Fashion Institute of Technology, 2015
Some life lessons don’t ever change. They need to be highlighted and they need to be remembered throughout our entire lives. But how you embrace them will distinguish you from the pack.
President Brown and the FIT Board of Trustees, SUNY Chairman McCall, beloved FIT faculty, staff, and class of 2015 and guests. Thank you so much for inviting me here. What was I thinking? I was staring at the exits — there’s eight of them. I’ve many times thought about running right through them.
First of all, I just have to say you are amazing individuals, not just your caps. At my school, we didn’t decorate our caps at all, but they’re stunning. I was looking at some of them. Last week I was taken on a rather comprehensive tour of the school, and the moment I got on the elevator, I was told that it was exam time and I felt instantly sick to my stomach.
What’d I forget to study? What notes did I miss? Why did I party at Up and Down until 3 a.m.?
I graduated 28 years ago, and I could feel that all-too-familiar crazy hyper energy of finals week. But as I walked through the halls, the labs, the rooms filled with your projects and your colossal talent, I was astounded. My God, have you all worked so hard to be here. It is an enormous achievement. Your parents, your loved ones, they’re all immensely proud. And you have clearly dedicated yourselves fully and worked your asses off.
You all should be so proud of your achievements that you just want to scream. Feel free. Okay, so I almost turned down this incredible honor, the chance to deliver your commencement address. What could I say that would resonate? You not only represent the pulse of the present, but you are the future of style. You are the future of art. You are the future of creativity. And I was really fearful that I would not deliver a speech today that would inspire you. I actually lost sleep over it, and I was thinking you are so creatively intimidating, I thought: I can’t do this, why can’t somebody else do it, isn’t someone else available, what about Kelly Ripa? Christy Turlington, or Sarah Jessica Parker? I — I can call her!
But as I was torturing myself and throwing up, I realized I was being a hypocrite. I’ve always believed in facing one’s fears, and I can only imagine all of you faced some fear when you started this journey. And you may be experiencing a bit of trepidation now. But obviously I am here facing you young, talented, young — so young — people. You are on the brink of being unleashed into the world, and time is about to accelerate for you at a rate you cannot even imagine.
When I graduated from college, although I had worked in my chosen field for decades already — I was 11 months old when I was first [posing] nude — when I graduated from college, I was actually not trained in what I loved the most. I had really no clue as to how my career would continue, if at all, after my “four year hiatus,” as everybody called it. The majority of our graduates were just released into the world after four years of liberal arts, so many did not have a clue what they would do with their lives and few were trained as specifically as you’ve been in a chosen field.
You’re all clearly ahead of the game. You’re entering creative fields that you’ve been preparing for, and you’re ready to work. You are a very rare commodity: independent, creative thinkers. I want to remind you, though, to remember who you really are, and why you came to FIT. That voice — that authentic self – it’s what has engaged you throughout your entire life so far, and as your careers come into focus, please recall that voice.
And perpetually embrace what I call Four to Score. Four major concepts that I apply to my life. Fear — the first one — lineage, expectations, work ethic. Now, if you can’t remember those, just remember the acronym FLEW.
Now, let’s start with the real F-word, fear.
I implore you to never back away from fear, but instead, dive into it. I’m talking about the kind of inhibiting, hindering fear that erupts out of the idea of failure, or the possibility of making mistakes, and of course – and this is a really good one – that nagging belief that you’re actually a fraud and not good enough. Don’t allow yourselves to give in to self-doubt, and don’t let people interfere, either. It was actually Richard Avedon — who I called Mr. Don — I called him Mr. Don when I met him, because I was so nervous to meet him. He called me Drake, so I guess we were even. But he was the one who taught me how not to have fear, and to hold on to your convictions.
He epitomized this. He epitomized how not to let others infringe on his artistic vision. It didn’t matter what we were shooting for, it could be Vogue with Polly Mellon or we did a poster with Keith Haring, and it didn’t matter who we were working with, no one else was allowed in the studio. So there would be a big frenzy and chaos, getting ready, hair and makeup, and I would walk onto the set and he would close this massive, iron, factory-like door, and nobody else was allowed in. It would just be me and Dick. He wasn’t afraid of being wrong, and he never let anyone interfere with his vision.
So here’s what you do when others start to doubt you, or when they start to want to change your creative vision: just know it’s okay to do like Avedon and shut the big metal door. And if you make mistakes, make them. Make mistakes. Grow. Make more mistakes. Grow more. Make fewer mistakes. I’ve had too many to list, and most on a very public scale. Why did I date George Michael? I didn’t know. You’ll never do anything unless you try. It’s all forward motion — how can that be bad?
This brings me to lineage.
I’m not talking about genes, but I did do a little Calvin Klein ad campaign, you might have heard of it. That was a firestorm to be put into, but we knew we were a part of something and that was important. But when I say lineage, I don’t mean heritage. I mean paying attention to the lineage of your creativity.
Even before FIT, what was it that you returned to, that you remained motivated by? Even from a very early age, where did your passions always seem to lie? What were the instincts that always urged you in a creative direction, and chart those instincts. Notice a through-line. You’ll see that was has inspired you has been surprisingly constant. Let it continue to inform you as you work with and for other people. Because that passion, that driving force, is who you are and it’s at the root of your unique voice. It’s made you happy, just like picking amazing shoes — I was looking at all the shoes that were going by because that’s your voice that’s being represented, even from your feet up.
For me, it was always being the class clown. I just wanted to be Charlie Chaplin for Halloween, many years in a row. I always wanted to make people laugh, it just gave me such joy to laugh and to make others laugh. Later on in my career I was able to be in my own sitcom, and then I went to musical comedies on Broadway. I even married a comedy writer — you get the picture. But the more you listen to your own instincts, the better you’re going to serve yourself, the grander you will serve your industry, and the happier you will be in your work. We all possess instincts — others will try to convince you that theirs are much more correct than your own. Hold on to your own. There will be compromises, but that’s not one of them.
I was approached a few times, actually, in the past to create my own perfume line. And in every instance, they just wanted my face on the bottle or in the ads. They didn’t want any of my input. And I wanted to be a part of the actual creation of the scent, and they didn’t want that. So I wanted to be represented a certain way, they wouldn’t do it so I walked away. I had to because it didn’t feel right.
But when M.A.C approached me, it took years to create the line. I learned from the best, obviously, but I was a part of every single detail from the packaging to the texture to the fragrance and the powders to the whole palette. And it was very, very successful. In the first hour it actually sold out. Unlike the Brooke Shields hair dryers from 1986 — I have about 1,200 of them left in my garage. Ebay! Collectors’ items at this point.
This brings me to expectations.
I’m not talking about managing expectations, we hear that more often than not. I don’t ever believe in playing it safe to spare anybody disappointment. You know, basically, what’s expected of you when you leave here. But what are your expectations? What are your highest aspirations? For me, all I ever wanted to be was an actress. My Mom used to drive me out in our Jeep to New Jersey, to this big movie theater, and I’d sit in the front seat and we’d go see a double feature. And on the way back to the city I’d sit in the back seat and put my face on the cold window and I would just dream about being in those movies. I would put myself in the lead role — of course — and I would make the experience of that movie mine, and I was inspired by all those characters, but my real power rested in my ability to keep dreaming.
So what do you really want to accomplish as artists? You know how hard it is to be an artist. How do you want your art to serve you? Up until now, you have had a certain amount of freedom to focus primarily on your craft. But once you’re no longer incubated by this incredible institution, focus can shift pretty quickly to things like money, success, fame. They creep into the front seat and they put their arms around you.
Be honest with yourselves. If you want guaranteed money, go work on Wall Street. But when you go into a creative field, because you love it, I promise you, you will be richer than any hedge fund guy there ever was. If you want fame, go be a Kardashian. Take selfies. For a while, I was famous for my eyebrows, and then I was famous for being a virgin. It took a lot of hard work, and sex — no, just kidding — it took a lot of hard work to get people to stop focusing on those things and pay attention to my actual accomplishments. If you mainly want to be famous, you have to be okay with all that comes with it. You don’t get to complain that your art is suffering, or that you’re not being taken seriously.
If you want success — this, I think, is the most complicated of the three — trust me when I tell you that success comes in a myriad of packages. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it does not always entail continuous hard work and tireless tenacity. You must define success to yourself. It’s not seeing what other people have. It means something different to all of us. Your success means something very, very different to that gentleman’s over there.
When I graduated from university, I thought I would be welcomed back into the movie industry with open arms and countless opportunities. I did not get such a homecoming. I could not get a movie, a play, a TV show, or even an ad campaign to save my life. I felt so lost and derailed, because all I had ever known was working. Suddenly, nobody wanted me. The only thing I knew was that I was dying inside to be creatively active. So I got real busy. I tried to find work in any way that I could. I always believe in continuing to work while you don’t have a job.
You all have incredible futures immediately ahead of you, but you will go through times that feel bleak. You will probably experience being fired, or passed over. You will be faced with fewer options, at times, than you want. That’s just life. You’re probably going to get more nos than you do yeses, but the yeses that you do get you will use, you will grow, and you will continue to move forward. Don’t give in to the disappointment. Be resourceful, and be determined.
Andy Warhol said this, he said: “It doesn’t matter how slow you go, so long as you don’t stop.” In most of the things that I’ve done in my career, whether it’s Broadway or directing or writing memoirs or children’s books, I did them because other doors were closed to me. For me, success has been measured in longevity, and in an enduring career that has had both highs and lows. I simply refuse to give up. I went to where the opportunity did exist at the time. Your talent will fuel you. My point is: be fair to yourselves, please, with regards to how you view your achievements. And don’t be afraid to try things outside your comfort zone.
Last: work ethic. My dad used to say, “You know, a lot rides on how you show up.”
Your work ethic plays a huge part in your creative life. Please uphold the strong work ethic that you developed during your time here. And always remember words like integrity and accountability. Listen to others, and ask for guidance from those you admire. Respect collaboration, but never settle. No job is too small, and it will only add to your mythology. Find your peers and grow strong with them. Find your mentors and follow them. Create trends that become movements that become classics. And please, like my dad said: A lot rides on how you show up.
I’m sure everything I have said here has already been said to you at some point during your time here. Maybe that’s just the point. Some life lessons don’t ever change. They need to be highlighted and they need to be remembered throughout our entire lives. But how you embrace them will distinguish you from the pack. I hope you never stop aspiring to do what you love and you continue being your unique selves. The world out there is a mess, but maybe you can fix it by making everybody look fabulous. Congratulations to you all.