July 19, 2024

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Dean of fashion at Parsons seeks societal change with new book, Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution

8 min read

Parsons School of Design has been making strides in promoting inclusivity in fashion education, expanding course offerings and providing students with access to diverse perspectives. Upon his arrival as Dean 3 years ago, Ben Barry made it his mission to emphasize the influence of educators on the next generation of fashion professionals, highlighting how small-scale changes in the classroom can trickle up into larger institutional change. FashionUnited met with Barry to discuss his latest book, Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution, a collaborative work that brings together 17 educators from across the globe to offer insights on how to navigate a future of fashion education that is fair and infinitely more creative.

Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution
Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution Credits: Illustration by Hayden Stern

Who is this book intended for?

Primarily, it’s a book for fashion educators. Each chapter is written in first person from an educator who talks about courses they’ve developed and taught whether in plus size fashion, disability or age in fashion, on cultural appropriation, or about queer and trans, or indigenous fashion. We have a chapter on Native American fashion. It’s about expanding the narrative of fashion to be broad and plural. It’s not simply filled with joy; educators often talk about the struggle of doing that work, the resistance. But every chapter ends with a call to action where educators share their strategies so that if someone’s interested in doing this in their course, there are strategies provided.

How important was it to reflect that each educator’s journey towards these goals is different?

We tried to have everyone write it from as much of a human place as possible. Each chapter is a half personal narrative of the educator, how they came to that topic and to fashion education, and how they moved through course development, with some actual practical tips on what they’ve learned as they taught, and the struggles and successes they encountered. There are several chapters that are co-written with students who have also shared their experience of being in the course, what they learned and the impact it had on them, including one on queer fashion history and gender equity, and one I wrote around creating accessible fashion grounding disability. So there are student voices as well but it is primarily written for educators as part guide, part companion to support them on their own journeys.

Image from Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution
Image from Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution Credits: Steve Nguyen

Why did you feel the time was right for this book?

For educators it’s important to feel you have agency to really reimagine fashion education, to create change in the wider industry. And maybe every school isn’t currently centering that as they should. But as an educator, we can influence our courses, and we can influence the next generation by how we choose to teach. And if educators receive pushback from their school, or feel they are the only ones working towards change, we want them to feel that they aren’t alone in that work and that there is a larger community united in this radical fashion pedagogy.

How important is school support to the educator?

Part of what drew me to Parsons was that I knew this work was already happening here. It was a school that already had made a commitment to inclusive fashion education and had started to map that out, and I would be coming into a space to help amplify, accelerate and scale that work. It was work that was already core to the community. But this book recognizes that not every fashion school has that legacy or that philosophy already amongst the leadership and amongst the educators.

You mentioned “mapping out a pathway,” but being in a school with such progressive roots as Parsons in a location like New York City known for its diversity, do you feel like you’re automatically a leader in this conversation?

Inclusive and progressive fashion education has always been core to how I operate in the classroom and how I’ve occupied any leadership position. That has come from my experience in industry, but certainly being in an institution like Parsons that has a legacy around social justice in a very diverse city can be seen as accelerating that work. But there also has to be support from the community, from the other educators, from the university leadership, and partners. I think what is interesting is that we have chapters written by educators in schools that aren’t in large cities, or that don’t have the same history or legacy, and they’re still doing really progressive and exciting work. I think it proves that these kinds of changes can happen at any fashion school, at any scale or size, in any location. It really is about how we develop courses and facilitate them as teachers.

Image from Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution
Image from Fashion Education, The Systemic Revolution Credits: Ziyuan Chen

You mentioned that a lot of how you approach fashion education is based on your own experience, but was there a catalyst or a situation that really changed your thinking?

I’ll go way back to when I was 14. I started a modeling agency because one of my friends who had taken a modeling course and got a portfolio of photos together was told that she needed to lose weight when she went to agencies to seek representation. She was probably a US dress size 16 and agencies wanted her to be a dress size 2 or 4 which was impossible for her. So obviously knowing nothing about the fashion industry, I decided to send her photos to some magazines and got a phone call back from an editor who wanted to hire her, assuming I was her agent. I ran the modeling agency up until I finished my PhD.

How did that experience inform your academic practice?

My PhD research looked at consumer perceptions of models of different sizes, ages, races within fashion advertising, and how that affected purchase intentions, but I realized that was only a small part of the much bigger fashion ecosystem. And that if there was going to be a cultural shift in how we think about beauty, it needed to be followed up with real design and business practices that foster inclusivity. Therefore it had to begin in fashion education where the worldviews and the practices of the next generation are set. And so that’s when I made the decision to move into academia. I wanted to help create that foundation for the next generation of fashion designers, creatives and business people. Now as Dean I can support my colleagues in their classroom but also work on setting a vision for the school and strategies to create this type of change that’s really structurally embedded in the institution.

Have you received any feedback on your work, positive or negative?

One of the things I was really proud of in my first year was working with our faculty, staff, students and alumni to really create a new vision for the school placing access, equity and inclusion as the standard at Parsons. Once we had crafted this and everyone was aligned to this vision, our community could hold us accountable because we said this is who we were. Then, over the past two years, we’ve been able to make significant new faculty hires in areas of plus size design, indigenous fashion, multi-sensory fashion, complementing our existing faculty base with expanded knowledge sets and practices, and offering a number of new courses and pathways to learn.

How much did the pandemic affect the contents or journey of this book?

This book began before I was at Parsons, just before the pandemic. Deborah, my co-author, and I had just finalized the 15 other authors we were inviting to participate when the pandemic slowed down everything. It became really about centering that care and flexibility as everyone was adjusting and then responding to the multitude of social changes and uprisings that happened during that time. It was a four year process but it felt, in a weird way, that the pandemic was actually bolstering the purpose of the book. It felt like we were on the right track. Then George Floyd’s murder happened. This tragedy was some kind of a validation that this book needed to be out there, and in fact, we start the introduction by talking about not only the impact of the pandemic but the how resurgence of Black Lives Matter, in particular, impacted fashion educators. We all saw the comments on fashion schools’ social media channels and rightful calls for social justice from people pointing out troubling legacies and the histories of discrimination and inequity in education. The responsibility was on schools to make changes and we used that framing for the introduction. And while not every school might be where we are at Parsons in terms of the institutional change-making, if fashion educators want to take steps, there’s power in the classroom and power in our pedagogy. And often change happens by beginning small scale, and that can really empower and inspire bigger changes, and eventually lead to transformation.

DEI is an ongoing and evolving topic so do you have other books in mind?

This was a really fun, enriching experience because it was the opportunity to collaborate with so many different people in different countries with different experiences. I’m working now on a book on disability and fashion. Often, as educators, we’re so focused on our classrooms and our students, we don’t have an opportunity to see teaching as either critical research or a way to share that work outside of our classroom or university. This was a way to be able to share the amazing work that educators are doing with a much larger audience of fellow educators who will hopefully benefit from reading it.

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