Byline: Arthur Friedman / With contributions from Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — The Fashion Institute of Technology is strengthening its bridge to the fashion industry through an ambitious project called the Center for Design Innovation.
Allen Hirshfield, president of FIT, said an 18,000-square-foot building will be erected to house the CDI — essentially an incubator for new design firms — and a Great Hall, which will serve as a “living room for the campus” and that can be converted into a site for fashion shows.
Hirshfield said groundbreaking for the center is expected in the first quarter of 1997 and construction should be completed by fall 1998. Explaining the center’s dynamics in front of an architectural model in his office, Hirshfield said the specifications have been completed, and the college has applied for the construction permits from the city.
The CDI will be on West 28th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in back of the Marvin Feldman Building, also known as Building C. It will be home to 15 tenant firms and 45 affiliates.
The cost of the center is estimated at $5.5 million, Hirshfield said, with $1 million coming from an appropriation from the New York City Economic Development Corp. In 1993, when the project was first proposed by former Mayor David Dinkins in conjunction with FIT, it was called the Center for Design and Related Industries at a proposed cost of $80 million, with $5 million promised from city coffers.
The cost of the project has since been scaled back, partially because of budget constraints, but mostly because once it was determined that a building could be constructed on college property, the estimates were lowered considerably.
When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office in January 1994, he also supported the plan and last month the EDC approved $1 million for the project.
“It’s important for us to support projects like this,” Giuliani said last week. “New York City is the fashion capital of the world and it’s important to educate young people to continue to carry on the tradition. It’s also important that they are educated in state-of-the-art facilities, which will provide continued opportunities for the next generation.”
Hirshfield said the balance of the funds is already in FIT’s capital budget, but the school hopes to garner enough private contributions to recoup what it spends.
To that end, and to tap the industry to support other projects as well, Hirshfield last summer appointed Carol R. Martin to the new post of vice president for development. In just four months, the school has raised $430,000 for the center. Hirshfield and Martin are confident the remaining $4.07 million will be raised before the project is completed.
“Our goal is for the center to be self-supporting within five years,” Hirshfield said. “We’re also working with financial institutions to set up a venture capital fund for start-up firms. The major obstacle for young designers is finding the funding to get started.”
Hirshfield said SUNY, of which the school is a part, has approved setting up a separate corporation for the CDI, and the school has also applied for nonprofit status for the center.
Hirshfield said the plan is to get the affiliates program running within the next year, while the building is being constructed. Like the 15 tenants, these firms, which will need to meet eligibility requirements, will have access to FIT’s costume and textile collections, and will be able to utilize the school faculty through consulting arrangements.
Hirshfield explained that the tenant firms will pay below-market rates for the space. The rent will include the use of cutting tables, pattern-making equipment and computer-aided design.
“We know we need to focus on two or three clusters or categories, but we haven’t decided which those will be,” Hirshfield said. “We will have a process to become eligible for the program because we want these companies to be successful.”
As for the rest of the project, Hirshfield said, “The college has for a long time needed a place that would serve as a living room for the campus. So on top of the CDI will be a Great Hall, which will function as such, but also will be configurable for fashion shows.
“It will hold 500 people, and will be specifically designed so that fashion shows can be conducted here very easily. One of the things that we expect to do, in addition to making it available for people who want to hold fashion shows, is to have two juried shows a year for the designers that are associated with the center. And on the top of the building will be a roof-top garden.”
Hirshfield said he’s been working with the Council of Fashion Designers of America on the fashion show specifics, and hopes the site will become part of the twice-a-year fashion week runway presentations.
“The synergy is incredible,” Hirshfield said. “Our students will be able to get part-time work or internships with these design firms, while at the same time we’ll provide a foundation for our graduates and others looking to get started in business.”
Hirshfield said there are about 1,000 business incubators at universities around the country that focus on the strength of the particular institution.
“What is unique about FIT is the special relationship it has with industry,” he said. “It was created by industry 50 years ago and has always had a special bond to it. Now we have a direct link.”
In addition to raising funds for the CDI, Martin said she’ll be working on corporate and private fund-raising projects to expand the Museum at FIT and will be working with the deans in charge of the different departments at the school to identify how outside contributions could enhance the curriculum.
“The is the first systematic fund-raising effort we’ve ever had,” Hirshfield said. “This is the first building in a master plan for the campus that will add three or four buildings and at least 250,000 square feet of space over the next 10 years, because we really need to expand. The last building was constructed here 28 years ago. Since that time, enrollment has more than doubled to 11,450.”
Hirshfield said most of the expansion will be on 28th Street, on either side of the proposed CDI site. Space will be for classrooms, labs and equipment.
As an example of how the school hopes to get corporate support, the Walt Disney Co. last month brought several division managers to FIT to explain the job opportunities available in the company to graduates.
“Disney has identified us as one of 15 colleges and universities in the world that they want to make Disney partners,” Hirshfield said. “Their artistic divisions have grown so fast that they have a tremendous need for young design talent.”

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