School-to-Work Ethic Infuses Fashion Institute

Keeping its ties to the apparel industry, the New York college hones its new curricula - such as toy design

IF the Fashion Institute of Technology were to choose an advertising slogan, it might be something like: ``We teach fashion ... and a whole lot more.''

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, F.I.T. - as it is more commonly known - has woven its education into the fabric of the New York fashion community. That seems only logical, after all, because the college started as a garment-industry trade school in the late 1940s. It has also earned an international reputation, thanks to important alumni such as Calvin Klein.

However, as F.I.T. tailors its role of turning out workers useful to industry, its definition of fashion keeps broadening and evolving. Today, F.I.T. considers itself a college of art and design, business and technology.

The most important aspect of F.I.T., cited over and over again by faculty, students, and graduates, is its connection to industry. The college prides itself in taking an anticipatory, rather than reactionary, approach to education.

One of the most successful examples of the F.I.T. ideal is the toy-design department, the college's newest program, which offers the only Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in toy design in the country. Founder and chairwoman Judy Ellis has established a close relationship with the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA) and boasts a 95 percent placement rate with such companies as Mattel, Playskool, Hasbro, Parker Brothers, and Tyco. (The first class graduated in 1990.)

``They consider us their family; we consider them our family,'' Ms. Ellis says during an interview in her office, which is filled with toys and game prototypes. She says that students are taught to design toys that are not only safe and reflect the play needs of a child, but are inspirational and show promise of success in the market.

F.I.T.'s extraordinarily close relationship with industry is critical, says Allan Hershfield, president of F.I.T. ``We take placement very seriously,'' he says, citing an 85 and 95 percent success rate of placing two-year and four-year graduates.

Internships and special programs expose students to the world of business, while designers and manufacturers come to F.I.T. to gather ideas from the costume and textile collections, judge competitions, and serve as visiting teachers and guest lecturers. Faculty are required to have at least several years of experience in their field.

Recently, F.I.T. students participated in a competition to redesign the uniforms of the New York's Mass Transit Authority employees. Designer Donna Karan judged the competition.

``This is a time when industry is fully cognitive that unless it supports education, it won't have educated people,'' says Nina Kurtis, dean of F.I.T.'s business and technology division.

Biology professor Judy Parkas likes to tell the story of a student who came up to her after class and said: `` `Ms. Parkas, I'm sorry I wasn't paying attention so well in class today. But these scarves are due at [Henri] Bendel's in an hour.' F.I.T. communicates to students that this is a professional place. We constantly impress upon students that they're here to train to have successful careers,'' says Ms. Parkas, a professor for 30 years at F.I.T.

Can industry and education be too close?

Ellis of the toy design department says no. ``The closer you are with industry the more aware you are of what their needs are,'' she says.

Mark Karlen, dean of art and design, notes that while industry connections are highly practical, they can loom a little too large. ``Because we are so industry-oriented, sometimes we forget our artistic growth,'' he says.

Mr. Karlen, who has taught at several design schools in United States, would like to see F.I.T. expand its curriculum even more. ``The real vitality is in the birth of new programs,'' he says. ``This is one of the country's best-hidden treasures. We're known for fashion, but it's much more. We need to see ourselves as globally competitive in the design world.''

Still, many people tend to regard F.I.T. as a school related only to fashion, admits Dr. Hershfield. That misconception needs to change, he says. ``F.I.T. is the M.I.T. of fashion. But we offer instruction in a variety of areas that go beyond fashion.''

In addition to learning fashion design, buying and merchandising, jewelry and textile design, and toy design, students can specialize in marketing, advertising and public relations, art restoration, interior design, photography, and more.

Classrooms are equipped with model forms and sewing machines, but also computers and high-tech machinery materials. About 4,000 full-time students and 8,000 continuing-education students attend F.I.T., which is part of the State University of New York system, each year. Some 2,000 live on campus, a block of relatively peaceful cityscape on Seventh Avenue at 27th Street.

School officials boast of unique features: The Museum of F.I.T. has the largest apparel and textile study collection in the world. Everyone, it seems, wants to stick his or her nose in the new Annette Green/Fragrance Foundation Studio, billed as ``the world's only college fragrance studio.'' A new computer-imaging lab and the Quick-Response Center (which simulates activities between manufacturers and retailers) have raised the college's profile.

Students praise the school for its ``reality-based'' education. They can't meander into a major; they must declare when they apply to the college. In-state associate-level students pay around $1,050 per semester for tuition, while out-of-state baccalaureate-level students pay about $3,000 per semester.

Sunny Cannon, a third-year student from Virginia, says she chose F.I.T. for its reputation and its location - in the heart of New York.

``I especially like the part-time teachers. You really get a sense of what the industry is all about,'' she says.

``Also, we have lectures from designers - from Donna Karan to [Gianni] Versace,'' adds Ms. Cannon, who is specializing in fashion design and manufacturing management and recently won a critics' award for her childrens-wear designs.

Robert Squillaro, director of men's product and design of men's tailored clothing for Brooks Brothers, graduated from F.I.T. in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in marketing. He says that 10 years ago, people tended to regard F.I.T. as a school for girls who liked to shop.

``But the school is a lot tougher than most people gave it credit for back in the early '80s. It's come a long way. For somebody getting into fashion business it's very specialized and it's practical when you get in the workforce,'' he says.

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