By Samreen Maqsood and Abeer Khan
When Ben Barry joined the Ryerson School of Fashion in 2012, he was excited to transition from a career in the fashion industry to a career in education and ready to bring a more inclusive perspective to the way fashion is taught. Initially hired as a professor in equity, diversity and inclusion in the fashion department, Barry reimagined how he could foster a new mindset and better practices at the school.
Barry wanted to teach and develop projects that centred the experiences of folks who had been marginalized and excluded by Western fashion. In 2018, he was appointed the chair of the School of Fashion and has since transformed the school into a leader in social and environmental justice.
Over the winter break, Barry was appointed the new dean of fashion at New York’s Parsons School of Design, a private art and design college under The New School, an industry leader in fashion and innovation. He will continue to teach and complete his term as chair of Ryerson fashion, and will start at Parsons on July 1.
“Ben needs a giant stage to continue his influence on fashion education and the industry. Parsons and New York will give him a larger and louder platform to further his progressive message,” said Tanya White, an acting assistant professor at the School of Fashion. “He will inspire a new faculty, student body and institution.”
During his time at Ryerson, Barry has implemented an inclusive curriculum, hired diverse faculty, and headed research projects like “Refashioning Masculinity,” a project focused on dispelling stereotypes surrounding men, masculinity, and fashion.
“Not only is his research brilliant academically, but it also comes from his heart”
Barry has always believed that inclusion in fashion starts in fashion schools.
“The process of transforming the fashion industry begins in fashion education, because that’s when the next generation of fashion creatives develop their worldviews, skills and networks that will shape the industry,” he said.
Barry, who has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, focused his research on topics that de-centred European hetero-patriarchal ideals and narratives of fashion advertising. This included putting more emphasis on Indigenous fashion, modest fashion, trans fashion, fat fashion and disability and fashion.
“Dr. Barry leads in research that pushes boundaries and social assumptions, making the unheard and unseen valuable and cool,” said White. “Not only is this research brilliant academically, but it also comes from his heart.”
White said that while Barry had been at the forefront of inspiring change and a more empathetic approach to fashion throughout his time at Ryerson as a professor, these ideals became the school’s ethos once Barry was appointed chair.
His goal of innovating the way fashion is taught started through his teaching, having been assigned a large introductory lecture called Fashion Concepts and Theory in 2012, which he taught up until last year. He built the course upon fashion experiences that had otherwise been excluded and stigmatized in fashion, he said.
Barry’s students said his class introduced them to new concepts in the industry outside of fashion—centring teachings that included Black feminst thought, Indigenous worldviews and community activism.
Theodore Fu remembers coming to Ryerson thinking that fashion classes were just going to help him develop his design skills. As a third-year fashion student, he said he left Barry’s class more aware of long-standing systemic issues in fashion, including diversity and inclusivity, and their importance to the industry.
“It was clear to me that Ben and the rest of the faculty were really committed to fixing issues such as racial inequality, gender discrimination, personal appearance and decolonization,” he said.
After becoming chair of the School of Fashion, Barry worked with students, faculty and the community to develop a series of guiding principles—inclusion, decolonization and sustainability—and incorporated them into the school’s courses, research and initiatives. These principles have been implemented in areas like student recruitment, new bursaries and scholarships, the school’s curriculum and courses, and faculty hiring, said Barry.
“[His] drive and passion really inspired me personally to continue to pursue my goals within the fashion industry”
Mia Portelance, a second-year fashion communication student at Ryerson, said Barry was very engaging and often led conversations around inclusivity and discrimination, discussing topics like crip fashion, body image and people of colour in the industry.
Evan Thacker, a second-year fashion design student and Ann-Sophie Cote, a fourth-year fashion design student, both said Barry’s method of teaching made it clear that he was very passionate about what he was saying.
“He taught us with concrete examples, was super dynamic and had relevant guest speakers to contribute to that week’s learning,” said Cote. “As a [chair], I do feel like he’s trying very hard to bring change.”
Barry constantly reinforced that students were the next generation of the fashion industry and are capable of making real change in our future careers, said Thacker. “[His] drive and passion really inspired me personally to continue to pursue my goals within the fashion industry.”
Barry has also supported his faculty with their own initiatives and in their academic careers, said Caron Phinney, a limited term assistant professor of design and diversity at the School of Fashion.
“In 2019, I founded the Black Fashion Student Association with his full support. He listened to what I had to say, and then stepped aside to let me build a community for our Black students and future creatives,” she said.
During the pandemic, Barry held town hall meetings with different students to try and understand everyone’s struggles with mental health, said Portelance. He also provided relief funds to help those impacted by the pandemic and created two weeks of no classes or new course content, replacing them with community-building activities, catch-up time and extended office hours for students in the winter 2021 semester.
“In all of that work that will happen, the credit and the originator will always be the School of Fashion at Ryerson, because that’s where these ideas have developed”
Barry also worked on various research projects during his time at Ryerson. One of his favourite works was “Refashioning Masculinity,” which aimed to challenge narrow and oppressive notions of masculinity. He is currently working on “Cripping Masculinity,” a project exploring deaf and disability-identified men’s and masculine non-binary people’s experiences, disruptions and transformations of gender, disability and fashion.
To Barry, the environment at the School of Fashion has become a model for fashion schools around the world—from transforming curriculum, culture and fashion education from narrow Eurocentric ideas, worldviews and practices to one that is becoming more inclusive.
While students like Patterson, Fu, Thacker and Portelance are sad to see Barry go, they are excited for him and look forward to all the things he will be doing at Parsons.
“As sad as I am to see him go, I know Dr. Barry truly deserves this honour and I am so grateful to have been a student at Ryerson when he was the Chair of the School of Fashion,” said Patterson. “He has definitely made his mark on the Canadian Fashion industry and I know he will do the same on a global scale at the Parsons School of Fashion in New York.”
Barry will remain connected to Ryerson even in his new position, continuing to supervise graduate students in the fashion program, leading his project, “Cripping Masculinities,” while also co-editing Fashion Studies, Ryerson’s open access academic journal in fashion.
“I’m excited to continue to develop the relationship between Parsons and Ryerson, and to bring these larger changes in fashion education and the fashion industry to light and to influence even more fashion schools,” he said.
For Barry, Ryerson will always be a major part of his journey in the fashion world.
“In all of that work that will happen, the credit and the originator will always be the School of Fashion at Ryerson, because that’s where these ideas have developed,” he said. “That’s where they’re first coming into reality and that’s where they will continue to flourish.”