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NEW YORK — Anniversary parties generally call for polite nods and knowing murmurs, but Tuesday night’s bash for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s 60th was laced with laughter and hard-knock lessons.
More than 1,000 people poured into the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel’s ballroom for a black-tie event that honored Vera Wang, Barington Capital Group’s Sy Stewart and Phillips-Van Heusen’s Mark Weber.
Emblematic of the spirit of the evening, Wang talked about her roundabout route to design with her signature candor. The self-described “FIT wannabe” told the crowd, “In fact, when I take stock of my 35 years in fashion, the ultimate irony of this award does not escape me. After what can only be termed as a highly unorthodox academic career at Sarah Lawrence, the Sorbonne, the New School and Columbia, in that order, I fully intended to enroll at FIT to study draping. My father, however, had other ideas.”
She said he was “totally fed up with my checkered college résumé” and shut her off financially from any more forays into higher learning. So she went off to work at Vogue.
“Undeterred, I went to a paying job in fashion — if you call $90 a week pay,” Wang said. “And that’s what I love most about our industry: the unpredictability. There is truly no one right career path, for any of us, but there is a commonality in our passion for what we do.”
During the cocktail hour before the bash, which raised $1.1 million for FIT’s educational development fund, several guests plugged the school for nurturing young talent. John Pomerantz, chairman of the educational foundation for the fashion industries, said, “To me, this is the biggest secret in New York City. Everybody who graduates gets a job.”
Another supporter, Allen Questrom, the outgoing chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penney Co., said, “This is all about being where everyone starts out. FIT is about middle-class kids who want to get into design, retail and merchandising. It’s really about the heart of America.”
Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and ceo of Federated Department Stores, said, “Vera Wang has so much potential to do so many things. Mark Weber is considered to be one of the most influential leaders in the industry. Sy Stewart has touched so many lives — not just mine, but Allen Questrom, Mike Gould and Mike Steinberg — practically every Federated principal has learned volumes from him.”
Topping off the go-team mood was former star Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, who turned out for his buddy Stewart. “One thing I’ve learned about Sy is that he treats people great. When a person cares about other people, that makes for a great businessman.”
Both Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo Michael Gould and Lord & Taylor’s senior vice president of fashion merchandising LaVelle Olexa said they were on hand to support Stewart.
Friends for 35 years, Gould said he was a merchant at A&S and Stewart was selling lamps when they first met. “He is one of my dearest friends. This is not an industry function for me,” Gould said. “Sy has been a mentor to a lot of people, and that’s what you are remembered for. He’s also not afraid to give his advice.”
Doling out advice — at least to students — is something that Weber has taken a liking to. He has lectured at the school for the past eight years, and said his prepared subject matter is becoming less important than the students’ Q&A. “There is such demand for knowledge about the industry from someone who knows what goes on in the industry,” he said.
Jerome Chazen, former chairman of Liz Claiborne and current vice chairman of FIT’s board of trustees, said giving a guest lecture led to an unexpected perk. After hearing his presentation, an executive from a Japanese fiber company invited him to speak in Japan. “The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Japan with my wife — first class.”
Susan Sokol, president of Vera Wang Apparel, said a tale from her first job at Calvin Klein is one of the stories she plans to regale 300 students with at Northwestern University later this month. As an account executive in 1971, she managed to sell 100 pink melton peacoats to Joseph Magnin in California. “From that point on, I could do no wrong,” she laughed.