There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. Role Call highlights some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them. For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.
NEW YORK, United States — Valerie Steele is the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where she has organised more than 20 exhibitions since 1997, including The Corset, London Fashion, Dance and Fashion, Gothic: Dark Glamour, Shoe Obsession and Daphne Guinness. With a PhD from Yale University, Steele is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, including Fashion and Eroticism, Paris Fashion, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, Japan Fashion Now and Fashion Designers A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal in fashion studies. Steele was appointed director of The Museum at FIT in 2003.
BoF: Please describe your current role.
As director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, I am in charge of a specialised museum of fashion that is also a college museum. The Museum at FIT was founded in 1969 by the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is part of the State University of New York. I have a staff of 30 and together we organise four major fashion exhibitions every year, plus student and faculty exhibitions, as well as classes, tours, lectures, publications, websites and symposia. Every year, I personally curate one exhibition and write part of the accompanying book. This year, it’s Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Our goal at the museum is to educate and inspire diverse audiences — including FIT’s 10,000 students, as well as fashion professionals and members of the public — through innovative exhibitions, publications and public programs that advance knowledge of fashion.
BoF: What attracted you to the role?
When I was first hired as chief curator in 1997, I remember thinking, 'I can’t believe I’m getting paid to play with Balenciagas!' The Museum at FIT has a permanent collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present, including hundreds of looks by Cristobal Balenciaga, which is such an amazing resource. My entire adult life has been dedicated to studying fashion — whether through writing books, teaching fashion history, or curating exhibitions. So, my position at The Museum at FIT is perfect, because it allows me to work with a team of dedicated professionals who are equally enthusiastic about exploring the cultural and social significance of fashion. I appreciate that FIT is a public college and The Museum at FIT is open and free to the public.
We want to make each show better and more spectacular than the last. But we also want the shows to have substance; to be smart as well as beautiful.
BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?
The most exciting projects are probably the exhibitions. I really love working on shows like Gothic: Dark Glamour or Dance and Fashion. You get to tell a story by researching a subject, developing a thesis, choosing particular fashions and creating a mise-en-scène. The process combines the scholarship of research and writing with the creative and collaborative aspects of putting on a show. I especially love working with the exhibition designer, but even the fundraising is interesting, because you are trying to put together a partnership to get your ideas across. In 2006, I helped establish the Couture Council, a membership group that supports the museum. Our annual awards luncheon has played a crucial role in providing funding for exhibitions, new acquisitions, and special projects like the recent renovation of costume storage.
BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?
It is an interesting time to be running a fashion museum, because fashion exhibitions are becoming increasingly popular with the public. Everyone feels themselves capable of understanding and appreciating fashion — it’s much more accessible than art. As a result, all kinds of museums want to get into the act; even the Imperial War Museum has done fashion exhibitions. The big fashion companies are becoming increasingly involved in building collections, organising fashion exhibitions and even creating their own museums. By presenting fashion within the context of a museum, you implicitly promote the idea that fashion is an art and that can be very appealing for a luxury company. On the whole, competition is a good thing. You can learn a lot by seeing what other people do. There is no question that audience expectations are constantly rising. Those of us who work on museum exhibitions, we want to make each show better and more spectacular than the last. But we also want the shows to have substance; to be smart as well as beautiful.
BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.
I don’t think it’s productive to think in terms of 'failure.' It’s better to think of a learning curve and how fast you can learn to do things better. I’ve learned to avoid a lot of problems by communicating early and often with colleagues. When I was appointed director of The Museum at FIT in 2003, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good curator, but with the additional responsibilities, I wasn’t sure I was up to the job. I report to the President of FIT, Dr. Joyce F. Brown., who has been instrumental in helping me understand the importance of strategic thinking. The Museum Leadership Institute at the Getty Center in Los Angeles has helped give me the confidence that I needed to lead my team and collaborate successfully with colleagues. I learned how important it is to articulate your goals clearly, cultivate positive energy and focus on the big picture.
BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?
Figure out what you do really, really well. That will be your competitive advantage. Then discover how what you do best can help add value for other people. There are a variety of different jobs in a fashion museum, so, if possible, you should acquire experience in a number of areas. Not only will you learn where you excel, you will also get a sense of how the museum team works together. Putting on museum exhibitions is like making a film — it requires many people with different talents. Volunteering at a museum or taking university classes that allow you to be an intern or student aide are good ways to get experience. Once you are in the door, work hard and be nice.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more information about fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers.