in the Menswear area."
In the five years of his tenure, Blackman has doubled the student enrollment to around 50 students, updated the curriculum, hired four new faculty members, and significantly raised the profile of the department.
"The caliber of student that we graduate here is a hundredfold better than the prior to my coming on," he says. Blackman notes that the two-year Associates in Applied Science degree program, the only one of its kind in the country, places more than 90 percent of its well-trained graduates.
Not bad for the University of Pennsylvania graduate who tried his hand at marketing, law school, and even teaching math at a public school in the South Bronx before landing in fashion.
After graduating from the Menswear program at FIT more than 20 years ago, Blackman went on to be a successful designer for Chaus, Evan-Picone Mens Sport, Lacoste, Joan Vass, and his own company, Mark-Evan Blackman NY. He brought his industry experience back to FIT in 1992 as an adjunct professor. Teaching is still one of Blackman's strengths.
"He's extremely motivating. He motivates the kids and pushes them to places they don't think they can go—but they always seem to get there," says Mary Wilson, an assistant professor in the Menswear department.
According to Wilson, "Many students are initially intimidated by the mini-collection they have to create and realize from paper to full form. But by the time they get to the installation and look back, I think they're pretty amazed that they go there in a two-year span."
Still, some of Blackman's most valuable lessons aren't taught in the classroom. For the last five years the well-traveled instructor has selected a handful of students to accompany him to Paris, Amsterdam, and Antwerp for an enrichment trip—an experience he deems absolutely necessary to a designer.
For one week, Blackman encourages students to absorb the culture while also feverishly sketching designs and conducting market research at companies, showrooms, and trade shows. "It's a great opportunity simply because they get to see another culture," he says emphatically. "It gives them a level of confidence that they own for the rest of their lives."
Jeremy Pilch, an assistant men's woven designer at Calvin Klein Jeans and 2004 FIT graduate, considered the trip invaluable. "It was an amazing experience," he says. "I thought it gave us a leg up on the other graduates that would be out in the market searching for jobs."
It's the success of former students like Pilch that Blackman considers his legacy at FIT.
"I think (my legacy) is going to be all of those wonderful kids who go out in the industry and become household names—as well as kids who don't become house hold names, but are able to pay their mortgages and are able to raise their kids and put those kids through college using the skills they learned in two years with us."
Looking ahead to his own plans after FIT, Blackman, who counts figure skating, gourmet cooking, and apartment renovation among his talents, says he's up for an entirely new challenge.
"I'm going to open a bed and breakfast," he says, adding that he hopes to wind up in the country someplace, gardening, and entertaining a lot.
[Interview by Sandra Nygaard, DNR, February 28, 2005]
Mary Wilson has been a member of the Menswear faculty since Fall 2000. Before coming to FIT, Wilson worked in the menswear and children's wear fashion industry as a design director/merchandiser, head designer, and designer for more than 25 years.
"I consider my students my newly hired assistant designers. Their success is my success."