[Joie De Vivre]

Fashion Professor

Ben Barry foresees a world where diversity and inclusion are always in fashion

There are myriad reasons for loving country life, and for those who split their time between weekend respites and the roar of the big city, community is often key. That’s certainly the way fashion professor Ben Barry sees it. The generational mix and diversity of friendships that he and his husband Daniel Drak have cultivated over the past couple of years since buying a home in Picton have been nothing short of inspiring. “I am grateful for the real commitment to inclusion and social justice,” says Ben. “Walking past the Pride and Trans flags that fly outside 555 Brewing Co. all year round, taking part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration on Main Street, or scrolling past the inclusive and binary-busting images on City Revival’s Instagram, I deeply value the progressiveness of this community. It truly challenges the stereotypes that many might have about small towns. And let me say, the Hayloft’s programming is epic. I am already planning my looks for the drag shows they’re hosting this summer!”

It’s no wonder Ben Barry appreciates the attitudes of his adopted community: The forward thinker has always stood for diversity, inclusion and social justice. I first met Ben when he was only 14 – a fashion-loving kid from Ottawa with stars in eyes and fire in his belly. He’d travelled to Toronto with his mom to promote a new modelling agency representing models of different sizes, races, ages and abilities. It was a heady notion at the time: after all, the ’90s was the age of the supermodel, and the fashion world was rife with snobbish elitism. But we at Fashion Television were charmed by young Ben and his nerve to challenge the system, and we delighted in doing a story on him. Fast forward to 25 years later: Dr. Ben Barry is now the Dean of Fashion at New York’s prestigious Parsons School of Design, dividing his time between his new home in Brooklyn, NY and his Picton sanctuary, a mere seven-hour drive away.

“When I started my modelling agency, inclusion was an unknown concept,” explains Ben. “I think for me, it was really listening to how my high school friends felt when they didn’t see themselves represented. They loved fashion, they wanted to be part of this incredible world. But they didn’t know if fashion had spaces for them. Everyone should be able to tap into the magic and joy and glamour that is fashion. So I decided to start a business that represented models that were not currently represented at other agencies.”

Eventually, Ben realized that as important as models were, they were only part of the fashion system. The deeper change that was needed involved transforming worldviews and the next generation of fashion creatives and professionals. After authoring a book titled Fashioning Reality: New Generation Entrepreneurship when he was just 24, Ben may have thought that his biggest contribution would have to do with changing marketing stereotypes. But as he was finishing his PhD at Cambridge, he realized he could have a stronger impact in fashion education. “Education is a place where I can work with the next generation to imagine an industry as it ought to be,” he explains.

Ben’s PhD led him to become the chair of the School of Fashion at Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan University) by the time he was 35. Now, four years later, he continues to make waves at Parsons, prioritizing crucial themes like inclusion and sustainability. He says it all still feels like a bit of a dream to him and admits he never thought he’d ever be hired at the legendary American design institution, perhaps because his beliefs seemed so radical. He also felt that being Canadian might work against him. “I was really surprised when I got the phone call. But I was so excited!” he says. Ben feels very proud to be Canadian and to be able to share the knowledge he’s learned here about supporting underrepresented communities in meaningful ways. “I think there’s still lots of work to do. But we’ve done work in Canada that is unique. And I’m grateful to be able to bring that to New York.” But the question still remains: How does a power shift happen?

“Education is a place where I can work with the next generation to imagine an industry as it ought to be.” BEN BARRY

The seeds for Ben’s important work were undoubtedly planted by his family. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors who escaped Nazi Germany. “They instilled in me very much what genocide feels like, what oppression is like. And I remember my mom’s story, growing up in Canada. She joined a swim team in Quebec and went to a meet. As she was in her lane, ready to race, they pulled her out in front of everyone and informed her that no Jewish people were allowed at the club, and they asked her to leave. So in many ways, those stories stuck with me and became part of my DNA – to ensure that no one has to feel like that. But my grandparents also instilled in me that they were so grateful that Canada let them in, that this was a place they could build their life. They were so honoured to be here. ‘You have one life,’ they told me. ‘Do something with it! You can give back. Do something that brings you joy!’ And I think their guidance just stayed with me and continues to drive me, and I think it will for the rest of my life.”

The threads of his family history have inspired much of the educational work that Ben’s done, from developing curriculum to hiring teaching faculty. His goal is to share those worldviews and narratives with the next generation, so they can think, develop, and experiment with them and then bring them into the industry, and eventually to the world. He asks essential questions: “How can we design for our bodies? How can we ensure that the histories we tell about fashion are inclusive and diverse and multiple? How can we move from design that focuses on one individual to team design, where we celebrate the collective, and we celebrate what happens when we co-generate design and knowledge together in the community? What could all of this look like? I think that is what we get to play with and test out in the classroom.”

Outside the classroom, Ben is adamant about maintaining a balance in his personal life, and that’s where his Prince Edward County digs come in. He first visited Picton in 2015 with Daniel, an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Strategic Design and Management program at Parsons. They immediately fell in love with the town and eventually bought their own century home there, just a few weeks into the pandemic. “We knew we were home. It was a heart and soul feeling,” Ben says. “It was a terrifying time because we still knew so little about the virus. As a way to bring myself some calm, I would search PEC homes for sale and dream of what our life could be there. It wasn’t really serious, it was more of a coping practice during a difficult time. But then one night, this one home popped up. It was down the block from where we had stayed that summer. We knew the house, the street and many of the neighbours. It felt destined. The next day we drove to Picton, put in a conditional offer, and four weeks later, we packed our car to the brim and moved in.”

Living in the County while working in Brooklyn has made for an idyllic lifestyle for the academic couple, who share their adventures with a 4-year-old, mixed-breed rescue dog named Apple. “One of the things that I’ve learned from my mother is that you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. If you don’t feel centred, if you’re not nourishing your own soul and your body and who you are, it’s difficult to give 100% to nourishing others. So I really try to build in that balance, so that I can then give fully to my colleagues, my students, and the people in my life.” Does it always work? Absolutely not. Does he get totally overwhelmed and uncentered sometimes? Lots of times. “But I try really hard,” he smiles. Happily, it looks like Ben Barry’s efforts are paying off as he manages to change both hearts and minds as a fashion educator while finding a grounded existence in the countryside, far from the pressures of academia.

“For me, it’s been such a healing place – a place to build community, a place to move slowly, a place to be in nature,” says Ben. “The County is also where I do most of my reading and writing because it’s where I feel the most present and grounded. This summer I’ll be working on a new book project on fashion and disability. I can’t wait to pick up a warm, freshly baked loaf of Penny’s Pantry almond bread and then write away!”

Story by:
Jeanne Beker

Photography by:
Kendall Meleski

[Summer 2022 departments]