Mary Davis, Former Graduate School Dean, Files $10M Claim Against Joyce Brown and FIT

Shirley P. Olin

The Fashion Institute of Technology had no comment in response to a complaint filed by Mary Davis, its former graduate school dean, against the college and Joyce F. Brown, its president.

Davis, who was dismissed from her position last November, filed a complaint in the Supreme Court of the State of New York County on Feb. 19 over what she claims are false statements over her leadership failures arising out of a fashion show that FIT sponsored on Feb. 7, 2020, that featured work by alumni of FIT’s master of fine arts in fashion design program. The show resulted in criticism about racial insensitivity with respect to accessories used by one of the designers, Junkai Huang.

Davis is seeking an amount to be determined at trial, but no less that $10 million.

According to an FIT spokesman, “FIT does not comment upon matters in litigation except to say that we look forward to presenting our case to the court and seeking the suit’s dismissal at the earliest possible junction.”

As reported in WWD, during that show model Amy Lefevre refused to wear accessories she considered racist that Huang showed with his looks. She walked the runway without them, and told WWD she felt uncomfortable wearing them. Brown had issued a lengthy apology to those who participated in the show, to students and those who were offended by what they saw. The accessories in question were large prosthetic ears and lips and bushy eyebrows. Both Davis and Jonathan Kyle Farmer, the chair of the MFA fashion design department, were initially placed on administrative leave.

In the complaint, Davis claims “malicious, false and defamatory statements” were made by Brown. “Dr. Brown made these false statements to deflect widespread criticism about her leadership failures, in particular, those arising out of a fashion show that FIT sponsored on Feb. 7, 2020, that featured work by alumni of FIT’s master of fine arts in fashion design program.” The show, which was produced and directed by a professional production agency, “was initially highly acclaimed, but later resulted in criticism about racial insensitivity with respect to accessories used by one of the designers,” the complaint said.

The court papers noted that Davis had no advance knowledge of the accessories that were used in the designer’s presentation and had no control over any design aspects of the show, including the accessories featured.

“Both Dr. Davis and Dr. Brown first saw the accessories during the fashion show (in fact they were seated only a few feet apart from each other), where Dr. Brown applauded them enthusiastically,” the complaint said. Following the show, Brown and FIT continued to praise the show extensively in public and even produced and distributed a promotional video featuring the accessories in question. “That video lauded the show as demonstrating FIT’s values of ‘diversity and inclusion,’” the court papers claimed.

However, eight days following the show, an article in The New York Post reported that a Black model in the show had refused to wear certain accessories she felt were racist. “The criticism amplified the long simmering complaints of systemic racism at FIT under Dr. Brown’s leadership. In response to this stinging criticism, Dr. Brown invented a story that shifted attention from her own culpability on Dr. Davis,” according to the claim.

The complaint said Brown “publicly claimed, falsely suggested, and created the impression that and/or implied that Dr. Davis was the person responsible for allowing the inclusion of ‘obviously’ racist accessories in the show.” It said that Brown knew the statement was false when she stated it because she already knew that Davis “was neither responsible for selecting or approving the accessories nor had any interaction with the model.”

“Indeed, by the time Dr. Brown issued this false public statement the producer of the show had already publicly taken full responsibility for the inclusion of those accessories,” according to the claim. The complaint said that what was false were Brown’s statements that she was “appalled” and “embarrassed” by the “obvious” racism displayed at the show and that she took decisive action upon becoming aware of the matter. “Dr. Brown did not herself believe the accessories were ‘obviously’ racist,’” according to the complaint.

“Nonetheless, Brown and FIT publicly blamed and shamed Davis for her supposedly ‘inexcusable’ and ‘ irresponsible’ conduct,” the court papers said. It said Brown did so knowing that her statements were false, and intending to communicate the false implications that Davis was responsible for including the accessories, and approved or permitted them, and was racist or racially insensitive in doing so “and failed to discharge her duties as a dean completely.”

The complaint said that “these lies and false innuendoes destroyed the personal and professional reputation” of Davis, who was initially put on a paid administrative leave of absence and then fired on Nov. 10, 2020, ending her four-decade career. “It is highly unlikely that Dr. Davis, who is 61 years old and now widely and publicly labeled as a racist, will ever secure another job in her profession,” the complaint said. “The malicious nature of Dr. Brown’s actions is especially heinous in light of Dr. Davis’ stellar work in the School of Graduate Studies,” the suit noted.

According to the claim, the show consisted of design collections created by 10 of the alumni of the MFA in fashion design program. Huang was one of the alumni designers whose work was featured in the show. His collection, like his thesis, centered on his concepts of “Unique Curves,” which explored the sense of beauty in various objects that deviate from conventional standards. His concept was expressed in his garments through the addition of fabrics and texture that built volume around key body parts. He also sketched accessories to accompany the designs that elaborated upon aspects of the human body including the ear, lips and hands. He intended to handmake these accessories, which were an integral part of his vision.

By the time of the fashion show, Huang, for reasons unknown, hadn’t made the accessories. Five days before the show, he asked his former professor, Prof. Farmer, and the producer of the show, Richard Thornn, for advice about possible alternatives to the intended handmade accessories. Farmer emailed Huang a list of Amazon websites containing items with some resemblance to the ones Huang had sketched. These included clown ears, large and allegedly therapeutic red plastic lips and busy “Groucho Marx”-style eyebrows, among others. Huang ordered these items from Amazon and they arrived in time to be used in the fittings for the show, the claim said.

“Dr. Davis had no knowledge of these events and it wasn’t within her purview, nor was it her responsibility academically or professionally, as an academic dean, to oversee the content or administrative aspects of this professional, managed alumni show,” according to the claim. “Even if the fashion show had included the works of current FIT students, FIT’s practice precludes academic deans from evaluating, let alone approving, or censoring, any student’s creative work or interfering with the in-class work of professors,” the claim said. “This conforms to American Association of University Professors principles and is standard practice for deans of graduate schools. Further, the accessories designed by Mr. Huang and included in his final project for graduation looked nothing like the accessories he finally used in the show,” the claim said.


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