Ben Barry is the Dean of Fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, one of the most distinguished fashion schools in the world. And it all started in Ottawa. Adrian Harewood talks with Ben Barry about starting a business at 14, studying fashion at Cambridge University, and the Ottawa advantage.
You’ve now been dean for 18 months. How is it going?
It’s been really fun. It’s been exciting to bring everything I’ve learned at home into a New York context, and into an American-based design school.
And what is that you’re bringing to the table — from Ottawa?
As Dean, I feel my two main roles are thinking around vision and pedagogy and research and what’s driving the field of fashion forward. The second piece is how to foster community and do that by holding space to ensure people feel, seen, heard, and held. And so much of how I think people feel seen and are valued, I’ve learned from growing up in Ottawa, from working in Toronto, from those really unique contexts and experiences that I apply every day now in my work.
What is it that is so unique about Ottawa?
Ottawa is, for me, an international city with a small town feel. You’re having a chance to engage and meet people who are in the city from around the world and bring such rich diverse perspectives. But there’s also this deep kinship and network that happens in community, whether it’s on your street, whether it’s with people you know. Folks may have been there for six months or for generations. I think being able to foster community and hold space with that range of people is just a unique thing of being from Ottawa that informs what I do now.
How did you get interested in fashion and how did you start a modeling agency at 14?
I must give a lot of credit to my family who has always let me be myself, and to play and explore. I think of being four years old and going through my grandmother’s kitchen drawers and turning a tea cozy into a hat, or an apron into a skirt, and just imagining the incredible power and potential of fashion, which I did not realize was fashion at that point. My modeling agency began when one of my friends told me she couldn’t model because she was too big. Taking her photos and getting her a job in Ottawa gave me the confidence that I could be a modeling agent – and a belief that no one should be excluded based on their body. And that fashion really should represent people who looked like my friends and family and their families. The full panorama of human beauty.
What made that precocious 14 year old think he could be an agent of change?
I feel that right from the moment I was born I was supported to try things. I don’t know how many schools would be super supportive of a high school student running a modeling agency, using the payphone, and putting in quarters during breaks to call fashion editors or marketing managers and try to book models. The support to follow my own journey with my business — being encouraged by the school and by the teachers in very real ways — gave me confidence and tenacity. I had the privilege of being in spaces where the conditions to give me confidence were cultivated by other people. And that’s by my family, by my friends, by my teachers, by communities in Ottawa.
Tell us about your experiences meeting people like fashion maven Jeanne Beker.
When I was in high school and running my modeling agency, Jeanne Beker and Fashion Television did a profile. They came to my school, Ashbury College, and they came to my office. It was very exciting because a major outlet that was covering fashion around the world was doing this story on this small Ottawa modeling agency! And at the same time, the Oprah Winfrey Show came to Ottawa, came to my office, and came to my high school and filmed my life. These stories were obviously amazing for my business, and they were super exciting for everyone, but particularly a teenager. They also were a testament to what could happen in Ottawa when people and organizations supported someone with what might seem like a wild idea.
Does Ottawa have style? And if so, what is it?
I think that there is the richness of all the places people are from in Ottawa that contributes to all the ways of dressing. It isn’t always a flashy style. And it’s certainly not a homogenous style, which might make it difficult for people to pinpoint. I don’t think Ottawa is a conservative city. We just haven’t centered fashion in a way that elevates how people are dressing in Ottawa. There’s been different cultural industries that we’ve elevated. That brings a larger question about how fashion has been considered superficial. When I was doing my PhD at Cambridge on fashion models and diversity, I had professors be like, “Fashion models? You mean the economic models of the fashion industry?” I’m like, “No, like the people in the ads on the runway.” So much of my work has been around the fact that fashion is a hugely significant and influential part of not just the economy but of culture and of our everyday experience and our bodies.
From a design point of view, what are some of the spaces in Ottawa that inspire you?
I love that question! The outdoor seating area and steps outside the World Exchange Plaza. I appreciated how it created spaces for people to come together in a public space. There were spaces for performance, for people, for lunch. I always remember being very inspired by how people moved in that space, by the events that were organized, by seeing people and observing how people engage in that space.