Michael Fink is the Dean of Fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Previously, he was the longtime Fashion Director of Saks Fifth Avenue.
What was most alluring to you about moving to Savannah and becoming Dean of Fashion at SCAD?
The opportunity to be a part of shaping the designers of the future. The responsibility fashion professionals have in sharing their knowledge with each new generation is an invaluable transfer of knowledge. And Savannah is absolutely one of the most beautiful places in the world – I always feel like I’m living in a movie set.
Was it a steep learning curve to go from retail to a design school?
Fortunately, the language of fashion is a universal one. My hardest transition has been learning the particular regulations that govern educational institutions. I spend a lot of time at my desk. I would rather be in the classroom doing critiques and challenging fashion ideas with students.
What are some of the biggest challenges your students face?
The business of fashion continues to evolve at an unprecedented rate of change. In addition to just ‘designing’ students must also master marketing, production, resourcing, brand extension, omni-channel distribution, to name a few. The list goes on and on. It’s a huge challenge preparing students for that first job on the professional world. I also want our students to understand that persistence is a huge part of the business. Developing a thick skin is imperative to success.
Where do you think you are able to provide the most guidance?
I’ve been on the retail side of fashion my entire career. I know what it takes to get to a buyer, a fashion director. How to sell yourself and your collection. I am bluntly honest about how it works. I am also really good at pushing students towards new ideas, re-imagining fashion, asking what’s next. Every fashion student thinks they are inventing fashion for the first time. Opening their eyes to the rich history that has come before them is a remarkable pay off.
You have been able to lure mentors such as Chris Benz, Catherine Malandrino and Zac Posen. In what way do the students get to interact with these designers?
Each year a select group of senior design students work with our mentors on their senior collections. From concept to the final product, the mentor is their to keep pushing, offering their expertise, and reminding the student how it gets done outside of the classroom. What’s interesting is that the mentors respect the student’s designs and push them further that way, instead of trying to make the student a ‘mini-me’. Everyone walks away invigorated at the end of the process. Of course, there are usually a few tears along the way as well!
Which designer – living or dead – would be your dream professor?
Unfair question! The list is too long. But can you imagine being in a critique with Chanel, Halston, Vionnet, Rei Kawakub, Karl Lagerfeld, Claire McCardell, Cristobal Balenciaga. I mean, cocktails will be served!
As graduation season is approaching and you look back at this year, what are you most proud of?
I am so proud that all of our students work with the most amazing faculty. The creativity that is generated in the classroom stuns me every day. And each year it is totally different. I am such a cry baby after our fashion show each year. Letting the seniors out into the professional world – well, I just want them all to be super successful. I do worry like a dad.
What are some key difference between working with students versus the established designers you worked with when you were Fashion Director at Saks?
Students are still naive about what can and cannot work in terms of actual design, or business practices. It’s hard for them to understand that they need to sell their clothes in order to make money! So understanding your customer and the niche that they fill is extremely important. That’s the lesson when you are an established designer – know your customer, what niche you fill, and design to your dreams, knowing that compromise is indeed part of the equation. There’ s no glamor in starving! I would also say there can be a fair amount of diva attitude in students and professionals alike. Those days are gone. What’s the point? It’s annoying!
Do you miss living and working in New York at all?
I love visiting NYC. I become a super-tourist. I do more in 4 – 5 days than I would do in 6 months. But, honestly, I don’t know how I lived there for so long. I loved being part of the New York City action, don’t get me wrong. I still have all of my connections and everyone wants to come to Savannah. I’ve discovered my true Southern gentleman side.
What part of city life, if any, do you wish you could bring to Savannah?
I miss the opera, the theater, the buzz of people on the street. Oddly, I miss the white noise of the city. The song birds here in Savannah are really loud at 5:00am!
What do you find most rewarding about the job?
Taking dreams and helping them become a reality.