Students sauntering through the halls of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) early Friday evening may have heard an unfamiliar sound—barking.
New York’s preeminent school of fashion and design education played host to hoards of dog lovers for its fifth annual pet apparel and accessories runway show, BARK-à-Porter. The yearly event showcases work by students and alumni of the FIT Center for Professional Studies’ Pet Product Design and Marketing certificate program, which offers training in the design, marketing, and branding of pet products. Eighteen dogs took to the stage to model the designers’ creations, which were themed on the art-deco designs of Paris in the 1920s-40s.
The program commenced with a brief introduction by photographer Paul Nathan, author of Couture Dogs of New York and the evening’s master of ceremonies. Nathan announced that the talent being exhibited was of those emerging in the pet industry: the first half of the show would feature work by current students, followed by that of alumni in the second half. In accordance with the Paris theme, a short video was shown that depicted a dog donning a beret and lounging in front of the Eiffel Tower, which incited oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
The applause at the end of the video was amplified when the first dog—a Norwich Terrier mix—entered the stage, modeling one student’s red silk cape design. Next came the canines who resembled their walkers: a large white poodle named Lulu in a zebra-print cape, accompanied by a woman with a matching zebra-print T-shirt, and a Miniature Pinscher in a leopard-print coat, held by a woman with a matching leopard-print tote bag—not quite art-deco patterns. Another dog, a Miniature Poodle named Zoe, looked perfectly French in a green quilted cape and matching pill-box hat.
The alumni’s garments were more structured and streamlined than those of the students. Dogs wearing tailored coats in solid colors were joined by others in lightweight capes. For the most part, the designs shown were simple and practical—unlike the over-the-top, showy creations one might encounter at other dog shows.
Nathan highlighted the difference between the designs at FIT’s show versus those on the pages of his book: “As a competition, [the designers] are looking for practicality and salability,” he told The Daily Beast. “When I’m shooting for my book, some of the more established designers are just going for effect—they’re pushing boundaries—they’re not too worried about street wear. They’re going for it, and I really love that.”
Among the distinguished talent featured in Couture Dogs of New York is award-winning pet fashion courtier Anthony Rubio. Rubio, who also attended Friday’s show, thought the student work had potential, and admired the use of materials, color combinations, and Gatsbyesque designs. “[The work was] promising,” he said. “They had to keep it simple, of course, because you don’t start off running, you start off walking—they did the basics and the fittings, which is always important.” Among his favorite garments were a raincoat, a tweed jacket, and a gray wash denim coat with studded straps.
The evening culminated with the presentation of awards. A judge’s panel, comprised of Megan Lee, vice president of design for Martha Stewart Pet Collection, and Jennifer Bartock, principal of Celebrity Catwalk, a celebrity charity fashion show that raises funds for National Animal Rescue, selected three winners based on the criteria of design, comfort and practicality, and salability.
Best in Show was awarded to Nicole Wilson, a 2010 graduate of FIT and a student at the Center for Professional Studies. Wilson’s dog, Dakota Remy, an Alaskan Klee Kia, modeled one of the show’s most fashion-forward garments: a beige pleated trench coat with a hand-painted pattern on the shoulder yoke. Wilson’s other designs included an ombré dip-dye sweater and a mint-colored wool cashmere coat lined in flannel—all of which are soft to the touch. Her decision for what fabric to use was a simple one: “I don’t like wearing itchy acrylic sweaters—why would a dog want to wear one?” she said plainly. For her victory, Wilson won a 45-minute consultation with Lee at Martha Stewart Pet Collection and will have her products displayed at the Chelsea Kennel Club, along with the two runners-up, Shawn McIntosh and Rania Saghir.
Many designer participants, like other students at FIT, consider a certificate in Pet Product Design and Marketing as a one step on the way to launching their own clothing lines. According to Joan Volpe, managing coordinator of the Center for Professional Studies, the pet-focused program parallels the fashion business in many ways.
“Everything that exists in fashion exists in this industry,” she told the audience. “It’s clothing, it’s accessories, it’s lifestyle products, it’s design, it’s merchandising, it’s marketing—the only difference is that the customer happens to have four legs instead of two.”