DIANE VON FURSTENBERG Contemplates a New Era for her Company and her Life
BY CONSTANCE C.R. WHITE
She’s among a handful of designers whose oeuvre captured a moment in the Zeitgeist – Yves Saint Laurent may be one and Ralph Lauren another.
Then there’s that Newsweek cover, the Andy Warhol portrait, the marriage into European aristocracy, the powerful friends and confidants. Sitting deep in the cut of this glamourfest is the determined visionary and feminist businesswoman, philanthropist (including CFDA chairwoman) and mentor, Diane von Furstenberg.
The Impression sat down exclusively with the 69-year-old designer and power-broker as she disclosed how she’s making big changes in her company and in her life to keep the brand fresh (hint: Please don’t call it marketing).
Early evidence: New York Fashion Week. Gone are the big, splashy, people-watching events in the largest venue. Instead, the designer is creating a relatively intimate affair at her headquarters in New York’s Meatpacking District (an area she helped pioneer for designers).
Constance White: Diane, you’ve been really good at personally promoting your brand. What can you share with us about how you do that with image and marketing?
Diane von Furstenberg: I don’t like saying marketing because marketing sometimes sounds like such a negative word. Marketing often seems manipulative and not sincere. But that is changing. It’s about being authentic and everything you do having the same point of view. How do you stay relevant in this business? It’s called fashion, so it goes in and out of fashion, right? You have to understand who your consumer is.
We make real clothes for real women and every now and then, it’s the young girls who bring their mothers back. So our target is really the Millennials, the women at the beginning of their lives. What we are doing with this new era is we are focusing on putting the woman in the center of everything we do.
Constance White: Well, who was at the center before?
Diane von Furstenberg: Well, I don’t know. It’s what he [CEO Paolo Riva, who joined seven months ago] has started with the third era of this brand. When he first came in, he started doing that. At first I wasn’t really understanding it, but now it’s so understandable. Also, we are trying to give them the right clothes at the right time because between showing everything too early and shipping everything too early and stores marking down everything, it’s like a huge, crazy thing. So we want to do it right. I, as a designer, feel like the shows should be more for the customer.
Constance White: So how do you now stay relevant?
Diane von Furstenberg: We are putting a new team together so there is now going to be a young team that sees the brand with fresh eyes. Together, they are going to run the company. What I love about [Paolo Riva] is how much respect he has for the brand; he is holding the flag and is now putting a team together. [Riva just named Sarah Willersdorf, a former managing director at Boston Consulting Group, chief marketing officer.]
I am still the founder and the owner, but I will be pulling myself out a little bit, focusing more on the voice. You realize when you are successful that you have a voice. And I think it’s more and more important for me to use my voice for people who have no voice. The DVF Awards (which recognizes and funds women making a difference in their community as entrepreneurs or social activists, for instance) is something that I started six years ago. That’s part of the things that I will focus most on. Gradually, I will be able to pull myself out and let them make sure that this brand lasts forever and is forever young.
Constance White: You’ve developed into a brand that stands for female empowerment. How do you connect that to the consumer?
Diane von Furstenberg: I think you should talk to Paolo. I think you should talk to him because the company has three eras. American dream was when I was in my 20’s and I lived an American dream. Then I sold the company and 17 years ago I started again, when the young, hip girls were buying the old dresses in vintage shops. Now the brand is more than 40 years old. It has proven itself and it is a love brand. People have souvenirs with the brand, familiarity with the brand. Their mother, everybody has a story about the brand. So now the challenge is how do you stay relevant after me?
Constance White: Right.
Diane von Furstenberg: The first thing I did is I hired a young CEO, Italian, who really loves the brand and loves the potential of the brand and he is now hiring his team and we are starting. I really think you should talk to Paolo.
Constance White: That would be great. I’ll find out when would be a good time to speak with him.
Diane von Furstenberg: I think you should speak with him now.
[She asks Hillary Prim, head of public relations, to get Paolo.] I am the founder. I was a girl who invented herself while I was inventing the company. I did not have a business plan; I did not have anything. I am a founder. I had [built] this huge thing. Then when I started again, even though I was 50, I still behaved like this young, little girl with a bunch of enthusiasm and I took a bunch of young girls with me and we did it again. I can’t do this again.
Constance White: Paolo brings his own expertise and clearly you’re letting him use it, that’s why you have him here. But he would be a fool not to look back and tap into what you have done and learned. So what are some of your key tips for him?
Diane von Furstenberg: My tips are being the friend in the closet, being practical, being sexy, being effortless, being timely, being the friend to the woman. Making sure that at all times you are the friend. A woman wakes up in the morning, she feels bad, she has her period, she doesn’t know what to do, go for your friend.
Constance White: Where does the TV show fit into this?
Diane von Furstenberg: The TV show, again, was something to get the attention of the Millennials. It was a nice experience, it was a fun experience, it was successful. I did two seasons and, for the time being, I’m taking a break.
Diane von Furstenberg: Aah! I’m so happy you came.
Constance White: Since we started talking, Diane keeps saying, ‘I want you to talk to Paolo’. Paolo, what’s your approach? What’s happening that you’re seeing and responding to? How will you guide the marketing for this iconic brand when so much is changing?
Paolo Riva: The velocity of the change has taken us all by surprise. The way women shop, the way they relate to a brand, the way they relate to their lives and their social lives has changed so much. It’s much more real. They want to play a bigger role in the brands and what they stand for. The velocity of this change has left all of us a bit unprepared.
So what we see now is that legacy brands like ours, whether they are in Europe or in America, are struggling with this sudden change. And new brands with a product and value proposition which is more authentic, which is more real, are having phenomenal success.
You don’t have to have bigger budgets to be successful. You can play with social media and you have to be close to what is going on and relate one to the other.
We are in a very favorable position. It’s a 40-year-old brand, but it’s a 40-year-old… I like the word… movement. It’s about empowering women. Supporting women. It’s about being for women, the friend in the closet.
Diane von Furstenberg: The word ‘movement’ came from a young girl. A beautiful young girl who said, ‘I remember when I was little, my mother did extra work so she could buy her DVF dress and she told me DVF is not about a brand, it’s about a movement.’
Paolo Riva: It’s a movement of reaching a higher purpose. It’s enabling women to become the women they want to be. It’s not only money-based. Internally, having a higher purpose makes you have a better conversation with people who want to join our organization, who may want to work towards this higher purpose. And the external people – opinion leaders or our own customers – it is very important to them. This is what makes us different from the other legacy brands.
Constance White: It has been said that we are in a golden age of entrepreneurship and I think Diane and her brand represent this strongly for young women, from what I have heard. How do you connect this to your customer and even women at large?
Paolo Riva: We are conscious of what we represent when we talk about marketing, communications, PR. We want to leverage what we call the DVF platform.
DVF is the brand that Diane herself created. It’s a wonderful platform: You can become the woman you want to be. This platform for women applies to different realities – women in art, women in the movies, women in business and finance, women who are entrepreneurs. This platform more and more will allow us to communicate in a more real way with women. This sounds very serious, but we want to connect with women in a more friendly way. Sometimes it’s just what kind of woman you want to be this morning. Sometimes it’s what kind of woman you want to be for the man you want to seduce. Sometimes it’s what kind of woman you want to be at work.
Diane Von Furstenberg: See, the thing is, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew the woman I wanted to be. As I became the woman I wanted to be, I helped other women be the women they wanted to be.
Excellent. Because I think women right now – younger women, especially – need it. They’re hungry for it, they’re looking for it. Wouldn’t you agree?
Paolo Riva: This comes back to what the marketing approach is. We believe strongly in this higher purpose and having other people sharing it with us. The DVF Awards is a way of doing this and communicating with people like you in different fields, to make this message strong and loud and even more effective. When we talk to younger women in their early twenties, those are the women that recognize themselves the most in this message. It’s proven. It’s market research.
Diane Von Furstenberg: I was a young girl in Belgium with curly black hair while everyone had straight blond hair; I was such an outsider.
For me, the formative years are the years that I remember the most, between 22 and 28. After that, everything I did was a repetition. So maybe that’s why I so identify with that age. I identify with people at the beginning of their life, at the beginning of a job, at the beginning of a career, at the beginning of a change, at the beginning of a divorce. Why? Because what is important to me, the message I like to bring, is dare.
Dare to be yourself. The only thing that you should be is be yourself. As much as possible. Practice the truth. The most important relationship is the relationship you have with yourself.
I said all of this from the beginning. Now, all of a sudden, I am surrounded by a generation, and they’re talking about social media and being authentic and this and that, and that is what I have been saying for so long.
Constance White: Well, part of it was your mother. [In her book, “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” Von Furstenberg recalled her mother would often say, ‘Fear is not an option.’]
Diane Von Furstenberg: My mother, for sure, but if I didn’t defend myself they would put me in boxes: ‘Park Avenue princess trying to have a career’. And I said, no, no, no, wait a minute. I had to speak out a lot more. Sometimes I had to shout. And I became my own brand.
Now you’re dealing with a generation where every individual is their own brand. So I relate so well. My story relates so well with that. Paolo’s job and what the team is putting together is: How do you relate to a generation where each one is a brand? How do you cater as an established brand to people who are brands themselves? That is the challenge.
Paolo Riva: We have the legitimacy to do that. We are not inventing or cheating. There is a fun and beautiful way to bring that message to women today in multiple ways that are relevant. It’s not marketing in the flat and shallow meaning of the word. It’s really something deeper. Something that I think is the right way of doing things, given the sudden change in the way women look at brands and shopping and the experience behind shopping.
Constance White: What are your priorities for communicating this and carrying this out as you revamp the company and take it into another era?
Paolo Riva: From the message, to the woman, to the transaction, it’s more complicated than before. To talk to today’s women in an effective way, you simply must work on a product you are proud of.
Diane Von Furstenberg: The people who design it have to wear it. The people who sell it have to wear it. I mean, if you want other people to desire your brand, you have to make sure that you are completely proud of it; otherwise, don’t bother with it.
Paolo Riva: But from the moment you put this product out there you have to give this product…
Diane Von Furstenberg: …a reason to be.
Paolo Riva: …a reason to be! And how do you do that? With that real way of doing marketing and communications.
Diane Von Furstenberg: You just have to be very open and very authentic and shift a little bit and be close to your consumer.
Constance White: I hear you, that it’s not simple. Diane is one of the most enduring fashion brands around and it’s also iconic. It is embodied by this woman who has this very rich story. You are charged with looking forward, but how do you take from the past and how do you meld the two?
Paolo Riva: There are two levels that I think of when working on our past. The first one that’s important is certain print inspiration. There is a story behind the kind of Italian fabric we develop, our silks, the prints; they are part of who we are. If you are a designer, you can pick elements from the past and be inspired. But there is a second dimension, which is much deeper, which is for designers, creative people, sales people, it’s for everyone. We have Diane. These are incredible assets…
Diane Von Furstenberg: May I interrupt? First, we have a history. For some weird reason, because I built my career so early in my life, the motor engine for me as a designer was always a very young woman at the beginning of their life. That was the essence of what it was originally, that is how the history started. A modern woman who relates even more. I was one-of-a-kind; now there are thousands of them. Then you have the iconic part, and the incredible archive of prints.
Paolo Riva: Then you have words, which are very important. Going back to being authentic and real. When I joined the company, words were spoken often by Diane, but they were not going down the organization or to some of our partners in the right way. They were not really about becoming the woman you want to be. We go back to the idea of being authentic and real.
Now there’s a purpose.
Constance White: There are some striking inspirations in the words, in the story.
Diane Von Furstenberg: You know, I’m bringing in a man who was a banker by training but who is an incredible merchant, who was at Valentino at a crucial time, and at Ferragamo at a crucial time, and Tory Burch at a crucial time, who has come in and said, ‘Wow, look at all this material!’ I mean, I was just doing it. Nothing is invented. People say we need content. We have more content than we can use!
Paolo Riva: The point is, as I’ve been telling the team from Day 1, would you please stop looking out there and trying to do better what someone else is already doing. If you are lucky, you will only have incremental improvement.
Start doing things in an authentic, real way based on that content we are speaking of: Those words, those prints, that lifestyle.
It’s not about come and shop the print of the season. Even someone who is working downstairs now can say, “Come and shop the print of the season.” What does it mean? We have to tell the story. W-hat is our position? What is our point of view? And that position, that point of view has to come from our history and our present and our future because they are all linked to one another.
Product is very important. Any product – it doesn’t matter if it is ready-to-wear or something else – the product makes sense if it can tell a story. That story cannot come from the bag of the season, the print of the season, the must-have. What does must-have mean? It means must-have if it’s a story that you (the customer) understand and you engage with, and you like the product because it offers you an amazing quality with a great price point. But it’s not only that anymore. There are things that are more relevant than others because you are talking to a new generation.
This is how you take things from a valuable, huge asset, which in our case is our history, into the future.
Diane Von Furstenberg: If you ask me, the message that I want to leave behind and the reason why I fight for this brand to continue after me, is because the mission of this brand is to let every woman know that they can be the woman they want to be. We give them the tools. That is the goal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity