FIT’s Growing Curriculum Focuses on Technology and Sustainability
By Lauren Parker
With fashion consumers caring about the environment more than ever before, it makes sense that the Fashion Institute of Technology has amped up its sustainability and technology curriculum as it relates to textiles and fashion. And the fashion students continue to impress as the next wave of designers.
The Accessories Council recently sat down with Joanne Arbuckle, deputy to the president for Industry Partnerships and Collaborative Programs, to learn about FIT’s current initiatives in innovation, technology and sustainability. Prior, Arbuckle served as FIT’s Dean of the School of Art and Design for over a decade, and is extremely passionate about the students, the faculty and the school’s initiatives.
What are some things that people might not know about FIT as it relates to innovation, technology and sustainability?
Since 2017, FIT has done 50 projects that focus on tech and innovation. My role is to identify, follow, explore and expand this concept as we’re building our Center for Innovation. We live in a really unique space. Our peer institutions are Parsons, Pratt and RISD, but they’re very art/design-focused. FIT is an institution that has a strong liberal arts school, so we seamlessly bring in and integrate art, design, science, technology and business. Plus, we have the broader SUNY system, so while we don’t have an engineering school, Stonybrook does, for example, so we can reach out to them. FIT is part of 64 SUNY campuses.
What are some current projects you’re doing with other schools and industry partners?
We’re in our second year of our FIT/MIT summer workshop. We’re a member of AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America), which recently received a $317 million grant from the Department of Defense. It was awarded to Yoel Fink, a renowned materials scientist at MIT. In our workshop, we send six selected FIT students to Cambridge for a week to work with six MIT students. Then they switch and the MIT students come to New York for a week. It’s so amazing to watch these students work together because the MIT student is not always focused on what you do with this scientific research, and the FIT student is not the engineering student. Such collaboration is a great example of how we have the depth and the breadth to partner with others for an interdisciplinary approach.
What about industry partners through AFFOA?
This year we’re working with AFFOA industry partner New Balance, which the students will tackle from both a theoretical and applied approach. For example, AFFOA has done a lot with fibers that produce light, so maybe there’s a way to embroider that fiber? We don’t know what these students will come up with. It’s more advanced than just saying ‘Here’s a fabric that New Balance has, now go use it.’ Another AFFOA project collaboration was with IBM and Watson. Students looked at Watson’s cognitive tools for the Tommy Hilfiger brand, focusing on patterns. They developed designs based on data and those dealing with emotions (similar to the dress that Marchesa made for the Met Gala that turned social media input into colored lights). They’ve done smart dressing room mirror projects for PVH and connected bike clothing for Swedish brand POC (a backpack and detachable fanny pack would turn info from your smart phone into vibrating signals in your pant leg for example, or a blinking directional on the fanny pack). Such wearable tech isn’t commercialized yet but it’s where things are going.
Tell us about the FIT/Infor DTech Lab and what’s new there?
The Lab recently partnered with OnPoint Manufacturing for FIT to launch its own branded line of apparel and accessories [sketch above]. Aside from the fact that this is very cool, actually producing a line is a wonderful way for us to prove the changes that need to be made to the supply chain. The womenswear brand will be designed, marketed and retailed by students and manufactured with OnPoint’s personalization fit technologies and supply chain strategies. There will be two collections: one more luxury and one more mid-market. The big thing here will be reducing waste through on-demand manufacturing.
How does that work?
Nothing is cut, sewn and made until it is ordered, so there’s never anything produced that isn’t already purchased. Blockchain will also make a huge difference; where was the cotton grown? What’s in the soil? I went with Michael Ferraro, executive director, FIT/Infor Design and Technology Lab, to OnPoint’s facility in Florence, Alabama, and it was amazing. It all happens automatically, with items cut through robotics, and a very quick turnaround time. It’s sold online without retailers having to stock merchandise.
What are some sustainable things FIT has created and been recognized for?
In 2016, students and faculty created a totally sustainable yarn out of algae and knit a shirt out of it. Team AlgiKnit won the Biodesign Challenge. They won the National Geographic award and it’s now in the LVMH Materials Library and the RISD Library, and they were recently awarded $2.5 million in a round of funding. The new fabric is part of a seaweed called kelp, one of the world’s most rapidly renewable resources.
Out on the FIT terrace is a small natural dye garden, which started as an award from the Clinton Global Initiative. They’re growing plants to create natural dyes, working with a faculty member who is a renowned chemist in the area of textile dyes. We then take the dyes and look at how to stabilize them. You can’t go to full commercialism without stabilization or else dyes will be inconsistent and fade. They’re working on the research. One of the faculty members has a small farm in Westchester and we’re growing natural indigo there. We feed the plants with composts from muslin from the fashion design students! Overall, this generation of kids really cares. They will not buy something unless they are very clear on how it was created. They are so committed.
Does FIT have a major in sustainability?
There is a minor on Sustainability and Ethics, but sustainability is woven through the curriculum. We look at the world of innovation to bring the groups together as you don’t want to silo this. Even our packaging and fragrance programs focus on sustainability on bottles, packaging, etc. Our kids had made shoes out of natural leather that was embedded in seeds to when the leather when back to the earth it would sprout. That’s where their minds go!
How else are you spreading the word on sustainability?
FIT’s Sustainability Conference continues to grow. This year, FIT’s 13th Annual Sustainable Business and Design Conference, held early April, featured nearly 1,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college. The event gathered thought leaders across the creative industries for lectures and panel discussions about recent and future breakthroughs for preserving our planet. We even brought in kids from the High School of Fashion Industries. Meanwhile, in October, the FIT Sustainability Council hosted Sustainability Awareness Week, featuring workshops, documentary screenings, green roof tours and more. FIT is truly committed to sustainability, and you can see wearable and accessory designs created by the students in the lobby.