Life Lessons From Industry Luminaries at FIT’s 2024 Commencement

looking at the audience of graduating students from the stage of FIT's 2024 commencement

“Never forget where you came from,” were the closing words of retail legend Mickey Drexler in his FIT commencement address in Central Park on May 22. Each of the six industry leaders invited to speak at this year’s commencement ceremonies shared stories from their past to help graduates navigate their future. Here are some of their lessons.

Sarah Davis speaking at a podium at FIT's 2024 commencement

Sarah Davis, founder and president of Fashionphile, a luxury fashion “re-commerce” marketplace, and a member of the FIT Foundation board, addressed graduates May 22 at 10 am. Davis spoke about how her impoverished childhood planted the seeds of an entrepreneurial spirit. She bought used goods because she couldn’t afford to buy them new—and realized that the quality of those items often exceeded that of new merchandise. She wouldn’t find a way to turn that love of secondhand fashion into a business until much later.

“I have always been ambitious,” she said, “but my dreams for myself when I was young were still too small because the technologies that support and inspired my business today had not been invented yet.”

Mickey Drexler talking into a mic at FIT's 2024 commencement

Mickey Drexler, known for transforming J. Crew and founding Madewell, Old Navy, and Gap Kids, spoke at the two afternoon ceremonies on May 22 (the first can be viewed here, and the second can be viewed here). He talked about how his difficult childhood gave him the tools to succeed.

“I appreciate the tough years because it led me to daydream, live in my imagination, and to escape my everyday life,” he said. “That was the greatest gift that was bestowed upon me.”

Though he was the first person in his family to get a college education, he emphasized the importance of skills not teachable in school, like “street smarts, people smarts, a strong gut instinct, and intuition,” and “style, taste, and curiosity.”

Drexler was honored with a President’s Award at the ceremony.

Rebecca Moses at a podium at 2024 FIT commencement

Rebecca Moses, Fashion Design ’77, spoke the morning of May 23 about a series of left turns in life that completely changed her trajectory. At 31 years old, she gave up her successful fashion design career and followed her husband to Italy, where she didn’t even speak the language. There, she met the retailer Joyce Ma, who helped her become the creative director of the fashion brand Genny, which had been overseen by Gianni Versace.

Twenty years later, her husband died, and she started over again in New York City to “focus on my children and explore the artist within me.” She made a name for herself in painting and illustration for top fashion, beauty, and lifestyle brands.

“Life has its way of testing us,” Moses said. “Beyond your talent, your strongest assets will be your inner strength and the ability to evolve.”

B Michael standing at a podium at 2024 FIT commencement

B. Michael, Fashion Design alum, addressed the graduates May 23 in the afternoon, encouraging everyone to find their unique voice and point of view, embrace their passion and purpose, and leave an indelible impact and legacy on the future.

“You know the world does not need another pretty dress,” he said. “What the world does not have is your point of view.”

He pointed out that the democratization of fashion has opened the door for anyone to share their vision with the world. “The barriers to entry have been disrupted, and you are right on time to shape the future.”

Bibhu Mohapatra speaking at a podium at FIT's 2024 commencement

Bibhu Mohapatra, Fashion Design ’99, talked to graduates in the final ceremony about his long journey toward realizing his dream of being a fashion designer. He fell in love with design as a child, when his mother taught him to sew, but studied economics, getting a bachelor’s degree in India and a master’s in the states. When he finally applied to FIT on the advice of a professor, part of the admissions test involved imagining a gown for the first lady. Fast-forward to 2013, when he was asked to design outfits for then–first lady Michelle Obama, for a state visit to India. His childhood dream had come full circle. “When she landed in India in my outfit, with President Obama by her side, it was a surreal moment—a moment that became viral,” he said. “I told her it was my American dream coming true.”

Laura Mina standing at a podium at FIT's School of Graduate Studies' 2024 commencement ceremony

Laura Mina, Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice ’10, conservator of textiles at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, spoke at the commencement and hooding ceremony for the School of Graduate Studies, held in the Haft Theater on May 21. She shared two quotations that have guided her in her career and her life. First, from the science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” And second, from Adjunct Assistant Professor Valerie Soll, “In conservation, there are many questions but only one answer: ‘It depends.’”

With these two life lessons, Mina encouraged graduates to engage in critical thinking, ask questions, and be open to change: “Remember that if the answer to your first question is, ‘It depends,’ that is a sign to keep questioning and exploring.”

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