“People think I made the wrap dress, but truly, the wrap dress made me. The idea that that dress is still around is pretty amazing.”
2016 been a milestone year for Diane von Furstenberg, the designer and fashion industry titan who recently celebrated four decades since the first of her iconic wrap dresses hit the market. A symbol of independence for an entire generation of women, it was the dress that capitulated the Belgian-born designer into the American consciousness, cementing the heritage of her namesake label.
But Furstenberg isn’t just celebrating her past. Earlier this year, it was announced she would be handing over control of that heritage and its future to Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, the brand’s first chief creative officer.
But what will one of America’s most iconic women’s brands look like in the hands of a man? Furstenberg and Saunders, joined by DVF CEO Paolo Riva, answered that and many other questions during a chat at the Fashion Tech Forum Thursday in Brooklyn.
“What does this brand become now, and what does it become after me?” Furstenberg asked herself. “I needed a creative heir. I’ve admired Jonathan since the minute he came on the scene. I love his sense of color and prints, it was so fresh and so modern, so new.”
In 2015, when she found out that Saunders had left his eponymous label, she jumped on her chance, calling for a meeting between herself, Riva, and Saunders. Immediately there was a spark, and a bout of consulting work in New York eventually blossomed into a full-fledged partnership.
For Furstenberg, the most important factor in her hiring Saunders was his creative eye—an eye which this fall oversaw the successful launch of a highly-lauded Spring ’17 collection.
“He is passionate about women, not just an ideal woman but real women,” she said. “I feel extremely lucky that I was able to seduce him into running a brand.”
Part of running the brand entails translating the DVF legacy into something relevant in the 21st century. Saunders describe DVF’s greatest hits as “simple clothes with imagination.”
“They weren’t just simple black dresses. They were decorative,” he said. “[The DVF woman] is self-assured… She doesn’t want clothes to dress her. Individuality is important.”
So far, Furstenberg is satisfied and “extremely excited” about the transition, though she also recognizes that a large part of ensuring the legacy of her brand means removing herself from the creative equation.
“There’s the brand, there’s the heritage, and then there is me, whatever I am. But I am not really so involved in the brand. But what I am now is the role model, and when I am no longer here I will go into the heritage bit,” said Furstenberg. “[The new collections] are influenced by the heritage, but we are in the fashion business, things come in and out and change, so it was time for a reset. Now it’s his story. I’m actually very happy not to have to do another color palate in my life.”
But for all the brand’s heritage, DVF faces the same technological and demographic headwinds as every other legacy brand: learning how to communicate to a new generation of digital natives who largely favor experiences over tangible luxury.
For DVF, crafting a luxury experience for millennials may mean focusing on things a generation raised on cheaply-made fast fashion and online shopping might not be accustomed to: quality and old-school customer service.
“The disruption is the offering at our price point,” said DVF CEO Paolo Riva. “I don’t think it’s been offered to this level in a while. We don’t want to be behind, we want to be ahead of her and inspire her. And how you inspire her is with a great price point, great product and great service.”
“Clearly everyone is trying to figure out how they’re going to make it to the next decade,” said Furstenberg. “The digital revolution has hit every industry, and it’s hit us too in a difficult way.”
For designers, the key to surfing the digital “tsunami,” as Furstenberg put it, rather that drowning in it, is to be surer than ever of one’s identity. She advised young brands to not look at old ways of business, including wholesale and selling to department stores.
“Today there is an advantage to being small. To be small is good,” she said. “Now is the time to prune. Maybe the tree doesn’t look good without branches, but next spring it will grow.”
At the house of DVF, pruning might just mean upending the traditional seasonal collection. Saunders said the brand is already contemplating see-now, buy-now line launches.
“We’re addressing that,” he said, without going into specifics. “What’s great about DVF is that it’s about allowing the woman to be who she wants to be. I think Diane and her philanthropy, and everything she’s done, is why we fell in love with the brand so much.”
But who is the woman Furstenberg wants to be now? Well she’s hardly hanging up the wrap dress and shutting the closet doors. While Riva and Saunders help sell aspirational luxury to women through the company’s clothing, Furstenberg said she still plans to help grow the brand’s legacy in other, more personally fulfilling ways.
“It was important for me to think how am I going to spend the next 10 years of my life,” she said. “I by myself will work with women using my voice, experience and wisdom to be the woman they want to be without having to spend anything.”
“I became what I wanted to be when I was a little girl, and I want everyone woman to have that, especially at a time when women are being objectified by a very, very vile individual,” she added.
In addition to her charity work, Furstenberg now has more time for other endeavors, like picking up tai chi. She says the practice has given her new insight, and took a moment to drop some hard-won wisom on the Fashion Tech Forum audience.
“My tai chi master taught me it’s all about the intention. Remember that word. If you only practice your power, you fail. If you only practice energy, you stagnate. But if you spend a lot of time on intention, and clarity of where you want to go, the energy will come and so will the power.”