If one thing is for sure, it’s that the Fashion Institute of Technology is full of trailblazers. From designers, photographers, and beyond, 27th street is constantly buzzing with creativity and ambition. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of fashion, there’s one trailblazer in particular who should be on your radar: Professor Dawnn Karen.
Not only does Professor Dawnn Karen teach in the psychology department at FIT, she founded the field of fashion psychology after an epiphany she has while studying at Columbia University. She has taken the world by storm with her revolutionary approach to why we wear certain clothes. As the founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute, she works with students as well as clients, gave a TED Talk, and even wrote a book this year, Dress Your Best Life. If you’re interested in fashion psychology, she’s definitely someone to look to for inspiration.
Her Campus: How would you describe fashion Psychology to someone who’s never heard of it before?
Dawnn Karen (DK): For someone who’s never heard of it I wouldn’t give them the academic, formal definition. I would give them the informal definition which is simply styling from the inside out and aligning the attitude with the attire.
HC: How did you first get started in fashion psychology?
DK: I’m smiling but I just want to warn you that my emotion may not match what I’m saying, but in the end it’ll match. I had a traumatic experience where I experienced a sexual assault when I was attending Columbia University and studying to be a psychologist. I was also in the fashion industry modeling as well and signed to a modeling agency and was jewelry designing on the side. I experienced a sexual assault and I noticed that I wasn’t the person to want to talk, I know people who want to talk and work it out in their head by talking to someone and I was like No, I want to dress. I’m just going to dress my emotions. I’m someone that’s very talkative, I don’t have any problems or qualms with expressing myself but if it’s something traumatic I don’t have a voice.
I had this epiphany where I was using clothing to express how I felt inside or improve how i felt inside and from there I was like There have to be other people in the world that don’t feel like talking but they dress their emotions and that’s how fashion psychology was born.
When studying at Columbia University you get access to different founders and pioneers at these Ivy Leagues. I was being taught by people who founded the field of spiritual psychology and the term microaggression; so I said “Well, what if there’s something called fashion psychology.”
From there I turned into this butterfly and did a metamorphosis and that’s why I was saying that if I start smiling it’s because at this moment looking in retrospect I don’t think that was a negative experience for me. I know it sounds strange, but for me I think it was a positive experience because of what I was able to glean from that.
HC: What excites you about your job?
DK: When people come to me and tell me “I tried out what you said. I tried your theory. I tried fashion psychology and it makes sense” that excites me. Students excite me and when they apply my concepts. Also, when I get young people and they’re like “I want to be a fashion psychologist” and I get them all around the world, that excites me.
HC: What inspired you to write your book?
DK: The dinosaurs – that’s what I call them – do not recognize you unless you have a book. The dinosaurs were not recognizing me – and I use the term dinosaurs not to disparage or use it in a derogatory sense, but they’re mindset is a bit outdated. I felt like at times they were against me – which they were – and so in order to gain some credibility I was like Okay I need to put out a book and also to reach people that cannot attend FIT and to reach people who cannot attend my Fashion Psychology Institute. It lets me reach people who cannot be a client of mine so you can just get me in your pocket or in your purse. It brings me to them.
HC: Can you describe a day in your life working with a client?
DK: All of my clients, believe it or not, are teletherapy clients, so even before the pandemic I was working with clients through teletherapy. We have a session through the phone using video and they tell me their problem and what they’re going through. Think of it like regular therapy, don’t think of it like I’m walking into their closet. Think of regular therapy with regular goals, the only difference is that they are aware that their goals in life have something to do with what they wear.
My last client was a physician, we had to pause our sessions because of the pandemic because she had COVID-19 patients, but I did try to talk to her through mini check-in sessions She went from a size 16 to a size 8 and she had never seen her body that way ever, not even the high school, so she was going to me to develop body positivity. I wrote her prescriptions. She hates the color yellow, but during the pandemic I said “I don’t care, I’m your doctor and I’m going to write you a prescription to wear the color yellow” because she was seeping into some type of depression because of dealing with those patients. When she wore a yellow mask or a yellow shirt underneath the white coat she said she felt better and that it improved her mood.
My major clients, who are celebrities, don’t have time to meet in person and maybe I’ll go to their gigs or something if they work in the music industry. They’re always on the go, so teletherapy works.
HC: Do you just work with individual clients or do you work with companies as well?
DK: I work with celebrity clients, high-profile clients, and students but I’ve been officially working with corporate clients now.
HC: How do you apply fashion psychology to your everyday life when getting dressed in the morning?
DK: I determine my mood and the mood that I want to be in. Most of the time I do a little bit of both, a little bit of mood illustration dress and mood enhancement dress – these are the two theories that I utilized when I told you I first experienced my sexual assault. I was actually dressing to heal myself so I wanted to improve my mood. Dressing to perpetuate the mood you are in and just keep it the same is called mood illustration dress. Those are my foundation, I use those theories everyday, especially during the pandemic and quarantining.
At the top I wear head wraps, so I’m mood illustration dressing. But then at the bottom I’m mood enhancement dressing because I wear a lot of kimonos in my house and they’re really long and they drape down to the floor so they make me feel elegant and regal. I do a little mix of both, but I actually determine the mood I want to be in at the bottom and then the mood I want to be in at the top and then go from there.
HC: What advice do you have for students interested in fashion psychology?
DK: Number one advice: study under me, study under me, study under me! Don’t study under anyone else; there are a lot of people – I’m saying the most positive way – who are inspired by me, so I will get a lot of imitators. I get a lot of them around the world, especially with the advent of social media anybody can say they’re anything. I hope you study under me at the Fashion Institute of Technology or Fashion Psycholology Institute.
HC: Where do you see fashion psychology going in the future?
DK: In the next five years I feel like fashion psychology is going to come to a television near you. There’s going to be some type of “group” that brings us all together. There’s going to be another book; ever since this one came out I just have more that I’m writing down. There will be a second book and I feel like there will be a TV show. And there will be more certified fashion psychologists from different countries who graduated from the Fashion Psychology Institute.