On 7 February, the New York City fashion school hosted a runway show showcasing the designers from its first MFA Fashion Design class, which featured models walking the runway in oversized prosthetic ears and lips and black, bushy eyebrows.
Shortly after the show, the backlash began after model Amy Lefevre told The New York Post that she was told she only had a short time to "feel uncomfortable" after she refused to wear the “clearly racist” accessories, which she described as resembling “monkey ears”.
“I stood there almost ready to break down, telling the staff that I felt incredibly uncomfortable with having to wear these pieces and that they were clearly racist,” Lefevre said, adding that she was told: "it was fine to feel uncomfortable for only 45 seconds".
Criticism over the show grew after the Instagram account Diet Prada shared photos of the outfits modelled on the runway.
“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 FIT,” the account captioned the post, prompting hundreds of people to agree.
“This is horrible, wow,” one person commented, while another said: “That is just pure ignorance.”
In response to the criticism, FIT president Dr Joyce F Brown shared an open letter on the school’s website, where she addressed the accusations and apologised.
“Currently, it does not appear that the original intent of the design, the use of accessories for the creative direction of the show was to make a statement about race; however, it is now glaringly obvious that has been the outcome,” Brown said. “For that, we apologise - to those who participated in the show, to students, and to anybody who has been offended by what they saw.”
Brown also said in the statement that the school is investigating “how this happened” and has taken several steps to address concerns.
“It is my position that all students must be afforded the safe space and freedom to learn and develop their voice, even if the voice is provocative to some,” the statement continues. “At the same time, I am deeply committed to creating a teaching and learning environment in which people are not offended or intimidated. There is a balance that must be struck between these two imperatives, one that is not always easy to find, but it is the college’s responsibility to find it. As both a former faculty member and an administrator, I appreciate how fine a line there is to draw between these two.”
Brown also said the incident should serve as a reminder that there is “still much work to be done” in regards to diversity, inclusion and civility.
“We have to recognize as individuals and as a community that we cannot be complacent and that there is still much work to be done - and I am personally committed to making that happen,” she said.
According to The Post, the show’s designs were created by a recent FIT graduate from China whose concept reportedly called for highlighting “ugly features of the body”.