Fashioning a College’s Celebrations and Milestones: The Fashion Institute of Technology Turns 75!

Karen Trivette, Head of Special Collections and College Archives for the Gladys Marcus Library at the Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, provides an overview of the Institute’s 75 year history.

Seventy-five years ago this past September, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a community college within the State University of New York (SUNY) system, was founded by fashion industry visionaries and innovators, Mortimer Ritter and Max Meyer. These two men were instrumental in establishing fashion-centric education first at the high school level. However, after World War II, they soon realized that the American fashion industry needed an even more sophisticated trained and skilled workforce. This was due in part to the fact that veterans returned from the war with a need for skill-building opportunities. Also, the children of fashion industry leaders desired to go into other professions rather than continuing family legacies in the fashion trades; this left a sizable vacuum in the workforce. Meyer and Ritter set out to fill this training need as Ritter declared, “What is needed is an MIT for the fashion industries!” Thus, the idea of the College of FIT was born.

FIT Students Holding “Picket” Signs Displaying the Majors Offered, circa 1969

The College began in rather humble infrastructural circumstances, consuming the top two floors of the Central High School of the Needle Trades, now the High School of the Fashion Industries, located on Twenty-fourth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues in Manhattan. In its beginning, the College supported approximately one hundred students, ten faculty, and four majors: fashion design, millenary, textile design, and scientific management. This last major offering encompassed engineering courses as related to the development of better equipment for the fashion industries.

Prestige followed FIT all along its developmental path; in 1951, FIT became a college of the State University of New York, which itself only began in 1948. In 1957, FIT was accredited by the Middles States Commission on Higher Education Accreditation and then in 1984, it was accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Growth has always been a part of FIT’s master plan; by 1959, the student body had quadrupled to four hundred and the campus, having outgrown its original location, moved to its current address of Seventh Avenue at Twenty-seventh Street. The campus was strategically well-placed, adjacent to New York City’s famed Garment District just north of FIT. The first, and still the main building, now named the Marvin Feldman Center, was designed to support 1200 students across all aspects of student life; within another five years, it was supporting more than 4000 students.

Growth again forced FIT to take on a new and expanded physical plant in 1972 when FIT added six more buildings, all of which helped to define the campus between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and across Twenty-sixth Street to Twenty-eighth Street. At its peak, FIT would ultimately support nearly 12,000 students and more than 1000 faculty, all within a city block.

Once again, by the mid-1970s, growth affected the College as FIT began conferring Bachelors degrees. Today, there are about forty majors available to undergraduates; these are offered by the schools of Art and Design, Business and Technology, and Liberal Arts. Some programs were ground-breaking, such as Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing while others were the world’s first, such as Toy Design. By the early 1980s, FIT was also conferring Master of Arts degrees – quite unconventional for a community college! Today, in its School of Graduate Studies, FIT confers the Master of Arts degree across three programs; the Master of Fine Arts degree across two programs; and the Master of Professional Studies degree across two programs.

The College is, and always has been, a welcoming institution, especially for the unconventional student, as is evident by a student body that is, and always has been, diverse and inclusive. Matters of import not only include diversity and inclusivity, but also sustainability and innovation all the while nurturing unconventional minds across an equally diverse array of curricula.

One aspect of the College that has not changed much over time is the strength of its relationship with the creative industries. From conception to inception and certainly today, industry leaders have played a critical role in FIT’s founding and continued success. As we plan for various modes of celebration for our 75th anniversary, which will extend well beyond September 2020, the College is undertaking such projects as:

  • An annual report commemorating the unconventional past, present, and future of FIT 
  • A series of historical timeline panels, modularly designed in eight segments, one for each decade, to be exhibited either together or separately across the campus
  • A large-scale exhibition of fashion sketches (and associated garments) representative of Max Meyer’s work in the women’s coat and suit industry for A. Beller and  Company

The FIT Library unit of Special Collections and College Archives (SPARC) and its holdings have been tapped extensively in the preparation of and for these projects. Historical photographs, such as those included in this post, are being placed throughout the annual report as they highlight important historical milestones across the history of the College. Various archival records and photographs have been exhaustively culled and curated to populate the timeline panels, which collectively measure seven feet by thirty-eight feet; each panel is seven feet by roughly four feet. The A. Beller and Company fashion sketch collection (1915-1929), one of the nearly 500 manuscript collections in SPARC, is the main source for content for the large-scale exhibition. Materials will be featured in a large, newly-renovated, glass enclosed campus space, which faces the heavily populated Seventh Avenue. This placement is particularly fitting as Seventh Avenue is also known as Fashion Avenue given its prominence in the nationally landmarked Garment District.

In an effort to mirror the College’s original innovative and forward-looking spirit, SPARC is embarking on twenty-first century endeavors such as archiving the College’s website and is planning to collect, preserve, and make accessible fashion designers’ websites, too. SPARC is also about to make its first foray into augmented reality as it experiments with technology that will further breakdown barriers and allow for greater and more meaningful access to materials and for as many constituents as possible.

Today, in its diamond anniversary year, FIT is led by Dr. Joyce F. Brown; with her influence, FIT is poised for more growth, prestige, and innovation. New curricula are regularly being added to the program offerings, attracting an even more innovative faculty and diverse student body. As recently as November 2019, FIT was rated the number one school for Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising from Fashion-Schools.org in its rankings of the top 50 Fashion Design and its top 50 Fashion Merchandising programs in the country. An influential element in the ranking was most probably the very recent accreditation of the FIT Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs. Also, under Dr. Brown’s leadership, FIT is planning to build yet another new academic building on the existing campus block, specifically on Twenty-eighth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. It will host a myriad of functions, not the least of which is providing much-needed additional classroom space.

As earlier stated, innovation is and has always been an important aspect of the College’s founding ethos and ongoing spirit. To further innovative efforts, and drive home the point that innovation is part of FIT’s DNA, in 2016, the FIT/INFOR Design and Technology Lab was established to reflect the original mission of the College and to help fashion various future endeavors. “The FIT/Infor DTech Lab is FIT’s on-campus innovation lab where students, faculty, and industry partners collaborate to advance new ideas, solve real-world problems, and inspire interdisciplinary research” (https://dtech.fitnyc.edu/#about1). The FIT/Infor DTech Lab’s goals are to:

  • enhance learning 
  • engage industry 
  • envision the future 
  • empower entrepreneurs

These goals, indeed the broader acts of enhancing, engaging, envisioning, and empowering closely mirror the College’s original objectives established by its founders 75 years ago. All members of the Fashion Institute of Technology-State University of New York community are excited to celebrate this important year for the College. We hope to share the celebration as much as possible with those outside the immediate FIT community as well.

For more information, please visit https://news.fitnyc.edu/2020/03/15/celebrating-fit-at-75/

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