By Tyler Griffin
This story has been updated to include comments from Suzanne Rogers and Ryerson University.
Ryerson fashion students, alumni and community members are accusing the university’s senior administration of “silencing” the School of Fashion after a statement posted to the program’s social media accounts was removed and replaced by a retraction from the university.
On May 1, Suzanne Rogers, honorary patron of the Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute, posted a photo of herself and her family with former U.S. president Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, as reported by Canadaland.
After images of the Rogers family posing with Trump circulated on social media, a now-deleted statement was posted to Ryerson fashion’s social media accounts:
“Our curriculum and culture at the School of Fashion actively works to challenge, resist and undo the values, structures and practices of white supremacy, exclusion and discrimination that we feel Trump actively enforced and executed during his time as U.S. President,” the statement read.
“We invite Suzanne Rogers to enter into dialogue with our faculty, staff and students to discuss the impact that Trump and his community has had on further harming members of the fashion industry who are low income, Black, brown, Indigenous, trans, queer, and/or part of other systemically marginalized communities.”
Rogers is a Canadian philanthropist and the wife of Rogers Communications and Toronto Blue Jays chairman Edward Rogers.
In 2016, the Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute (SRFI) opened with a $1 million donation from The Edward and Suzanne Rogers Foundation, which was regifted last November. In past, the Rogers family has donated almost $34 million to various programs at Ryerson, The Eye previously reported.
The SRFI supports the career advancement of third and fourth-year undergraduate design students through a competitive fellowship program “designed to educate, support, promote, and advocate for new talent in fashion design and craftship,” according to Ryerson’s website.
Shortly after, the statement was deleted and replaced by a retraction statement on the Ryerson Fashion Instagram account:
“A previous post by the Ryerson School of Fashion was not endorsed by Ryerson University and does not reflect Ryerson’s views. We do not believe social media is the appropriate platform to judge the actions of others,” the new statement signed by Ryerson University reads. “Ryerson’s values have long defined who we are and will always guide where we are going. They are the basis upon which we have built our uniquely vibrant, diverse and inclusive culture.”
“We will remain curious about perspectives we do not yet know, and we will be respectful of differing viewpoints.”
The new statement features a disclaimer in the caption of the post, indicating the statement was written by Ryerson University. Chair of fashion Ben Barry posted the statement in a thread on his personal Twitter account, where he had also posted and deleted the previous statement. His final tweet in the thread reads: “These are @RyersonU words not mine.”
These are @RyersonU words not mine.— Ben Barry💄✨👠 (@DrBenBarry) May 1, 2021
Since his appointment to chair of fashion at Ryerson in 2018, Barry has transformed the School of Fashion into a globally-recognized leader in social and environmental justice, both within fashion education and the industry at large. His time as chair will come to a close on July 1, when he will begin a new position as dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York.
Ryerson fashion students and alumni expressed their disappointment through comments on the Instagram post.
“It’s really questionable in optics when the school of fashion has completely reformed their mission statement to reflect anti white supremacy messages and put in a ton of diversity efforts just to say oops nvm [sic] we need the cheque,” fashion communication alumnus Blair Savage commented on the Instagram post.
A number of comments expressed disappointment with the new statement, with one person writing, “I’m feeling ashamed and embarrassed to be a Ryerson fashion graduate right now.” Others questioned why a statement from Ryerson administration was being released on Ryerson fashion social accounts.
The Ryerson fashion Instagram account responded to a number of comments to reiterate that the statement was issued by the university in response to the School of Fashion’s original statement.
In a statement emailed to The Eye, Ryerson said the fashion department did not consult with the university on the statement, and sharing it on official School of Fashion social media accounts falsely suggested that the message was approved and endorsed by Ryerson.
“Ryerson University faculty are free to teach, to carry out scholarly research and creative activities, and to discuss and to criticize both the University and wider society,” the statement from Ryerson reads. “They can and should do so; however, if they decide to use institutional channels, such as school social media accounts, proper procedures must be followed.”
Anjli Patel, a lawyer and Rye fashion instructor who developed the “Special Topics: Fashion and Law” course, also posted a letter on her personal Instagram account addressing president Mohamed Lachemi and other members of the Ryerson community.
In the posts, Patel laid out instances exemplifying why “Trump is the antithesis” to the School of Fashion’s guiding principles of inclusion, decolonization and sustainability.
Patel also noted examples of U.S. institutions distancing themselves from major donors following scandals or involvement with controversial figures.
“As such, it would not be unprecedented to ask the same of Suzanne, despite her 5-year, $1 million renewal of SRFI in November 2020,” the letter reads.
The letter concludes that the image of Rogers at Mar-a-Lago “is in sharp contrast to images of mass cremation sites in India,” where the country is facing “a tsunami of COVID-19 deaths,” according to NBC News. In a comment on a photo posted to her Instagram account on Feb. 9, Rogers said she had been in Nassau, Bahamas since December, despite ongoing restrictions on non-essential travel to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“I want nothing more than a vacation from my brain and this world. Yet here I am, writing this letter, fearing reprisal,” Patel wrote. The Instagram post also encouraged readers to write to Lachemi, which some students and alumni have taken up on their own accord.
Shira Yavor, a 2019 School of Fashion graduate, wrote to Lachemi in support of Patel’s letter, which was also sent to The Eye, and called on Ryerson to write an alternative statement and demand a plan of action.
“The Instagram post by the School of Fashion was deleted, silenced and replaced by a cold message that ignores the problem, which represents Ryerson’s approach to racism and misogyny. Ryerson’s message did not even reference Suzanne’s name and actions,” Yavor’s emailed letter reads.
“The School of Fashion should be able to represent the opinions of their staff, students and alumni.”
On May 4, following this article’s publication, the Canadian Association of University Teachers announced its Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee would review the details of the case.
Suzanne Rogers had not publicly commented on the photo or statements made by Ryerson and the School of Fashion at the time of this article’s publication. However, she posted a written statement to her Instagram on May 4:
“I have always believed in equality, diversity, inclusiveness, and respect for all…they are important in all aspects of society, especially in fashion,” the statement reads. Rogers’ post goes on to say she has been honoured to support aspiring fashion designers through the SRFI, which she called “a true reflection of diversity in Canadian fashion.”
The statement clarified that Rogers does not have an existing relationship with Donald Trump, and her family’s interaction with him was “mere seconds with him at the end of a dinner” as they were leaving.
“No political statement, on any policy, was intended by the photograph. Taking it and posting it was done without considering the false assumptions and implications that would be made about my personal beliefs,” said Rogers.
“I regret that my actions would cause anyone to question my values or my commitment to the communities and causes my family and I hold so dear.”
The School of Fashion did not directly respond to a request for comment.
With files from Samreen Maqsood, Abeer Khan and Alanna Rizza