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Valerie Steele – The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

As a member of the Couture Council Board of Directors, I am delighted to be one of the co-chairs, along with my fellow board member Angela Dotson, of the 2018 Couture Council Award Luncheon. Valerie, can you tell our readers about this year’s luncheon?

On September 5, 2018, The Museum at FIT will present the Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion to Narciso Rodriguez. We are so pleased to honor Narciso this year. He is truly a designer’s designer, someone who personally creates beautiful clothes for modern women. The year 2018 also marks his 20th year in business. In June he received the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] Lifetime Achievement Award, having already won Best Designer twice from them.

The Couture Council was created in 2004 to support The Museum at FIT. As the director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, can you explain to our readers how the Couture Council supports the museum?

The Museum at FIT is a fashion museum. It is the only museum in New York that is dedicated solely to the art of fashion. We are part of the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is part of the State University of New York. Therefore, we’re a public institution. The Couture Council Award Luncheon raises almost a million dollars a year. The funds raised enable us to organize four fashion exhibitions a year. All of our exhibitions are free to the public.

Without the funds raised from the annual award luncheon and then from Couture Council membership dues, it would be impossible for us to put on world-class exhibitions. In addition, the Couture Council helps us pay for all of our public programs.

All of our exhibitions and public programs are free. The contributions made by the Couture Council are absolutely essential for the continued success of The Museum at FIT.

The Couture Council also helps to pay for our special initiatives. For example, when the HVAC was in need of repair in our costume storage area, the renovation was paid for in part by the contributions of the members of the Couture Council.

The Couture Council Award Luncheon has become known as the unofficial start of New York Fashion Week. To what do you attribute the significance of this extraordinary event?

I would attribute it to the fact that everyone in New York loves fashion. This is a very fashion-forward city. Ever since we honored Alber Elbaz in 2007, we have held the luncheon immediately after Labor Day. It was Alber who insisted that we do this. Initially we held the luncheon in October, and we thought Alber was mistaken to insist that we hold it in the beginning of September. However, the early September date for the luncheon turned out to be extraordinarily popular. The Couture Council luncheon is now the first big social event of the fall. The luncheon kicks off New York Fashion Week.

The Couture Council Award Luncheon is now in its 13th year. It is held at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. How has the event changed over the years?

Obviously, the honoree changes every year! Past honorees have included Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera, and Oscar de la Renta. Each year the award luncheon supports a different set of exhibitions. This year, for example, it will help to support the exhibition Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color. This exhibition opens to the public on September 7. The opening reception for Couture Council members will be held on September 6. Pink will feature 300 years of pink fashion, from the 18th century to the present. The funds raised from the Couture Council luncheon enable us to bring in the best pink clothing from around the world. When we borrow from museums, we also need to bring in the conservators. We need to hire a designer, design a set, and then build the set. We also need to produce a book and create all kinds of graphics and videos. And this is just one of the four exhibitions we do every year.

What does it mean to you to be able to engage with the Couture Council to advance the knowledge of fashion?

Members of the Couture Council tend to be dedicated fashion lovers. They understand our mission, which is to educate and inspire diverse audiences through exhibitions and programs that advance the knowledge of fashion. The members of the Couture Council are entitled to special tours of new exhibitions. We also have private events where we allow our members to view the fashions created by a specific designer. For example, we might have a private event where our entire collection of Alexander McQueen pieces are brought into a classroom. Couture Council members can then view them close-up with a curator. We also arrange visits to designers’ ateliers and/or boutiques, and often interview the designer. This fall we will be looking at the concept of the little black dress. We are going to present about a dozen different little black dresses from our collection and then have a discussion about them with Couture Council members.

The Museum at FIT has been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Could you elaborate on this?

The Museum at FIT was built in the early 1970s, and the Couture Council has helped to fund certain renovations. This has helped us gain membership into the American Alliance of Museums. In order to be a member, you must prove that you are following the best practices for museums. It is a very complicated process, but we were able to explain to the AAM how we were moving forward with our goals, such as improving costume storage. We are very proud of this great honor, which is shared by only a minority of museums and by a small number of college and university museums. Without the financial help of the Couture Council none of this would have been possible.

About Valerie Steele

Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has organized more than 25 exhibitions since 1997. 

Valerie Steele’s latest exhibition, Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color, opens September 7.

About Jean Shafiroff

Jean Shafiroff, a philanthropist, humanitarian, activist and author of the book Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life By What You Give, is a volunteer leader of several charitable causes. She serves on the boards of seven charities: NYC Mission Society, French Heritage Society, Couture Council, Jewish Board, Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation Honorary Board, Global Strays, and Southampton Bath and Tennis Club Charitable Foundation. Jean is an ambassador for the American Humane Society and an ambassador for the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation. In addition, she is a New York Women’s Foundation Board alumna who remains active with this foundation.  Jean and her family reside in Manhattan and Southampton.