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Japan Fashion Now Symposium, March 2012

Ohayo Gozaimasu.

Thank you for joining us. FIT is honored to be in Japan to participate in Fashion Week. We are eager to offer support for the Japanese fashion industry—and gratified to be able to witness your country's continuing recovery from last years devastating earthquake and tsunami. We are also delighted to have this opportunity to visit—for the first time—with FIT's remarkable group of Japanese alumnae with whom we have had an enduring relationship for over 40 years.

I want to take a moment to offer special thanks to one special alumna: Mrs. Yoko Ohara. FIT has many famous and important graduates: Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Norma Kamali, and Mrs. Ohara. As you know, her influence in the development of the fashion industry in Japan has been enormous, and its impact has crossed the oceans. Decades ago, she foresaw the coming of globalization and the necessity for cross-pollination—for sharing ideas, cultures, and business methodologies—and established on behalf of the Asahi Chemical Corporation, a very successful symposia series with FIT for your industry professionals. It took place in New York and Tokyo—and lasted for almost 30 years. For ten more years, the program continued under her leadership at IFI Business School. She also co-founded and leads the FIT Alumni Association. We have about 500 members right now, many of them inspired by Mrs. Ohara. And she was instrumental in helping us to participate in Japans Fashion Week and in developing this seminar. So for all of this and more—we thank you, Mrs. Ohara.

I want to talk to you today as an educator because I believe that industry leaders—like you—must understand the pivotal role that education plays in the future of your industry. Our students become your workforce. Your source of new ideas, your future leaders, as well as your customers. As a result of this synergistic relationship, I find that the more we meet and communicate and share ideas, the more successful each of us can be. I have been the president of FIT for 14 years, and I have had the privilege of not only watching our talented students achieve but also of helping them to shape the future of fashion and the way in which the world of fashion adapts to change.

Change is the most important element here. By its very nature, fashion exemplifies change. And in today's fashion industry, the change is dramatic. You know this, of course. Globalization and the revolution in technology have transformed our world. I can't think of a better example of this than Fast Retailing's Uniqlo. Indeed, we deal with issues and concepts and terminology today that didn't exist just yesterday. Twitter. Fast fashion. Crowd sourcing. The Cloud. As a result, learning to adapt to all of these changes in information or sets of values or theories, in the volatile global economy, is the subtext of all education. But especially fashion education—and it is our challenge as much as it is yours to find and refine the tools that allow us to navigate change successfully.

At FIT, we recognize the need to meet this challenge. We always have. I would like to take a minute to tell you something about FIT's history because I think it is different from most other educational institutions, and because I think our ability to meet this challenge comes directly from our history.

Seventy years ago, the fashion industry in the United States was thriving. It employed 500-thousand people in New York City alone. Yet its leaders were facing a shrinking number of qualified people to carry on the business. A small group of clothing tradesmen and manufacturers believed that for their industry to survive, they would need a special institution to train students for careers specifically in fashion. These visionary men became FIT's founders.

FIT opened in 1944 with 100 students and two programs—one in fashion design and one in manufacturing. Its mission—which has remained essentially unchanged and is the driving force behind all of what we do—was and is to prepare the next generation of leaders for the fashion industry. Our deep connection to industry was our anchor—and remains an FIT hallmark. From the beginning, FIT had a surprisingly progressive educational program. Collaborative in approach, it blended theory and hands-on practice. A work-study program was established, sending students into nearby industry plants and studios; faculty members were required to remain constantly in touch with current practices and changes in the industry. And the curriculum included a strong academic—liberal arts—component because our founders wanted their future employees to be cultured and enlightened. They believed that fashion is a reflection of life, and this basic philosophical approach has not changed in 68 years.

Today, FIT has 10,000 full and part-time students. It offers 46 degree programs. We grant one, two and four year degrees as well as graduate degrees. We have a thriving school of continuing education and professional studies that provides certificates and other kinds of non-degree courses to thousands of people each year—many of them already successful professionals who wish to sharpen or learn new skills or change their career directions.

Like the industry we were created to serve, we have expanded into a multitude of related disciplines that now make up what I think of as the lifestyle industry. While fashion design remains our signature program, in fact we offer 45 other degree programs. Let me list just a few: fashion merchandising management—which is our most popular—toy design, computer animation, accessories design, photography, advertising, international trade, packaging design, home products development, interior design—the list goes on and on.

In fashion design, we now offer many specializations, because the industry itself is so specialized: intimate wear, children's wear, leather, bridal, outerwear and performance apparel. All of our fashion design students study knitwear because it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the industry. Some years ago, we phased out patternmaking as a major and turned it into a certificate program—because patternmaking jobs were disappearing. However, we replaced it with an interdisciplinary program in technical design which gives fashion design students the opportunity to develop their technical and business skills as well. In today's market, it is the technical designer who is in demand.

In answer to industry demand, we have the country's only master's degree program in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management. It is an intense program, designed for young working professionals who have been identified by their employers as potential field leaders. Senior executives from competitive companies, such as Chanel and Estée Lauder, teach in the classrooms and labs—and act as personal mentors. For their final projects, students work in teams to research complex industry issues and present their findings to an audience of over 500 industry professionals. To many in the field, this program acts as a think-tank for them, so it is not surprising that many of its graduates today occupy top-level management positions in cosmetics and fragrance companies.

And, as I just mentioned, in our school for continuing education and professional studies, we offer courses as well as professional certificate programs—many of them pioneering—that answer or anticipate market forces. Fashion events planning, for instance, or E-commerce and social media. Or brand management experience—another popular cutting-edge program.

One of FIT's singular assets is our essential link to industry—that is at the heart of our pedagogy. We require our faculty members to have substantial industry experience—six to ten years, depending—and many act as consultants or maintain their own businesses. All of our degree programs have advisory boards made up of professionals in their specialty. They are actively involved in everything from advising on curriculum to job placement for students. Working side-by-side with faculty, they see the future together. Just in the last few months alone, with the encouragement of industry, we launched two new certificate programs—one in gemology and another in retail management—each one of them, again, anticipating or responding to market forces.

Just to give you a sense of how deeply intertwined and committed our industry advisory boards are I thought Id tell you briefly about how one of them—our program in textile development and marketing—interacts with the program and its students. This happens to be one of FIT's oldest programs and it long ago turned its focus from production to the consumer market—which is where most of the jobs in the United States are today. Over 30 people serve on that board, and they represent both the creative and the business sides of the field. This is another important point: we recognize that today, industry success is dependent on an integrated approach in which the business and creative people understand and respect the function and importance of the other. So this board is made up of financiers and fiber artists, social media experts, exporters, designers, denim producers, filmmakers, specialists in international trade, sourcing, advertising, sales and branding.

One of the industry trade groups called Cotton Incorporated, is also represented on the board and it co-sponsors the programs final project for graduating seniors each year. The objective of the project is to expose students to every step in the process of making and then marketing four lines of blue jeans—two each for men and women. Students must not only develop the yarn and fabric, finish and fit—but they must also research their product, identify their consumer and develop new social media strategies and concepts in order to brand, market and sell the jeans. And then they must bring them through to full factory prototypes. The students do this in teams—because in today's work world, teamwork—collaboration—is a requirement. Advisory board members play an important role in this project—working directly with the students throughout the year as they move through the process. By the time the students are done, they are market ready—so it is not surprising that the majority of them are hired right out the door.

And although many in industry work with us through advisory boards, many others do so individually. They may act as judges or critics for our annual runway shows—as do designers such as Calvin Klein and Carolina Herrera. They may lecture or appear on panels. In addition, companies come to us to involve our students in projects, very often high profile projects that result in new product lines in shoes, for instance, for Nine West or outerwear for LVHM or junior wear for Macy's. Our students are the trend setters of the moment. They have a fresh, youthful perspective and are a great and valued resource for industry.

In every program today—in every classroom, studio and laboratory, we utilize an innovative and sophisticated curriculum that speaks to the future. Years ago, before film disappeared and Kodak went bankrupt, our photography program went digital. Years ago, we saw the vast global growth in the art market and created a bachelor's degree program—the first of its kind—in visual arts management, a new discipline that prepares students for administrative roles in museums, galleries and auction houses. Last year we launched a master's degree program in sustainable interior environments—the only such program in the world, and I am pleased to say that the architect Tetsu Ohara—Yoko's son—is a member of that faculty.

Our curriculum is more and more interdisciplinary. We ground our design students in business skills just as we emphasize the creative side to our business students so that both can thrive—together— in a 21st century market. So, for instance, students in accessories design have courses targeted for them in our packaging design program so that they leave FIT knowing about brand identity, packaging materials and how packaging affects their shoes or handbags at retail. FIT also offers courses on relevant legal, ethical and cultural issues so that our graduates can conduct business properly on a global scale. The liberal arts play a major role in our curriculum, and I will address that later.

And then there is, of course, technology. If you ask our professors what has had the most profound impact on their curriculum—not just in how they teach but in what they teach—the answer will be technology. I am sure this is true in every educational institution in the world, as well as in every business in the world. From my perspective, as someone who came to FIT in 1998—just as the revolution was starting to build—the most remarkable thing about technology today, in 2012, is how much we take it for granted. It completely infuses our world. As educators, we automatically integrate it into our curriculum as a way to deliver information and we are vigilant in our constant search for the best, most current and effective technologies. We conduct our own faculty development workshops in the latest programs and applications to keep our professors as current and proficient as possible.

We do this because, as you know, in many many ways, the young are far ahead of us. They were born with smart phones in their hands. They blog. They twitter. They're on Face Book. They're totally connected—roaming the internet and all that it offers with ease. Yet for all their technological sophistication, they still lack a whole world of knowledge and understanding without which they will not succeed professionally. And that is where we step in.

For instance, we all know how important e-commerce is today. And while our students are very comfortable doing their purchasing on-line, they do not know how e-commerce is actually conducted and managed. As much as they like to blog, they do not know how to use—or even think about—social media in marketing. We have courses that teach them how retail uses Facebook or blogs or other applications to reach target consumers, how to build and manage a brand and a business, how to produce content relevant to stimulating customer relationships, how to integrate social media marketing with traditional media plans. Just as important—they need to learn digital literacy, by which I mean how to properly conduct research on the internet, how to evaluate the overwhelming overload of content, how to create an effective power point presentation, how to properly communicate electronically. Without these skills, their ease with their iPads will be professionally meaningless to them—and to you—as potential employers.

Now all of the changes I have described to you—in curriculum, in programs, in pedagogy— in FIT's growth in size and scope—did not happen by themselves. Nor did they happen quickly. FIT has a real talent for reinvention, but effective change requires careful planning, careful management, and some honest self-examination. And so, in 2004, after a comprehensive, year-long college-wide effort to assess our strengths and weaknesses, FIT launched a new strategic plan—a rigorous, ambitious and multifaceted plan to take us to 2020 and beyond.

Today, eight years later, the plan is alive and well, and I would like to talk to you about it now because it has played such an important role in our ability to cope with this century's explosive changes. I believe our plan is successful because we intentionally designed a planning process that was inclusive and participatory. Every sector of the FIT community was involved—students, faculty, administrators, staff, our board of trustees and industry representatives.. The college was alive with ideas, dialogue, debate and activity because everyone's voice was heard. And when the plan finally emerged, everyone felt ownership and was ready to put it into practice.

The plan has five overarching goals and we have developed a meticulous system of metrics that tracks our progress. Rather than go into detail on each of these goals, I would like to share a few of the initiatives that have emerged from the plan that are most relevant to this discussion.

Let me start with the liberal arts—history, political science, mathematics, languages, economics, literature, chemistry, and so on. Historically, we have always incorporated liberal arts learning into our curriculum: this is one aspect of an FIT education that is very distinctive, one aspect that many career colleges downplay. However, in our strategic planning discussions, we came to believe that we needed to strengthen its role in the college and in the curriculum even more.

We believe that it is through the liberal arts that students learn to think criticallyto ask the right questionsto analyze and solve problems. It is through the liberal arts that they will gain exposure to the global cultures that are central to the careers they will pursue—as well as to the legal and ethical business-related issues that inevitably will confront them.

If there is one thing that industry professionals have been telling us over the years it is that they want employees who are culturally sophisticated, globally aware, who can think critically, who can communicate well. I often tell the story about the advertising executive who said—in a symposium for students on careers—that the last question he always asks potential job seekers in an interview is what book they are reading. And why. We want to be sure our students can answer that question—intelligently. We heard the same thing at another seminar, at which executives from Kohls Department Store, Polo Ralph Lauren and Neiman Marcus were present. Each of them stressed the importance of a broad-based education that will give students—their future employees—the tools to grasp and deal with commerce from a global perspective. Each of them stressed the importance of communications skills—the ability to communicate intelligently both orally and in writing.

That is why liberal arts study has become a strategic and integral part of an FIT education. As part of that, we require all of our students to learn another language—and we offer five, including Japanese which has been a popular choice with our students for over 20 years. I am sure you appreciate how important it is for your employees to also be at least bi-lingual—to be able to communicate easily with your global partners, as well as to be familiar with their business and social practices and customs. Just as our students have a competitive advantage in the marketplace if they speak Japanese—so do yours if they speak English.

We instituted liberal arts minors, offering in-depth study in particular areas such as mathematics, international politics, economics, history of art, and Asian or Latin American studies. We created a Writing Studio as a tutoring resource for students. We sponsored critical-thinking workshops for faculty—and today, throughout the college, professors develop projects for students that specifically test their ability to analyze, evaluate, judge—and to clearly articulate their reasoning process.

Another initiative to grow out of our strategic plan is sustainability. Three years ago, I was invited by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to join him as part of his Clinton Global Initiative University—an annual conference of university students and presidents to make commitments for change in areas of pressing global need. FIT's commitment was to sustainability—pledging to create initiatives and projects that address issues of energy conservation and climate change. As it happens, FIT was already well along on this track—particularly in environmentally enhancing the colleges physical plant and operations.

We are now infusing sustainability into our curriculum across all schools and relevant fields of study. As I mentioned earlier, we developed a new master's degree program in sustainable interior environments. We also created a data base of how and where faculty have incorporated sustainability into their classroom teaching. I must tell you, this is an issue our students care about deeply. They are eager to learn about environmentally sensitive practices and issues of corporate responsibility. They take up classroom projects that compare global recycling efforts, the safety of drinking water, the dangers of plastic bags. They enthusiastically use old sweaters to construct and execute new garments, develop sustainable textiles, and sign up for many of the sustainability-specific courses we now offer. If I were to predict anything about this generation of students—which may be a foolish thing to do—it would be that their passion for sustainability will change the environmental landscape in every area of industry once they start to assume leadership positions.

I have mentioned globalism several times during this talk. When we devised our strategic plan, we understood that by 2020, the global industries that we serve would have expanded or evolved, sometimes in unexpected ways. We expected that our student body would be drawn from an expanding number of nations. In fact, at the moment we have over 850 international students on our campus from 68 countries, including, of course, Japan. We also have a long history of educational collaborations throughout the world including long-standing relationships with Japanese institutions. So another of our strategic initiatives was to expand further our international reach and global relationships. And of course, to infuse globalism into our curriculum—just as we have done with sustainability.

Today, almost all FIT programs have a global perspective. Units on globalism are taught in many courses. And there are classes as specific as Global Sourcing or The European Home Furnishings Industry. Moreover, students don't only learn about globalism sitting in their New York City classrooms. We offer summer internships abroad and visits to international showrooms, factories and trade shows. We have residential programs for FIT students in Italy and each year, hundreds of our students participate in study-abroad programs throughout the world. Our master's degree program in Global Fashion Management features an innovative collaboration with universities in Paris and Hong Kong—through which students attend seminars on all three campuses and visit markets on all three continents. We offer a popular dual-degree program for students from Istanbul Technical University as well as semester programs for non-matriculated students here in Japan, in Italy, Mexico, Germany and China. All of higher education functions in a global environment today and it is our goal to educate all of our students to be fluent in this environment—to be citizens of the world.

I want to close my remarks by telling you about one final initiative—one that as much as any we have undertaken in the last decade will provide us with the right tools to continue our mission of preparing fashions future leaders.

As part of our strategic plan, we set aside funds to hire an additional 40 full-time faculty members—a very significant move that increases the size of our full-time faculty by 20 percent. But we did not do this all at once. Looking ahead to the year 2020, we knew we would have to think hard and creatively about what the world and the industries we serve would look like—and what our students in 2020, who are now about eight years old, would need from us by the end of the decade. We knew we would need faculty members as visionary, intellectually nimble and future-focused as possible. And so we launched a year-long initiative, a series of dialogues, workshops and meetings with our professors and others to determine the competencies and qualities of mind we believed we should look for in our faculty of the future. I should add that industry leaders were also engaged in this project. Like you, they are seriously concerned about what they will need in their future employees.

In the end, we developed five major competencies that we expect our faculty of the future to possess. They are, in brief: Globalism: the knowledge and skills to comprehend and explain globalization, to integrate information across disciplines and to prepare students to understand global affairs and events in a multicultural and diverse environment. If we expect our students to become citizens of the world, then surely their faculty guides must be too. Instructional design—by which I mean that they understand, or be capable of imagining, what future students will need to know and how to communicate it effectively. Learning enrichment—which focuses on their instructional style, their enthusiasm for learning, and ability to engage and inspire students. Professionalism—a proven mastery of established and emerging industry practices. And of course: Technology, which includes technological literacy, and technological proficiency in instructional terminology and in their profession.

Beyond that, each program developed its own detailed set of competencies that addressed its specific needs. These standards are now being used systematically in all of our schools and departments as we conduct searches for new faculty members—and I am confident that our transition to 2020 will be greatly strengthened as these new professors join our ranks.

All of these things together position FIT to carry on the mission for which it was created in 1944. The 21st century presents challenges our founders could not have dreamed of. But from them, we inherited a vision that welcomes the future and a commitment to prepare our students so that they can navigate that future—and whatever it brings—successfully. And as daunting as our current challenges may be, I believe that industry and education are best served when its leaders meet and collaborate and share ideas together, as we have today. I am very grateful for your time this morning and look forward to further opportunities for us to meet. Thank you.  

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