In our long-running series “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Dr. Ben Barry has always questioned fashion’s status quo, and sought to challenge it. When he was only 14, he inadvertently started his own modeling agency because his size-16 friend had been told she needed to lose weight in order to become a model. Confused by this suggestion, he simply mailed her photos to a local magazine with a note and ended up getting her the job. The Ben Barry Agency went on to become one of the first-ever inclusive modeling agencies, booking jobs for over 150 models who didn’t fit into mainstream beauty ideals, throughout its 15-year run.
As the agency made waves through the industry, Barry continued to educate himself; he holds a BA with Honors in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Toronto, a Master’s in Innovation, Strategy and Organization and a PhD in Management from the Judge Business School at Cambridge University (UK). As he tells me over Zoom — clad in Marine Serre, no less — his education fueled a desire to influence not only what types of bodies could wear fashion, but also the types of people who got to create and make decisions about fashion from behind the scenes, a desire that led him to fashion education, where the world views of future professionals are shaped.
As Chair of Fashion, Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and Director of the Center for Fashion and Systemic Change at Ryerson University in Toronto, Barry helped transform everything from curriculum to hiring practices to prioritize inclusion, de-colonization and sustainability. On July 1, he will bring all of this research, experience and passion to one of the most prestigious and influential design schools in the world as Dean of Fashion at Parsons.
Barry feels like a radical hire for Parsons, which is seen as progressive in some areas like sustainability, but exclusionary in others. Like many fashion and design schools, Parsons faced significant backlash amid the Black Lives Matter uprising over the summer of 2020 by students, alumni and former professors who felt the school had a history of failing to support the BIPOC members of its community, and of putting lower-income students at a disadvantage.
Of course, Barry intends to change that. Throughout his career, he has done the work to figure out what it can look like when a fashion education experience doesn’t exclusively center whiteness or thinness or gender normativity, and he’s ready to share. Read on to learn more about how his education helped him check his own privilege, his research on how diverse models impact purchase intentions, how he transformed Ryerson’s fashion program, his goals for Parsons, his thoughts on the anti-Black racism that’s embedded in many fashion schools and more.
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Were you always interested in fashion, and if so, when did it become something you thought you might want to pursue professionally?
Like so many queer and femme kids, I loved clothes and I loved dressing up. As a child I would look around the kitchen and take the most random objects and turn them into a look to put on a fashion show in my house, so I would take plastic wrap and wrap it around my body in all kinds of ways and create looks. I think at this point it was really learning the ability of fashion to discover your body, to come into your identity, and to help you feel at home in the body you have in this world.
After you started the Ben Barry Agency in your family’s basement, how did it develop and grow over time, and are you still involved in it?
The agency grew as I started to work with more models and more clients, and started to question ideals of beauty and fashion. I think, having not studied fashion, having never worked in fashion before, I hadn’t been encultured into a particular worldview of what was beautiful, or who could be a model or what body was fashionable. This allowed me to draw on what I had learned from my family, what I had learned from my own lived experience, and what just intuitively felt right to me. It grew over 15 years to representing 150 models who worked with fashion and beauty brands throughout the world, to having 10 staff who worked as model scouts and agents and administration located in Ottawa and Toronto. And after 15 years, I had seen some significant transformation in the fashion industry. Other modeling agencies had begun to much more actively represent models of a variety of sizes, a variety of races and ethnicities, disabled models, trans models, models who would previously have been excluded from representation by fashion modeling agencies. At that point, I realized that who was represented in fashion, changing the visual culture of fashion, was only one small part of this larger topic of inclusion, because we needed to look beyond who was in fashion to who was creating fashion, and who was making decisions about fashion.
My interests and this journey grew to really thinking about: how can we shape the world views and practices of fashion creatives and decision-makers to embrace inclusivity, and how can we ensure that there are a truly diverse group of people around those design and decision-making tables? I realized to do that, fashion education was the perfect platform, because that was the birthplace of the world views and practices of the next generation of the fashion industry. When I began my journey as an assistant professor when I was hired at Ryerson School of Fashion, I closed the agency, placed our models with other agencies, and decided to begin this next journey.
I should say that while I ran my modeling agency, I continued in school. School and what I learned always fueled how I was thinking about models, how I was thinking about representation, how I was thinking about fashion and how I was thinking about systemic change. After high school I did an undergraduate degree in women and gender studies. Four years into that program it was the best decision I ever made, because it taught me world views that profoundly shifted everything I do.
And then what inspired you do go on to get a Master’s and PhD?
What I did in undergrad in women’s and gender studies, it exposed me primarily to Black feminist thought, to ideas of intersectionality and to understanding my own place in this world. I had connections — being queer and more femme — to experiences of marginalization and discrimination and harassment, but it really allowed me to think of my role as a white cisgender man, something I had never thought about before, because that is the default and the norm in society, and to recognize the power and privilege that holds for me to enter spaces, be heard as a leader and be hired as one, really thinking about how I could intentionally use that position to create change. That led me to think about what I wanted to do further in my career and my studies.
In my modeling agency, while my models were getting jobs, there was still significant pushback from particular fashion brands, particularly luxury fashion, that didn’t see more diverse models as aspirational. They understood that diversity is a nice thing to do, but [saw it] as something that would negatively impact their bottom line. And in my own experience, I didn’t believe that to be true, but there was no research to suggest otherwise. I decided I was going to do that research and I decided to do a Master’s and then move into a PhD, specifically at the Judge Business School at Cambridge, where I explored consumer responses to models of different sizes and ages and races in fashion advertising.
Particularly, I wanted to look at how diverse models impacted concepts like brand loyalty and purchase intentions. What that research showed was that when models reflect the demographics of consumers, brand loyalty and purchase intentions increase — particularly for consumers who are under-represented in fashion ads. The most interesting finding for me that came out of this research was understanding what aspiration meant to consumers, and that aspiration wasn’t about being thin or being white or being young or being non-disabled; aspiration was about the artistry, the glamour, the creativity that was captured in the clothing, the art direction and the styling of an image. It was that creativity that was aspirational, it wasn’t based on the body. I think that finding further allowed me to say, okay, to really create this change, models were just a small part of this larger system of fashion. The change needed to be to work with the next generation of creatives to design for, art-direct with and style all bodies in fashion.
As I was finishing my PhD, I saw a job posting for an assistant professor of equity, diversity and inclusion in the School of Fashion [at Ryerson]. The position was specifically looking for someone that would be able to teach broadly in these areas and also work with faculty to help reimagine curriculum to be more inclusive and just.
Tell me about your time at Ryerson. What are some of the things you are most proud of having achieved there, what kind of changes did you see?
When I was first hired, primarily I worked on developing courses that would ground social justice, and one of the courses I’m the most proud of was a course called Fashion Concepts and Theory. Over the seven years I taught that course, I developed and re-developed, and developed and re-developed it each year to feature the world views and narratives and practices of communities and people who have been marginalized and excluded from the dominant fashion discourse. For example, I immediately worked to challenge and de-center the common myth that fashion was born in Europe and Paris as the result of modernity and industrialization and instead recognize that fashion has existed since time immemorial and primarily — in Canada and the U.S. — on Turtle Island by Indigenous designers and artists.
I also worked to bring in the work of activists and scholars in other disciplines and industry leaders in the area of inclusion within the course by developing modules on fat fashion, on trans and nonbinary fashion, on Black fashion histories, on Indigenous fashion histories, on queer fashion histories and on bodies and ways of being in the world that had been sidelined from the dominant fashion industry. My hope in doing this redevelopment that continued each year was that this course would set a foundation for how students could think about fashion and design fashion as they continue to go on their educational journeys.
In 2018, I was appointed chair of the School of Fashion at Ryerson. What I’m the most proud of is that one of the first things that we did was work with faculty, staff, students, alumni and the community to develop three guiding principles for the school that were politically informed and that we believed were key to the future of fashion. These principles are inclusion, sustainability and decolonization, and we used these principles as a lens to direct all curriculum, all partnerships, all strategies and our overall school culture.
Part of that saw a revision in mandatory courses to reflect these guiding principles, the introduction of new courses such as Nonbinary Fashion, Indigenous Fashion, Indigenous Craft Practices, Illustration and Diversity, Illustration and Activism and Compassionate Couture; the creation of a Black fashion students association as a space specifically for Black fashion students and alumni to meet and to bring in specific mentors and talk about anti-Black racism and support each other; our beading circle that was a space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and faculty to come together over the practice of beading and learn about Indigenous fashion histories and practices; and the intentional hiring of faculty who reflect the diversity of students that are underrepresented in fashion education — so particularly Black and Indigenous faculty members — and ensuring that we reimagined the qualifications to reduce barriers that would otherwise prevent communities that have faced systemic discrimination from qualifying for particular jobs [by] recognizing activism, public education and community work as equivalent to terminal degrees or years of teaching at a university or college.
In many ways, what I’m the most proud of is the larger institutional and structural changes that my colleagues and I have made to this school to start this journey of fashion education grounded in justice.
When you were getting started, what surprised you about fashion education curriculum and what discussions or teachings did you feel were, or still are, largely missing from fashion education?
There is no one definition of fashion, there is not one history of fashion, there is not one practice of fashion, but often in fashion education we miss that, and we try to teach one way of thinking about and practicing fashion rather than valuing the diverse ways of knowing fashion and practicing fashion. I think that is because of the very real continuing legacies of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade that not only shaped the fashion industry, but of course shaped fashion education. And that manifests in world views and practices that often maintain white supremacy, fatphobia, transphobia, ableism and many other systems of oppression. The journey for fashion educators that so many of us are going on is to recognize how that system has constructed the way we teach fashion and the very structures and practices and policies in our schools, and work to undo and transcend them.
Tell me how the Parsons role came about and what attracted you to the opportunity.
I think in the world of fashion education, Parsons is a bright shining star. It is certainly a role model in fashion education of what social justice and progressive fashion education can look like and I know educators around the world including myself have long looked at Parsons. Part of that is also being in New York City, one of the most richly diverse cities in the world — certainly a center of incredible activism and of a very creative fashion industry — and so those elements have always attracted me.
But I think what really and most importantly attracted me to this was the opportunity to scale and amplify this movement for fashion education grounded in justice, and particularly with a platform that has a global impact. My hope was to take the legacy that Parsons has for progressive fashion education with my experience in leadership in fashion education for social justice and bring those together to imagine and create what a new kind of fashion school could look like in today’s world.
We are at a moment right now where there’s a consensus that fashion needs to change and fashion education is the birthplace of the world views and practices of creatives; it is the gateway into the fashion industry. It is about shaping their knowledge and practices in ways that can design a new future in fashion, but also about intentionally reimagining what fashion education looks like, who is a fashion faculty member, and who is a fashion student.
Parsons is one of many prominent fashion schools that have faced criticism for being less accessible or accommodating towards people from different types of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’m curious if one of the things you hope to do is maybe expand the types people who have access to a school like Parsons.
Completely. I think fashion schools around the world have been rooted in a very deep history of racism and particularly anti-Black racism, and that fashion schools around the world have consciously and unconsciously excluded Indigenous, Black, and other students of color. For those students that do get in, they may have been subjected to really significant racism and [been forced] to assimilate into white, Eurocentric standards of fashion and success. One of the most important things that I hope to do as dean is to ensure that fashion education is accessible to a wide variety of students, and particularly and intentionally to Black students and Indigenous students and other students of color, to ensure that students who are coming to this school don’t feel they need to change who they are, how they think about fashion or what they want to do, to line up with a white Eurocentric vision — that they can be supported, that they can succeed and they can flourish based on who they are. This requires deep transformation and collaboration with faculty and staff in the industry to make this happen, but this is the time for it to happen.
Often when we talk about inclusion in fashion, we talk about welcoming or inviting groups who have been excluded, in, and I want to change that framing because, in many ways, that assumes that you’re inviting them into a place that operates on values and principles and practices that aren’t theirs. They are being invited into a place, but they have to then learn those values and principles, and I want to ensure that fashion education globally — and Parsons as the gold standard — is a place that can be home to all ways of thinking and practicing fashion, all bodies and experiences of folks who want to practice and know fashion. I think if any discipline or field in education is going to make this change and make it well, it’s going to be fashion, because fashion is grounded in creative thinking and disruption of the status quo, in reinvention, and so it’s about channeling that soul of fashion into this work of systemic transformation for inclusion.
Is there anything else you can share about your imminent plans or goals for your time at Parsons?
Being new to the Parsons community, there will be significant learning of people’s experiences. I am going to deeply focus on listening to those folks who have been marginalized in fashion education, for whom Parsons has been inaccessible, who have had challenging experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination, because it’s those stories that can help reshape fashion education that becomes critical. Part of that listening is also about working on ways to develop new relationships and bring new relationships through redress. So, folks who have had faced discrimination, who have struggled, for whom fashion education has been traumatizing because of structures of power — what are ways to rebuild renewed relationships with these people and communities?
How are you thinking about the pandemic and its impact on fashion education as you come into this role?
First and foremost, that there is a deep sense of isolation and loneliness and mental health issues that have resulted from the pandemic. Certainly faculty members have developed incredibly creative ways to teach studio-based courses remotely and students have developed completely new ways of design through remote formats, but none of that takes away or diminishes the impact that the pandemic has had on mental health. Focusing on the well-being of students, the well-being of staff and faculty, the fostering of community and support is going to be crucial as we all come back to campus.
What advice would you give someone who’s applying or thinking of applying to Parsons fashion?
If you don’t see yourself in fashion, the fashion industry and fashion education at Parsons currently, I hope you’ll apply. I hope that you know that you can apply and that your experience, your worldview, your knowledge and your fashion practice will be valued and supported throughout your journey. Creating an inclusive fashion industry, a just fashion industry requires us to center ways of knowing and practicing fashion that have been excluded. Students who come from communities and groups and experiences that have not been represented through mainstream fashion, we need them. We need them to reshape what fashion education should be. For me, most importantly is that students working on their portfolio know that Parsons is a school that values diverse ways of knowing and practicing fashion; we look to students, and we will look to students to expand all of the ways we teach and practice fashion and the ways our industry thinks about and practices fashion.