Fashion Institute of Technology president says the school is bursting at the seams

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Buck Ennis

WHO SHE IS: President, Fashion Institute of Technology

BORN: Harlem

RESIDES: On the FIT campus in Chelsea and at her house in Dutchess County

EDUCATION: Bachelor's in psychology, Marymount College; master's and doctorate in psychology, New York University

BREAKING THE MOLD: Brown is the first woman and the first African-American to be appointed president in FIT's nearly 75-year history.

NAMESAKE: The $188 million that FIT has secured for its new 10-story, 109,000-square-foot academic building is enough to complete construction, but Brown says she hopes to raise more for technology and amenities. As of press time, the building doesn't have a name. "It's going to be called by the name of whoever would like to give us a very big gift to outfit this building and make sure it reaches its full potential."

The Fashion Institute of Technology boasts alumni including Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, but Joyce Brown, the community college's president for 20 years, wants to make clear that its students excel in more than just fashion. She has added 16 degree programs, bringing FIT's total to more than 50, ranging from a bachelor's in toy design to a master's in professional studies in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management. Brown recently oversaw the school's rebranding as an institution that nurtures "unconventional minds," and she is looking ahead to the long-awaited construction of a $200 million academic building on West 28th Street, which will break ground next year.

Because we are bursting at the seams, which is not fashionable at all. We have been space-starved since I got here. We really need new studios and laboratories and spaces for students to show their work, be able to congregate and work together. It took so long to get the money for the building that we've been able to update the design to allow for maker space, which fosters innovation, creativity and teamwork.

FIT was really this little hidden jewel. I saw a great opportunity to elevate the reputation of the institution and create more cross-fertilization. You had your business students and your design students, and there really wasn't much effort to create synergy. What was also apparent was the need to revisit our curriculum.

There's opportunity for the integration of science and design. A lot of it is driven by concern about the environment. We have allowed students to develop a natural dye garden on a terrace that gets carried over into the work in the textile development labs. They create compost with excess muslin, fabrics and fibers, then use that to fertilize the garden and watch to see if that has an impact on the vividness of the dyes or the longevity of the color.

We've done a number of partnerships with other universities. Engineering students from MIT worked with our design students on ways in which you can use fibers for conductivity and biofeedback. Our students, with Columbia University, created garments for nursing mothers to use. Toy-design students are working with Brown University to develop toys for children with autism.

We opened a laboratory on campus through a partnership with a global software company based in New York called Infor, which develops technology for small businesses. Infor can demonstrate the real-world issues industries are dealing with so that students can work on developing real-world solutions. That's one example.

The industries are struggling with how to quickly respond to shifts in consumer behavior so they don't lose a season. They look to us because our students will be the next generation of shoppers, consumers and trendsetters but also the leaders of those industries.