Two administrators at New York’s famed Fashion Institute of Technology have been suspended after a recent graduate’s fashion show caused controversy over racially insensitive pieces that were added to the show.
According to the New York Times, Junkai Huang, a recent graduate of the iconic Fashion Institute of Technology, recently came under fire after a last minute $10 accessory add— a pair of oversize lips and blown-up “monkey” ears — resulted in public outrage after a Black model refused to wear the items and called out the insensitivity before accusing the creative director of Huang’s show of racism.
The controversy caused a much needed conversation over racism in the fashion industry and led to the suspension of two F.I.T. administrators, Jonathan Kyle Farmer, chair of the M.F.A. fashion design department, and Mary Davis, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, administrators announced Friday (Feb. 21).
In a public letter, the school’s president, Dr. Joyce Brown, who is African-American, said that the controversial show “failed to recognize or anticipate the racist references and cultural insensitivities that were obvious to almost everybody else;” before noting that the institute had commissioned an independent investigation of the incident.
“Based on an internal investigation the styling and accessorizing used in the show were provided to [Huang] rather than chosen at his discretion,” Dr. Brown said. “The collection he designed and produced was not aimed at invoking or provoking racial implications.”
Junkai Huang, who arrived in New York City in 2017 from Qingdao in eastern China, said in a recent interview that he was “sad and shocked” at the accusations.
“I have only lived in the United States briefly,” Huang said. “My understanding of American cultural references is still developing. In the future, I’ll be more aware about political correctness, cultural differences and history.”
In a statement on Instagram, Farmer said he was committed to learning from the situation.
“It was never our intent for the show’s styling to be interpreted as racist or to make people feel uncomfortable, but I now fully understand why this has happened,” Farmer wrote.
Although Farmer states he intends to grow from the incident, Ms. Davis didn’t quite echo his sentiments, stating that she “didn’t even know of the existence of the accessories until I saw them presented at the show,” before adding that her only role was meeting with students after the show, she said, to discuss their concerns.
“I have always taken full responsibility for those matters that are my responsibility, however, I should not be held accountable or blamed for not stopping actions/activity that I did not know existed,” she wrote in a statement.
As previously reported, the controversy began when Amy Lefevre, a 25-year-old Black model, refused to wear the accessories, which she said had been given to the models just as they were about to walk out for the show.
“I let the staff know that I did not want to wear these pieces as they were clearly racist and made me incredibly uncomfortable,” she said before adding that other models wore the pieces.
Lefevre revealed that while Mr. Huang would have let her walk without them, the director of the show, Richard Thornn, a creative director of NAMESldn, a London-based fashion agency, yelled at student designers to move away and pressured her to wear the accessories. Although she refused, Lefevre states that Mr. Thornn ignored her concerns before telling her that she’d “only be uncomfortable for 45 seconds.”
“It’s important to remember that people of color have historically been discriminated against by being characterized as in some way savage or animal,” Ms. Lefevre said. “There have been caricatures that institutionalized this racism in art and media. These big lips and overall monkey-looking accessories from the show struck me as an example of this.”
Read Dr. Brown’s full statement below.