Michael Fink

The fashion industry needs a serious breath of fresh air, according to Michael Fink, dean of the School of Fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

From unbearably long lead times between the runway to the retailer’s racks and not fully engaging Millennials to a lack of fearlessness with designers and an absence of nurturing young talent, Fink said the industry can take a few steps to change things.

Here, Fink, a fashion industry veteran who held leadership roles at Saks Fifth Avenue — including vice president and women’s fashion director under Rose Marie Bravo, shares his ideas for energizing the industry.

WWD: Why do you think the industry needs a “breath of fresh air” heading into 2016?

Michael Fink: For an industry that relies so heavily on creativity and bright, imaginative people, many of the practices are heavily traditional, and as a result the fashion industry often misses the mark when it comes to reaching Millennials. We’re not adapting to the things that matter to them, including going beyond online shopping, comparative pricing and mobile apps.

We need to pay more attention to sustainability and their philanthropic efforts, too. We’re still delivering merchandise months after it hits the runways. Most Millennials have seen it, Snapchatted it and forgotten it long before it reaches a store rack.

WWD: What are some of the things the fashion industry can do differently?

M.F.: There are a lot of changes to be made, but let’s start with some easy ones. I mentioned the delay between runway and rack. That’s a relic from a different age. There is no practical or logistical reason why a dress introduced in Paris in March isn’t available to consumers until August. The industry can do a better job of leveraging the excitement of new line introductions.

Social media also plays a big role. Millennials are making decisions based on social content and conversations. Their smartphones are tools in the purchasing process. They use them to compare prices, share photos of themselves trying things on and comment on their buying experience. It’s the difference between e-commerce and m-commerce. As an industry, we need to be more proactive and engaging through social channels. For example, SCAD students are crowdsourcing customers to give them a voice in the design process.

WWD: You mentioned the Millennial consumer — should the fashion industry be doing anything else to appeal to this powerful demographic?

M.F.: In almost any industry, it seems the Millennials rule all. Fashion is no exception. Think about the shopping experience in general. While it needs to go digital, even the brick and mortar experience can be revamped to appeal to this demographic. Plan a new future for shopping malls that employs an understanding of emerging technologies and of the 21st century consumers. They want to shop in a destination that is exciting, unexpected and compelling – what will impress these consumers? How do they define great customer service? Answering these questions and acting upon those answers will go a long way.

WWD: What about longer-term? Are there steps the industry can take to make more significant, lasting changes?

M.F.: Absolutely. Identifying and cultivating new design talent. I’d like to see design houses and retailers encourage young designers through scholarship programs and competitions. Experience is great, but there’s something to be said for creativity unburdened by expectations.

Emerging designers have a fearlessness that fades as you accumulate battle scars. Let’s encourage that fearlessness and help those promising design students produce a line of limited-edition items — the experience would be educational for the students, retailers, design professionals and customers alike.

The National Retail Federation, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the YMA Fashion Scholarship Fund are the primary sources of industry scholarships and are great resources for aspiring fashion students. For instance, this past year, SCAD’s own Sanglim Lee was named a Target Fashion Scholar as part of a Target scholarship program created with CFDA and Teen Vogue. Through the scholarship, Lee had the opportunity to tour Target’s headquarters, be recognized by Teen Vogue and win a $25,000 scholarship. Let’s expand the scholarship pool and think more creatively about the awards.

As a second step, I’d like to see more people in the industry commit to providing meaningful internship opportunities to designers. This isn’t unique to the fashion industry, but too often internship programs do little to truly develop or prepare students for careers in the field.

WWD: What is your take on sustainable practices in the industry? More brands and companies are improving their practices. Do you see this continuing to be a priority in the industry?

M.F.: Absolutely! In my opinion, sustainability is just getting started in the industry. We need to do more to educate the consumer about what goes into creating their clothes, so that they can make the decision to buy a quality product that will last and not become landfill. With the recent news from Gucci and H&M, I think this issue will start to get more attention.

WWD: Any other perspectives you would like to share?

M.F.: Yes, and this might be the most important: More time for designers to “design” and to design in-season. Do we need six to eight collections a year from one designer? Let designers have time to create and be innovative. It’ll go a long way to bringing back the fun and awe of fashion not only to the designer, but also to the customer.

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