“What we need is an MIT for the fashion industries”
—Mortimer C. Ritter
In the 1940s, fashion and apparel industry members were faced with a dwindling number of qualified people to help them run and carry on their businesses. The next generation wanted to be doctors and lawyers—not tailors. A group of industry members, led by Mortimer C. Ritter, an educator with an interest in programs for young working people, and Max Meyer, a retired menswear manufacturer, set about organizing a school to ensure the vitality of their businesses.
First, they created the Educational Foundation for the Apparel Industries to promote education for the industry. The Foundation then obtained a charter from the New York State Board of Regents to establish a “fashion institute of technology and design.” The institute opened in 1944 with 100 students, and was located on the top two floors of the High School of Needle Trades.
Soon, supporters wanted to bring greater prestige to the industry by having the institute become a college with the authority to confer degrees. Industrialists and educators decided on two majors: Design (with programs in apparel, millinery, and textiles) and Scientific Management. The curriculum also included Liberal Arts. In 1951, three years after the State University of New York had been established and state law had provided for the creation of community colleges, F.I.T. became the second SUNY community college empowered to grant the Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree. By then, there were 400 day students and about 1,000 evening students.
F.I.T. received accreditation in 1957, and as the curriculum and student body grew, the college moved into its first real home—a nine-story building on Seventh Avenue in the heart of the garment district—in 1959. The building had been planned for 1,200 students; by 1963, there were 4,000. During this time, the college’s curriculum was growing beyond traditional notions of fashion, to include subjects like photography and advertising and interior design.
The college wanted to further expand its curriculum by offerings bachelor’s and master’s degrees— something that “was just not done” by a community college, according to the State University’s former chancellor. Representatives of the college and supporters in the industry and government lobbied hard to persuade legislators to allow F.I.T. to do this. In 1975, an amendment to the Education Law of New York State permitted F.I.T. to offer BS and BFA programs; another in 1979 authorized master’s degrees.
By this time, six more buildings had been added to the campus, including two dormitories, and the Shirley Goodman Resource Center, which houses the Gladys Marcus Library and The Museum at F.I.T. The school continued to grow by adding modern facilities, like the Design/Lighting Research Laboratory and the Annette Green Fragrance Foundation Studio (the first of its kind on a college campus), making international programs available to students, and evolving its academic offerings.
Today, the campus encompasses an entire city block and serves more than 10,000 students. The college offers degrees in diverse subjects, such as Menswear and Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing, which are unique to the college, and Fashion Business Management, Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design, and Toy Design, the first of their kind in the country.
In terms of branch campuses internationally, F.I.T. began offering overseas programs in Italy in 1986 as an ongoing response to the needs of a ''modern apprentice system.” Additionally, in September 2017, F.I.T. launches its first Asian branch at Incheon Global Campus, South Korea. Fashion students around the globe have an option of starting their study in South Korea for two years and completing their bachelor’s degree in New York. Asia serves as a key manufacturing and technology hub for many global conglomerates, and given that South Korea is considered the testbed for globally established design brands, F.I.T. is further enabled to deliver world-class education both in and outside of classrooms.