Disruptors in Fashion Education: Michael Fink From SCAD’s School of Fashion

NO MATTER THE LOCATION OR AVENUE TAKEN, A DIVERSIFIED EDUCATION IN DESIGN IS A VITAL ADDITION TO ANY DESIGNER'S CREATIVE QUIVER—AND A DESIGN SCHOOL CAN OFFER A CURATED AND EFFICIENT PATH TOWARD A CAREER IN THE INDUSTRY. Our Disruptors in Fashion Education series taps into that exact realm of education, opening up conversations with the individuals working directly with the future of fashion.

With years spent on the consumer-facing side of the industry, Savannah College of Art and Design's School of Fashion Dean, Michael Fink, has a wealth of experience that bridges the gap between the consumer-driven marketplace and the designer-centric creative space. From Saks Fifth Avenue to the classrooms of SCAD, Fink brings his distinct point-of-view to the storied university. In fact, this year marks the university's 40th anniversary; and having spent the past four decades educating the emerging voices of fashion, art, and design, SCAD continues to pave the way for innovative and inclusive approaches to education. 


How does your experience working on a much more consumer-facing side of fashion influence the way in which you shape and guide the curriculum at SCAD?

During my career in luxury retail I had the great fortune of collaborating with the best creative, business and intuitive minds in the industry. Together, we were able to assess current cultural trends, make data-based and “straight-from-the-gut” decisions on the next big thing, and create imaginative and exciting store experiences. We also had the incredible fortune of being able to develop new talent from not only a creative aspect but also to what is needed to develop a successful business. Ultimately, we were creating a loyal consumer base that came to us because of our expertise, values, and excitement.

Here at SCAD, I continue to work with a world of creative leaders and experts, analyzing current professional trends and data to project industry opportunities for our students. We are collectively creating a future environment, not a moment, filled with innovate opportunities. The shift is from end-consumer to future innovators and that is a really exiting responsibility to have.

Ten years ago, when SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace and I discussed her vision for the SCAD School of Fashion, I was immediately attracted to her idea of developing curriculum that takes on a multi-dimensional approach of creativity grounded in real-world expectations. Just as in my retail career, SCAD is continually researching “what’s next”, what data supports our decisions, what are the new job opportunities, how do we instruct to these opportunities, and what are SCAD students passionate to learn. We then create cutting-edge programs of study where our students can lead the industry. Examples of these programs include Luxury Fashion Marketing and Management, Fragrance Marketing and Management, Business of Beauty and Fragrance and the first M.F.A in the world in Accessory Design. As SCAD’s first dean for the School of Fashion my top priority is to make sure our students continually receive the best design and business instruction possible that prepares them for creative careers. Under the academic guidance of President Wallace and our phenomenal industry-experienced faculty, our alumni employment rate is 99% within the first ten months of graduating. This paired with our award winning programs being globally recognized, the industry loves what we are doing here at SCAD!

What did your time at Saks Fifth Avenue teach you about the fashion industry? And how do you integrate these lessons and larger industry context into the fashion curriculum at SCAD?

Listen, the fashion world is a demanding business. An absolute point of view is essential. Collaboration is key. Having back-up plans is a must. Securing a mentor to guide and push you along your career path is an important professional learning experience. I am fortunate that I had such encouraging mentors! The thing that I really think is key, however, is the real friendships and trust that you develop throughout the industry. These friendships you keep forever. Getting a problem resolved or a deal done in one phone call—priceless.

Our SCAD environment is built around collaborative learning opportunities inside the classroom. Students receive rigorous instruction in their chosen fields, develop their personal viewpoint, and defend and refine their design decisions through constructive critiques with faculty, peers, and industry experts. We have created a cross-disciplinary learning culture where students are supporting each other’s ideas and abilities. SCAD students collaborate and work with one another throughout their professional careers. I truly feel we have eliminated the cliché backstabbing-fashion-movie scenes from our student culture. 

Students also have the opportunity to work with external partners in solving design and business challenges in a program called SCADPro. Our most recent projects have involved Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James collection, Hillary Swank’s Mission Statement collection, Signet Jewelers, and Ernst Benz.


In what ways do you work to empower creativity within the parameters of education?

We provide an environment that allows students to CREATE. SCAD is the most comprehensive art and design university with global campuses in Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France. Our students have instant access to 40+ major areas of study and 75+ minors. This may be the last time in their career where they have the support to go full throttle and have access to leading technology and resources. I can assure you that a course syllabus never instructs a student to “create a boring product.”  We can always tame an idea down. Our school of fashion majors collaborate with students in almost every major including film and TV, performing arts, graphic design, industrial design, painting, game design, animation, well, you get the picture.

Our students are the market that today’s companies are trying to better understand. We want to push the students’ ideas as far as they can go. Our critiques are filled with “What if…” “Did you consider…” “What is the ultimate outcome…” ”Why not…” “You can push further…” I have to say it is the most exhilarating experience working with our students as they conceive ideas that are unhindered by business plans! Then work with them on how these innovative ideas can infiltrate and sometimes successfully disrupt the industry. 

Do you think it’s possible for students to gain a global perspective in the classroom? How does SCAD ensure that creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum? 

You’re speaking of a classroom as a traditional physical space. We live and work in a digital world. Everything is available to explore, manipulate, and re-imagine in the digital space. However, the need for informed dialogue and direction must take place in the learning environment to challenge and push students’ perceived ideas of the world around them. All of our academic leaders bring unique viewpoints and experiences into the classroom as another opportunity to view global expectations. 

Our students have diverse and rich global heritages that  enhance the SCAD learning environment and they share those experiences with each other. President Wallace knew the importance of global educational opportunities when she founded SCAD forty years ago. Our students have the opportunity to take courses around the world at our global locations and interact with industry leaders through SCAD’s signature events throughout each academic year. 

These global events allow SCAD students to participate and interact in an array of programming. SCADStyle, which takes place every April at our Atlanta, Savannah, and Hong Kong campuses is comprised of a week of internationally renowned design experts in conversation with students. These visits include workshops, portfolio reviews and 1-on-1 mentoring. Each May, our university hosts SCAD FASHWKND in Savannah and Atlanta. The four day event showcases the amazing fashion and design work of SCAD’s finest fashion senior and graduate student collections. The upcoming SCAD FASHWKND marks the first time we will have a runway show at SCAD Atlanta to accompany the Savannah runway show  and in addition to  our January Fashion Showcase in Hong Kong. 

Our world renowned SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta and our SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah provide students, alumni, and the general public with exposure to leading art, design, and fashion exhibitions and programming. Many of the exhibiting artists and designers each year interact with SCAD students through gallery talks and master classes. 


What core skills and lessons about the broader fashion industry do you think are lacking in traditional curriculums?

I can only speak to SCAD’s curriculum. We are constantly examining the courses we are teaching. What needs to be updated? What don’t we have and how can we implement that? What are our students telling us that they need? That’s really important—listening to the students! We’re here to provide a proactive experience and, again back to President Wallace’s vision, provide our students with all of the tools, relationships, and experience to be successful in their chosen creative field. I have to say one of the comments we hear from the industry about our students (other than the talent coming out of the program!) is that they are professional, well-educated, and nice to be around. How refreshing is that.

What does Savannah add to a student’s fashion education that traditional fashion capitals such as New York, London, or Paris do not?

Savannah is a unique, historic, inspiring and human location. We’re a city where you know just about everyone. When walking to classes we actually have time in the day to take inspiration from a wealth of architectural detail as well as be lured by the lush foliage. In my own experience, I’ve learned to slow down my NYC walking pace and enjoy this beautiful city up close. Notice I said walking pace. We’re still working at breakneck speed in the classrooms!

However, we must not forget SCAD’s other campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France, where every SCAD student has the opportunity to study while enrolled with the university. Each campus provides its own inspirational backdrop, industry opportunities and global awareness for a well-rounded SCAD educational experience. 


Do you see a future where designers are living and creating outside of these major fashion cities? 

That creative future is already here! We have alumni successfully working in cities around the world changing and enhancing their local communities. 

What do you think is the most important part of a design education? 

It’s so obvious—you have to be passionate about your chosen field! Why are you spending 4 years with us if you cannot commit to aiming for excellence. Wanting to be an expert is very different from actually mastering your field. You have to put in the time to obtain the skills.

  • Pulling an all-nighter rarely, if ever, helps.
  • Read as much as you can, see every exhibit possible, make friends in different fields other than your own.
  • Live in the library—the building with all of the books in it!
  • As a student, ask questions until you get an answer. That’s your job.
  • Be informed. 
  • Be humble.
  • Make nice with others.


How do you see your students working to reshape the current fashion landscape? 

As art and design university graduates, our students must continue to enrich our lives by adding their creative and artistic passions to both the exceptional and ordinary moments of our day. They are digesting mega-data every second. What are they going to invent and re-invent in a world that has few secrets? This is not just about fashion. What world are our students inventing for their children?

As an educator of the next generation of designers, what do you think the future of fashion looks like? 

We are preparing our students to question the world they inhabit and make decisions that have consequence.  Let’s be real, it’s just a pant, a shirt, a jacket, a dress. I can only hope that the future of fashion includes resolving the many unresolved buzzwords that have been floating around for decades. How about uniting the hand, head and heart to enact positive and progressive change?