From 1968 to 1991, FIT’s Soul Club provided an essential service to FIT. Founded after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the organization offered resources and a showcase for Black student talent. Clara Branch, who taught in the Fashion Design program, created and led the group.
For those 23 years, alumna Adrienne Jones says, Soul Club fashion shows were required viewing: “Every February, the FIT auditorium was sold out to standing-room only crowds, waiting to see one of the hottest shows on Seventh Avenue.”
On February 22, Jones and three other alumni of the club—Steven Cutting, Leonard Davis, and Gwenveria Sargeant—discussed its legacy at an event in the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre as part of the FIT Diversity Collective’s Black History Month activities. Taur Orange, director of FIT’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and recipient of the Voices of African Mothers Progress Award, moderated.
“Some of us came [to FIT] by the skin of our teeth,” says Black Americana collector and fashion designer Leonard Davis ’73. Branch, he says, used proceeds from the fashion shows to purchase school supplies for club members. “She initiated this organization that had books you could borrow, with fabric being donated by the industry.”
“It was like a home away from home—to be able to use the materials that were there for us,” says Gwenveria Sargeant ’78. Chair of the nonprofit organization Fashion & Arts Xchange, which supports careers of minority students and professionals in the industry, Sargeant also serves as an EOP guest professor and adjunct professor in the Fashion Design Department.
Adjunct Assistant Professor Steven Cutting ’83 met Branch in 1979 through his work-study program. The club sparked his career working with brands like Kenneth Cole and Beyoncé’s House of Deréon. “The benefit of the Soul Club fashion show was that you could actually build a collection—and really understand what a designer does,” Cutting says. After appearing in the 1983 show, Cutting earned his BFA, along with Harvey’s Bristol Cream Award for Most Promising Designer.
Jones, Branch’s goddaughter, modeled for the club even after graduating in 1980. Founder of the Black Dress Project, an organization that celebrates Black achievement in the fashion industry, Jones is the first Black woman tenured professor at Pratt Institute. “[Branch] taught me how to fight that fight,” Jones says.
Orange connects the history of the club to the 2023 theme for Black History Month, Black Resistance.
“I think of it as insistence,” Sargeant says. “The Soul Club is a perfect example of that.”
Branch directed the club until her retirement in 1992. “She never got the recognition she should have,” Jones says. “If it had been a club with somebody white at the top—there would be a building here with her name on it.”
The event, organized by Jennifer Brady of the Gladys Marcus Library, was the culmination of FIT’s Soul Club Oral History Project, and funded through FIT’s Diversity Grant Initiative. The club’s oral histories—and those famously standing-room-only fashion shows—can now be viewed via FIT’s Archive on Demand. —Sydney Bigelow, International Trade and Marketing ’22