Black Lives Matter in fashion school, a case study

The nation’s institutions spent the summer urgently examining
recruitment practices, policy and syllabus creation as a direct result of
this spring’s Black Lives Matter reckoning. In June, on what became known
as Blackout Tuesday, when schools posted a black square on their social
media pages to denounce racism, the pushback was swift. Alumni took to
comments sections to level accusations of hypocrisy and performative
allyship at their alma maters. The debacle forced schools to literally

A relatively new program, the Masters of Professional Studies in Fashion
Management at Parsons School of Design, generously allowed FashionUnited to
see how it is navigating this historic moment. It exists as a microcosm of
what is happening among faculty and in institutions across the US and
overseas. Program director, Keanan Duffty, believes the only way to
confront systemic racism in this time of unlearning, as the
process of identifying and extracting the nuanced layers of white supremacy
has become known, is with transparency and objectivity. He facilitated
interviews with his colleagues and with students who recently graduated
from the program who identify as Black/African American/POC to give their
perspective of the learning experience and culture.

“We have no desire to uphold old systems that marginalize anyone,” says
core faculty member, Christopher Lacy, who helped Duffty build the program
for its 2018 launch. “We do have every desire to create a space where it
is absolutely appropriate and preferred to question and challenge those
systems and ultimately through collaboration develop solutions.” In the
first week, students receive what he calls a “crash course” in inclusivity,
diving into the importance of black culture in fashion as well as issues of
ageism, non-binary concerns, and those with disabilities. “I think, amongst
the three of us, because we came from industry we knew what we wanted this
to be,” he says, “we knew what types of leaders we wanted to emerge from
this program.”

Racism has been embedded in American education

Recent graduate, Jeffrey Drouillard, is one of those leaders. While he
didn’t witness or experience acts of racism while studying on the program,
he believes the issue is more deep-rooted. “I’ve witnessed it through the
curriculum,” he says, of the systemic racism that is embedded in the
American education system. Drouillard says the teaching he received came
from a basis of white supremacy. “The white textbook with information which
oftentimes leaves out parts of history, particularly the parts where people
of color have influenced or were of impact. It’s essentially erasing the
realities of colonialism and slavery. Imagine going to school and those who
are ‘successful’ don’t look like you and you’re constantly being
underrepresented.” He notes the absence in the Eurocentric fashion
education space of any reference to Black creatives, innovators such as
Zelda Wynn Valdes, Jay Jaxon, Willi Smith, and Ann Lowe––a shockingly
overlooked designer considering she was the creator of the wedding dress
for the American style icon of the twentieth century perhaps more revered
than any other, Jacqueline Kennedy. While Drouillard appreciates the
industry’s attempts to right its wrongs with regards to factory conditions
or child labor, it is overlooking a major opportunity: “To educate on human
rights by speaking to how the American textile supply was fully built on
free slave labor.”

Graduate Jessica Jones credits the MPS program for delivering on its
promise of “equal opportunity and the pursuit of creating change agents.”
While she identified this on Day 1, she was particularly cognizant of it
during the eventful spring semester: “In light of the recent protests due
to racism and police brutality, my professors for one of the courses at the
time decided to pivot the original curriculum and adjust accordingly so
that students could learn and critically think about what can be done
personally and professionally to help combat racism.”

Of course, the experience of students of color from diverse ethnicities
can vary greatly within the same classroom, but it can be especially
different for international students. They might be encountering racism, or
at least the magnified discussion of it, for the first time. “As an Indian
student coming to the United States to study at Parsons, I was very
thrilled on the very first day to see the cultural mix at The New School,
as well as in my program,” says Prachi Gor. “In the past year, it has been
quite a journey. Outside of school, I’ve dealt with and adapted, with some
difficulty, to new cultures and ways of being. However, inside school I
felt I could be myself.” Gor believes this is what all schools should
currently be striving for, to create a safe environment for incoming
students from anywhere in the world, and to be upfront about addressing
historical and institutional failings as well outlining steps towards
actionable change. In her cohort which had an enrollment of 50%
international students, the freedom to have difficult conversations and to
be met with consideration and respect was an important aspect of her
studying experience in a diverse capital like New York City. The program’s
decision to adapt the syllabus to accommodate the real-time issues of the
protests was also a pivotal educational moment for Gor. “It made me very
aware of issues that I probably didn’t notice, realize, or understand
before I came here.”

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Addressing systemic racism within fashion leadership

Duffty founded the program with the principal mission of addressing the
lack of diversity in fashion leadership roles, and to be part of the
solution by ultimately empowering the new guard. The program was devised to
regularly accommodate industry experts coming into classrooms who reflect
the diversity of the student body and society at large, African American
designer, Tracy Reese, for example, or Lucy Jones, creator of wheelchair
accessory collection, Ffora. Part-time faculty, such as Candace Marie
Stewart, who is also social media director of Prada US, and Khary Simon, a
global vice president working in the beauty sector, regularly address
systemic racism in fashion advertising and branding in their classes.

Duffty’s goal is hopefully that of every other program director within
the dozens of fashion schools across all fifty states. The incoming student
body, more diverse than ever before, won’t accept anything less, and the
lacklustre leadership landscape outside school is long overdue for a
shake-up. The only Black fashion industry CEO in this year’s Fortune 500,
Jide Zeitlin of fashion holding company Tapestry, which owns Coach, Kate
Spade, and Stuart Weitzman, stepped down recently. Only three Black CEOs
remain, from other industries, none of them female. Curricula must be
deconstructed, and white supremacy eradicated, so that fashion schools do
not perpetuate the classroom Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his book,
Between the World and Me as “a jail of other people’s interests.”
Ideally schools should be seen as the blueprint for the society of the
future, they are micro-societies. Unfortunately the lack of Black
professionals in the C-Suite seems to be a problem within higher education

The diversity problem in higher education

“The New School as a whole has a diversity problem when it comes to
faculty. Black faces can be seen in the student body, security guards and
cafeteria staff, but Black professors are few and far between,” says
Li-Shan Jordan, a graduate of the Fashion Management program. Of the eleven
professors Duffty assembled, three are Black, of which one is full-time
faculty and two are part-time. In addition, Lacy explains, “When we look to
guest lecturers and mentors we look for people in the industry who have
shared experiences with our students while also exposing our students to
other perspectives and diverse voices.”

Lacy himself shares in class his extensive experience working for
Barneys New York and within the luxury goods sector, specifically speaking
to the issue of diversity in the workplace and how racism has impacted him
professionally. “As an educator or a leader it can be difficult to tell if
what you’re doing is meaningful and received the way in which it is
intended,” he says, acknowledging that there are always improvements to be
made. But when the students presented their capstone projects which
culminated their studies, he experienced a mixture of pride and confidence
that they had made an impact. “So many students tackled the issues of
racism, gender norms, socio-economic concerns, wage for workers, lost
einsteins and so on. I knew we had delivered a program that would create
new leaders who could break down the current systems of injustice and
racism.” Lost Einsteins is a name used to describe people who might have
made highly impactful contributions to society if only they had been
granted the same opportunities as everyone else.

Jordan offers an actionable solution to the lack of faculty diversity,
referencing the initiative launched by designer Aurora James of shoe brand
Brother Vellies, whose 15 Percent Pledge became a social media phenomenon
early in the pandemic. Designed to push retailers to commit to filling 15
percent of their self space with product from Black owned businesses, it is
named for the calculation that 15 percent of the US population is Black. So
far, brands such as Sephora, West Elm, and Rent The Runway have joined the
pledge. “I’d like to see Black professors make up no less than 15% of The
New School’s faculty,” says Jordan.

According to Drouillard there is another major obstacle to progress that
schools have been slow to tackle. Tuition fees in the US are among the
highest in the world yet the value of degrees is increasingly under
question. “Schools have a responsibility to give access to those in
marginalized and disenfranchised groups by looking at merit-based
scholarships and how those are distributed,” he says. “Access but also
inclusion is critical, it’s one thing to get into a good school, but not
having the space to actually succeed is ultimately detrimental.”

The MPS in Fashion Management welcomes students from every background,
and aspires to be dynamic and nimble when addressing issues that will be
important to the cohort post-graduation. Our industry is not only reeling
from a pandemic but was already in major overhaul regarding its ethical and
environmental practices, and these future fixtures of the Fortune 500 could
lift it out of the doldrums, if given the opportunity.

As Lacy points out, “Anyone who has overseen a business knows and
understands, businesses with diverse voices that can be heard are far more
profitable, more authentic, more transparent than those who are not.” Not
only fitting advice for those hiring tomorrow’s leaders but for schools
seeking to assemble a faculty that can inspire and cultivate those leaders.
We can’t afford Lost Einsteins in education either.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk
for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion

*Header photo of MPS graduated cohort and photo of MPS Associate
Director Joshua Williams, FTF Christopher Lacy, Program Director Keanan
Duffty and guest lecturer Tracy Reese provided by Parsons The New School*

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