with contributions from David Moin
 on May 22, 2015

NEW YORK — In a humorous, self-deprecating fashion, Brooke Shields, actress, model, best-selling author and beauty entrepreneur gave thoughtful advice to the graduates of the School of Art and Design and School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Thursday morning.

Later in the day, Marc Metrick, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, addressed the second part of the day with a mix of humor, sentiment and reflections on the past, indicating that while his memory of his graduation day 20 years ago has faded, “I do hope that you take away from our few minutes together, what an exciting time it is to be starting out in retail and in fashion.Working in this industry allows you to shape taste and culture. Remember that.Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, fancy or basic – fashion touches everyone.”

Upon taking the podium for her speech, Shields thanked everyone for inviting her to be the commencement speaker. “What was I thinking? I’ve been staring at the exits, there’s eight of them,” she said.

Shields said she took a comprehensive tour of FIT last week and was duly impressed. “From the moment I got on the elevator, I was told that it was exam time, and I felt instantly sick to my stomach. What’d I forget to study? What notes did I miss? Why did I party at Up and Down until  3 a.m.?” Having graduated from college [Princeton University] 28 years ago, she said, “I could feel that all-too familiar crazy, hyper energy of finals week. But as I walked through the halls, the labs, the rooms filled with your projects and your colossal talent, I was astounded. My god, have you all worked so hard to be here. It is an enormous achievement.”

She said it was clearly evident that “you worked your asses off,” apologizing to Joyce Brown, FIT’s president.

Shields said she almost turned down this “incredible honor” because she didn’t know what would resonate with the students. “You not only represent the pulse of the present, but you are the future of style. You are the future of art, you are the future of creativity. I was really fearful that I would not deliver a speech today that would inspire you. I actually lost sleep over it. I thought you are so creatively intimidating. Why can’t somebody else do it? Is somebody else available? Kelly Ripa? Christy Turlington? Or, Sarah Jessica Parker, I can call her. I’ve been torturing myself.”

But Shields said she’s always believed in facing one’s fears. “I am here facing you young, talented, young — so young — people. You are on the brink of being unleashed into the world, and time is about to accelerate for you in a way that you can’t even imagine,” she said.

She told the students that when she graduated from college, although she had worked in her chosen field for many years (she posed nude as a baby for Ivory Snow), she was not trained in what she loved the most. “I had no clue as to how my career would continue after my four-year hiatus, as it was called,” she said. She said graduates were released into the world after four years of liberal arts and didn’t have a clue what they would do with their lives.

“You are clearly ahead of the game. You are entering creative fields that you have been preparing for and you’re ready to work. You are a very rare commodity — independent creative thinkers,” said Shields. She told the graduates to remember who they are, and why they came to FIT. “That voice, that authentic self is what has engaged you throughout your entire life so far,” she said. As their careers come into focus, they should recall that voice and embrace four major concepts: Fear, Lineage, Expectations and Work Ethic.

Fear: She said never back away from fear, but dive into it. There will always be the possibility of making mistakes and “the nagging belief that you’re actually a fraud and you’re not good enough. Don’t allow yourself to give into self doubt, and don’t let people interfere either,” she said.

Shields recalled the shoots she did with Richard Avedon, whom she called Mr. Don “and he called me Drake.” She said Avedon was the one who taught her not to have fear and to hold onto her convictions. During the shoots, he wouldn’t let anyone into the room. “Whether it was Vogue with Polly Mellen, or a poster with Keith Haring. There would be a big frenzy and chaos getting ready with hair and makeup. I would walk onto the set, and he would close this massive, iron, factorylike door, and nobody else was allowed in. It would just be me and Dick. He never let anyone interfere with his vision.” If others start to doubt you and want to change your creative vision, “be like Avedon and shut the big, metal door. Make mistakes, grow, make more mistakes, I’ve had too many to list and most on a very public scale. Why did I date George Michael? I didn’t know.”

Lineage: “I’m not talking about genes. But I did do a little Calvin Klein ad campaign. You might have heard of it. At 15, and that was a firestorm. It was wonderful, we knew we were part of something that was important. I’m talking about paying attention to the lineage of your creativity. Even before FIT, what was it that you return to, that you remained motivated by? Where does your passion always seem to lie?”

For her, it was always wanting to be the class clown. “I always wanted to be Charlie Chaplin for Halloween, many years in a row. I always wanted to make people laugh. It always gave me such joy to laugh and to make others laugh.” She said she was in her own sit-com, “Suddenly Susan,” and did musical comedies on Broadway and married a comedy writer.

Shields recalled that she was approached several times to do a perfume line but they didn’t want her input, only her face on the bottle or the ads. “I wanted to be a part of the actual creation of the scent, but they didn’t want that. I walked away. But when MAC approached me, it took years to create the line. I was a part of every single detail, from the packaging to the texture to the fragrance to the whole palette. It was very, very successful. In the first hour, it actually sold out, unlike the hair dryers from 1986. I have 1,200 left in my garage. EBay?”

Expectations: “What are your expectations?” For herself, all she ever wanted to be was an actress. After going to the movies with her mom, she would dream about being in movies, and put herself in the lead roles. “What do you want to accomplish as artists? Up until now you’ve had a certain amount of freedom to focus on your craft. Once you’re no longer incubated from this incredible institution, focus can shift toward money, success, fame. If you want guaranteed money, go work on Wall Street. But when you go into a creative field because you love it, I promise you, you will be richer than any hedge fund guy ever was.”

She said for awhile, she was famous for her eyebrows. Then she was famous for being a virgin. “It took a lot of hard work. Just kidding. It took a lot of hard work to get people to stop focusing on those things and pay attention to my actual accomplishments. If you want success, trust me, success comes in a myriad of different packages. Don’t ever be fooled into thinking that it does not always entail continuous hard work and tireless tenacity,” she said.

“When I graduated from university, I thought I would be welcomed back with open arms and countless opportunities. I did not have such a homecoming. I could not get a movie, a play, a TV show or even an ad campaign to save my life. I felt so lost and derailed. All I had ever known was work, and suddenly nobody wanted me. The only thing I knew, I was dying inside to be creatively active.” She said she always believes in continuing to work while you don’t have a job. “You all have incredible futures immediately ahead of you, but you will go through times that feel bleak. You will probably experience being fired or passed over. You’ll probably get more nos than you will yeses, but the yeses that you do get you will use. You will grow and you will continue to move forward.”

“Most of the things I’ve done in my career, Broadway, directing, writing memoirs or children’s books, I did because other doors were closed to me. For me, success has been measured in longevity and in an enduring career that has had both highs and lows. I simply refused to give up,” she said.

Work ethic: Her dad used to say, “A lot lies on how you show up.” She told the graduates to remember words like integrity and accountability. “Listen to others and ask for guidance from those you admire. Find your peers and grow strong with them. Find your mentors and follow them,” she said.

In conclusion, Shields said, “I hope you never stop aspiring to do what you love, and you continue being your unique selves. The world out there is a mess, but maybe you can fix it by making everyone look fabulous.”

In his afternoon address, Metrick encouraged the students to consider retailing as a career, and suggested with all the new ideas and talent flooding the industry, it’s the perfect time to do so. “The industry is undergoing a seismic shift with so many long-held ideas falling to the wayside. The pace of change is faster than I have ever seen. Retailers no longer set the terms of engagement. Customers do…The lines are blurring between commerce and marketing. Fast fashion is bringing supply chain innovation.” And luxury, he added, is defined by its emotional connection to consumers.

Metric said  careers aren’t necessarily planned. “So much is luck and timing,”  said Metrick, who knows first-hand, rising to become president of Saks after the former president, Marigay McKee, was led out the door last month.

“Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. We – the leaders of the industry – don’t have it all figured out. We certainly can’t predict the future.
We need you, the next generation of leaders. Your creativity, ingenuity, fresh perspective and talent are what we need to help answer these questions and serve our customers better.”

Metrick imparted three pieces of advice to the class of 2015. “Be nice – nothing matters so much as being a nice person.” He also said, “Build relationships. It’s essential in building a career.” And his third piece of advice was, “Enjoy what you do. Figure out exactly what drives you and just do it. Loving what you do makes all the difference in the world.”

When he chose retail as a career, starting in the executive training program of Saks, “My Dad didn’t get the magic of retail, of how art and science go together. I remember trying to explain the thrill I got.”

Also at the ceremony, Peter G. Scotese, F.I.T.’s chairman emeritus and a member of the board, received the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. “What can a 95-year-old, a nonagenarian, say to a group of Millennials who know much more? Half of you people will live to be 100. Have you thought about that?” said the former Springs Industries chairman, who received two standing ovations from the crowd. “Think of your life as spring, summer, fall and winter. You just finished spring and you are entering summer.”

About 2,000 students graduated in the morning, and another 2,000 graduated in the afternoon from the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology and School of Liberal Arts. Daniel Libeskind, founder and principal architect, Studio Libeskind, received an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts in the morning. Also honored were Randy Fenoli, an FIT alumnus and fashion director of Kleinfeld’s and star of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress,” and Joy Herfel Cronin, group president of the Americas at Ralph Lauren Corp.

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