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

Article excerpt

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. …