NEW YORK — Always keep playing.
That was the advice from FIT alumna Ivy Ross, vice president of Google and head of Project Aura, Glass and Beyond, who spoke Thursday at Fashion Institute of Technology’s graduation ceremony here. She and FIT alum Joe Zee, editor in chief and executive creative director of Yahoo Style, were the keynote speakers for the day’s festivities. In addition, they received honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees, while FIT alum Francisco Costa and film producer Jane Rosenthal both received the Doctor of Fine Arts. Ruth Finley, founder of the Fashion Calendar, took home the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.
More than 2,700 students were awarded associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in nearly 50 areas of study. Some 1,900 people attended the commencement at Javits Center North, which was held in two parts. The morning ceremony was for the School of Art and Design and School of Graduate Studies, and the afternoon ceremony was for the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology and School of Liberal Arts.
“You have already achieved more than I had at your age. You have earned your degree,” said Ross, who attended FIT and left two credits short before graduating. She explained that during her last semester, she let her ego get in the way because she had been winning awards and getting job offers. “I dropped out and started my career. Since then, I have regretted that decision until today,” said Ross, noting she was humbled by her honorary degree.
An accomplished jewelry designer and business executive, Ross’ jewelry is in the collections of a dozen museums including the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is also a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts grant and has received the Women in Design Award and Diamond International Award for her creative designs.
Ross gave the students several pieces of advice, among them not to let one’s ego determine one’s journey and that there’s no blueprint for what you should be doing. “I never had a five-year plan. I paid attention to what got my attention. I believe that your attention and your curiosity are your most valuable assets,” she said.
She told the students to always ask questions, and before she takes a new job, she asks herself: “What will I learn and will this company use me for what I do best?…This method assures me of having new experiences all the time,” she said.
Finally, she told the students that no matter what they do, they should always keep playing. “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” she said. “Play allows you to break out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”
Costa, who served as women’s creative director of Calvin Klein Collection from 2003 to last month, attributed his start in the world to FIT. Born in Brazil, Costa moved to New York as a young man and was studying English at Hunter College by day and taking courses at FIT at night. He saw a posting on the bulletin board that FIT was taking a group of students to Italy and he applied.
“I couldn’t speak English but could speak a little Italian, “ he said. He prepared a portfolio and was selected. But they couldn’t find him because he wasn’t registered as a full-time student. FIT made an exception and gave him the opportunity to be part of the program and he spent the summer in Italy. He thanked FIT for opening up the world to him and for giving him a scholarship to finish his studies during the day. “FIT is incredible. I am so proud to be here,” Costa said.
As founder and publisher of the Fashion Calendar for 65 years, Finley was honored for creating the publication. She is also the subject of an upcoming documentary about her life and career, with the working title, “Ruth,” produced by Light Cone Pictures, which was filming her Thursday. The film, which is slated to come out in early 2017, will explore the contribution of the Fashion Calendar to the American fashion industry. Finley has also raised more than $2 million for Citymeals-on-Wheels, and is active in many causes such as Bottomless Closet, The High School of Fashion Industries, K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers and the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.
“When I was your age, women weren’t supported to think about a career,” Finley said. She said she told her father she wanted to work in journalism in New York and he approved, but said, “Do not tell your mother yet; she will worry.”
Finley told the students one of the most important lessons she learned to stay successful in business: “You need to keep building your business network,” she said. She added that in the Eighties, she was asked by an editor when she planned to retire. “My reply was, which remains true today, ‘I am still too young to retire.'”
Rather than go the rote route with a commencement speech, Zee decided not to spare FIT graduates revelations about a few of his guttural ugly cry sessions or the upside of how he once spent a week wallowing holed up in his apartment. Referring to the latter, Zee said, “I would have liked to say I learned something but all I learned was that you can eat pizza every single day and it’s still really, really good.”
After tours at Allure, WWD and W and Elle, Zee is now Yahoo Style’s editor in chief and executive creative director, and an author and TV personality. But none of that happened without some consternation. “I don’t tell you these stories to deter you or to really scare you….The truth is you are going to fail at some things. You’re going to lose that job or that venture capital funding or that contract. I mean, I did and you will too. In that failure, you’ll find success,” Zee said, “By success I don’t mean by the number of followers you have or the company name you can drop to get ‘Hamilton’ tickets, or even that weekly paycheck. It is how to see your ideas come to life as a living, breathing thing. Has your idea impacted people? Did it make a difference?”
Zee continued, “See, I do this for myself with success because I love what I do. I am enthusiastic about every project….I love it so much that I often fall asleep with my phone in my hand mid-text, trying to send out one last idea for the day. Being able to do what you love is the greatest thing in the world. It doesn’t matter what it is — whether it’s starting a family, writing a story or launching a design business — but it isn’t and shouldn’t be easy. Now here’s the cliché: The road to success is not a straight line. It requires risk, it requires passion, it requires failure.
“Now I was going to bring up that [Søren] Kierkegaard quote, ‘Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward.’ But I would rather give you this one from Tupac [Shakur], ‘You can spend days, weeks or even months overanalyzing a situation justifying what could’ve been or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the f on’….The point is don’t limit yourself. Don’t be afraid of being innovative. Reach for that risk. I found success because I stopped being afraid of being scared. When things don’t work out, never say no to trying something else. No risk, no reward — just order some pizza and get started because there is so much left for all of you to make, create and do.”