Speakers Offer Wisdom and Inspiration to 2023 Graduates

Graduates standing in Central

Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield was the site of FIT’s six 2023 undergraduate commencement ceremonies, held on May 24 and 25. The sun shone, mostly; the trees showed off their fresh spring colors, birds sang. On one morning, in the only bit of drama to mark an otherwise stellar day, a red-tailed hawk, off its game, failed to capture a passing pigeon. A variety of notable speakers shared their wisdom from the stage with the more than 3,700 graduates and their families and friends. 

The School of Graduate Studies held a separate ceremony for graduates of its seven master’s programs in the Haft Theater on May 23.

FIT President Joyce F. Brown at the podiumPresident Joyce F. Brown addressed the graduates, acknowledging the many challenges their generation has lived through, from growing up “in the shadow of 9/11,” to political and economic turmoil, bigotry, environmental destruction, and the pandemic. Though exhilarated by the students’ achievements, she said she met many whose goal is “to be famous…to be an influencer…to be a brand.” She shared the story of Vivian Maier, whose thousands of photographs won acclaim after her death; Maier had worked in obscurity with no desire for fame, but with an undying passion for making images. Dr. Brown encouraged the graduates to “fall in love with the process—of designing, building a business, shooting photos” rather than the outcome. “It is the verb, the act of doing, that counts,” she said.

Francisco Costa, Fashion Design ’90, founder and head of Costa Brazil, and former creative director for women’s wear at Calvin Klein, standing at a podium addressing the graduatesFrancisco Costa, Fashion Design ’90, founder and head of Costa Brazil, and former creative director for women’s wear at Calvin Klein, at the School of Art and Design ceremony for Fashion Design

Costa inspired the graduates with his personal story, of knowing little English when he immigrated to New York in 1981 and enrolled at FIT. What he learned from his FIT professors, he said, was to keep pushing no matter the boundaries. He studied English and cleaned houses to pay tuition. When he didn’t qualify for an internship in Italy because he was a continuing ed student, he persuaded an administrator to give him a chance anyway. 

Dayna Isom Johnson, Fashion Merchandising Management ’07, Trend Expert at Etsy and judge on NBC’s “Making It,” speaking at the podiumDayna Isom Johnson, Fashion Merchandising Management ’07, trend expert at Etsy and judge on NBC’s “Making It,” at the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology’s ceremony for Fashion Business Management

When something you dreamed of doesn’t happen or isn’t right for you, be adaptable and move on to the next phase, Johnson advised. “Be open to hearing those universal nods to what is meant for you. Put in the work to discover the lessons.” She urged the graduates to “step into fear and accept the unknown in order to receive the gold,” and quoted her “favorite philosopher, Beyoncé Knowles Carter: ‘When you’re trembling, that’s when the magic happens.’” 

Byron Lars, Fashion Design alum, designer for In Earnest by Byron Lars speaking at the podiumByron Lars, Fashion Design alum, designer for In Earnest by Byron Lars, at the School of Art and Design ceremony for Advertising and Digital Design; Animation, Interactive Media, and Game Design; Communication Design Foundation; Fine Arts; Graphic Design; Illustration; Packaging Design; Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design.

“I want everything I touch to turn to gold, but sadly, that’s just not how it works for any of us,” Lars said, based on long experience in the industry. As in “any self-respecting commencement speech,” he “extolled the virtues of failing” as “part of the learning curve on the road to your destiny.” He ended with a quote from Winston Churchill: ‘If you are going through hell, keep going,’ and exhorted the graduates to “go forth and conquer!”

Fern Mallis, Creator of New York Fashion Week and Inductee in Business of Fashion’s 500 Hall of Fame at the podiumFern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week and inductee in Business of Fashion’s 500 Hall of Fame, at the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology ceremony for Advertising and Marketing Communications, Direct and Interactive Marketing, and Fashion Business Management

Mallis reminded the audience that while designers get all the attention, the business people are “critical…in the food chain of fashion. Without you handling all their marketing, communications, and business management,” she said, “no one would ever know about any of those designers.” She emphasized the importance of technology, saying that now, “The ‘T’ in FIT is more important than the ‘F,’” and urging the graduates to “use it to make a positive impact on the world.” She herself is no technophobe. “I admit to you when I was asked to deliver this speech, I embraced the new technology and downloaded ChatGPT…so try to figure out what I wrote and what they suggested.” But she insisted on the importance of the human touch, advising the graduates to “use that iPhone to call—not text—your parents. Tell them—in your voice—how smart they were to send you to FIT.”

Jennifer Walsh, founder of Beauty Bar at the podiumJennifer Walsh, founder of Beauty Bar, an omnichannel beauty and wellness brand, at the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology ceremony for Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing; Entrepreneurship for the Fashion and Design Industries; Home Products Development; International Trade and Marketing for the Fashion Industries; Production Management: Fashion and Related Industries; Technical Design; Textile Development and Marketing

As an entrepreneur, Walsh had to prove the value of her business concepts. Before she achieved success, people said her ideas were “dumb, ridiculous, they would never work.” But her mother had always told her to be tenacious, and she persevered. She told the graduates what she had learned in the process: “Go with your gut, your intuition. Sometimes plans don’t go as planned, but brush it off. Keep going.” She ended with a final word of inspiration: “Never stop seeking the wild edge of life,” she advised. “Be brave, be courageous, be you.”

Gary Wassner, CEO of Hilldun Corporation at the podiumGary Wassner, CEO of Hilldun Corporation, factor and financier to leading fashion companies, at the School of Art and Design ceremony for Art History and Museum Professions; Fabric Styling; Film and Media; Footwear and Accessories Design; Interior Design; Interior Design; Jewelry Design; Menswear; Photography and Related Media; Textile/Surface Design, Toy Design

Those in the arts and design have “the ability to shape the world, mold it with your imagination, inspire emotions, provoke thoughts… and ignite change,” Wassner said. He advised the graduates to let passion be their compass, and perseverance their fuel. He quoted Vincent van Gogh: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” You are warriors of the imagination, pioneers of innovation, and champions of authenticity, Wassner said. “Never shy away from taking risks, for it is in the realm of uncertainty that brilliance often finds its home.” Go forth and illuminate the world.

Papa Oppong, Fashion Design MFA ’20 at the podium

Papa Oppong, Fashion Design MFA ’21, at the School of Graduate Studies ceremony:

The artist, fashion designer, and illustrator said he was inspired by his “selfless, hardworking” grandmother—and Barbie; he remembers the legendary doll’s power of self-transformation and the tagline “Anything is possible with Barbie!” His tips for success included: Cry when you need to—in tough times, it helps lift burdens off your shoulders. And “your personal stories can help you reach your goal; it’s important to stand out, so own your flaws, own your quirks—there’s beauty in our differences”.

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