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On February 7, FIT held its first show during New York Fashion Week in honor of its inaugural Fashion Design MFA class. It was an event that should have been fun and a chance for alumni to share their work with a wide audience, but was marred by an atrocious, totally preventable choice: One of the collections, by Junkai Huang, included racist accessories. One of the models refused to wear them. FIT has apologized and put two administrators on leave while an investigation is underway. CNN has more on this complete disaster:
The Fashion Institute of Technology has apologized and placed two academic officials on leave, after its graduate fashion show used accessories that many — including a model scheduled to walk in the show — called racist.
The incident occurred earlier this month during the school’s MFA Fashion show, which featured works designed by 10 alumni of the school’s inaugural class to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Fashion Design. The school highlighted a collection by alumnus Junkai Huang. The school’s production included models wearing prosthetic ears and lips and bushy eyebrows.
But one model, Amy LeFevre, refused to wear the items, calling them racist. She walked down the runway without them. CNN reached out via phone and email to LeFevre’s agency but did not immediately receive a response.
The incident was immediately criticized on social media and elsewhere. Diet Prada, a fashion industry watchdog, said on Instagram: “It shouldn’t be down to the models to have to refuse wearing blatantly racist accessories on the runway, especially not in a show thrown by an institution like @fitnyc…”
Joyce F. Brown, president of FIT, released an initial statement Tuesday, writing that while the original intent of the collection was not race-related, “it is now glaringly obvious that has been the outcome.”
“For that, we apologize — to those who participated in the show, to students, and to anybody who has been offended by what they saw,” she wrote. “Let me be clear: no person should be made to feel uncomfortable — particularly about race — in service of their work, job, livelihood, or course of study.
Racism in fashion shouldn’t be surprising, but it makes me ill. Diet Prada is right: Amy LeFevre shouldn’t have had to say a thing about the accessories, because she shouldn’t have been asked to wear them in the first place. Someone at FIT should have vetoed that decision long before Amy and the other models were told what they would be wearing. Buzzfeed wrote a lengthy article about the incident, including more about Amy’s experience, which is heartbreaking and enraging to read:
In addition to students who protested the prosthetics, model Amy LeFevre, who is black, told NBC News that she “almost broke down in tears” when she found out she was supposed to wear them during the show, and said she felt “pressured” by those in charge.
She said she told the runway show’s organizers that the prosthetics called back to offensive caricatures of black people.
LeFevre said FIT students “did come to support me, realizing how inappropriate [the accessories] were,” but said that they were yelled at to move away from her.
This makes my blood boil. There should never have been a debate! After the accessories got by everyone (a gigantic fail), the moment that Amy refused to wear them, someone in charge should have backed her up. An investigation into how the accessories were approved needed to happen. But no one should have pressured the models to wear them. No one should have yelled at the students who were supporting Amy. There should have been more administrators overseeing the show, though I suppose everyone assumed it was going to go well.
Dr. Joyce F. Brown, the president of FIT, has issued two letters to the community, including one on Friday, to provide an update about how the school is going to deal with the response to the show. She writes, in part:
First and foremost, we have commissioned an independent investigation of ourselves. Bond, Schoeneck & King, an external law firm, will immediately conduct a thorough and objective probe into the incident, including what led up to the show and what followed.
Second, we are urging a pause—and a request for context—around the role of Junkai Huang, the young FIT alumnus whose collection at the runway show is at the center of this controversy. Junkai has said, and his thesis notes and sketches support, that the collection he designed and produced was not aimed at invoking or provoking racial implications.
It also appears—based upon information available—that the styling and accessorizing used in the show were provided to him rather than chosen at his discretion. To us, this indicates that those in charge of and responsible for overseeing the show failed to recognize or anticipate the racist references and cultural insensitivities that were obvious to almost everybody else. That’s inexcusable and irresponsible—but also why we are commissioning an independent investigation.
With this in mind, as the investigation unfolds, we would ask the community to hold us—rather than Junkai—accountable.
Brown is sending letters of apology to Amy LeFevre and the other models in the show. She’s going to hold a Town Hall with current students and other meetings with students, faculty, staff, and alumni. She’s going to be meeting on Monday with the school’s Diversity Council and Faculty Senate on Monday and her “cabinet has already held multiple meetings with faculty and students to begin a deep and serious dialogue about the immediate, long-term, and systemic implications of the MFA-FIT runway show.” It sounds like the steps that are being taken are good ones, but it’s too little, too late. This never should have happened in the first place, and I can’t imagine that the two administrators who were placed on leave were the only ones who knew about the content of the fashion show. That is highly, highly unlikely, so I’m interested to see, as the investigation progresses, what else is discovered about exactly who at FIT knew about the fashion show and when. And what of the designer, Junkai Huang? He spoke with CNN, and had this to say:
Huang denied that his collection was racist, telling CNN that he was “sad and shocked” by the allegation. “The saddest part is I am not a racist, and as an Asian person I had bad experiences here too,” he said.
“The accessories used during the show were intended to be reflections of my own body features and perceptions of their enlarge proportions, which should be celebrated and embraced,” Huang added. “They are not ‘ugly features’ as noted in previous media coverages.”
Ugh. What a mess. I wondered how it would have been possible “that the styling and accessorizing used in the show were provided to him rather than chosen at his discretion,” as President Brown wrote. If it’s his collection and his designs, why would he have been given anything, or been given a limited number of options to choose from for his outfits? It sounds like he made that choice, and no one from FIT stepped in to say that the accessories were racist, despite his belief that they aren’t. They didn’t discuss what was racist about the designs and ask whether he could remove them. By taking the onus onto themselves for that, the administrators at FIT are also attempting to show that they are in control of the show and that two people in charge are the ones who showed the lapse in judgment. They’d rather people believe that than that FIT doesn’t care or pay attention to the content that is going to be shown at its events. Amy and the other models deserve more than an apology letter from Dr. Brown. All of the staff at the show who pressured her about wearing the accessories and who yelled at the students need to be disciplined, too.