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Q&A: Diane von Furstenberg, Designer and CFDA President

The glamorous grand dame of American fashion designers talks about CFDA's mission and treating the membership like "family."

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Diane von Furstenberg in her art-filled office on West 14th Street. The Mae West Lips Sofa was purchased at auction. The painting is Anh Duong's Self-Portrait (in the bathroom).

Lexie Moreland

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/10/2012

She’s glamorous, global and after six high-profile, news-packed years as president of the CFDA, she’s the undisputed grand dame of American fashion designers. From her seat of presidential power, Diane von Furstenberg negotiates the roles of instigator, ambassador and get-it-done gal with equal rigor and endless, enviable charm. Von Furstenberg acknowledges and takes pride in the accomplishments of her tenure, citing as her greatest asset her ability to bring people together, family-style. It is, she says, “the Jewish mother in me.”

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

WWD: Fifty years. How do you see the mission of the CFDA today?
Diane von Furstenberg:
We know the story of the CFDA, which I find extremely moving. The truth is that it was wonderful street fashion in America, in all these stores, and there were all these Seventh Avenue firms. I remember my mother coming and going to New York, and coming back with trunks.

WWD: Really?
DVF:
To go to Macy’s was so exciting, because you got these little dresses. Sportswear and ready-to-wear were really born in America—and really came from those Seventh Avenue firms. I mean some were copying, but what did they copy? There was only the maisons couture, and [the Seventh Avenue firms] bought some. The point is that this talent was hidden in the back room of those Seventh Avenue firms. And it took someone like Eleanor Lambert to say, “Wait a minute, let’s let them out of the back room and put them in the light.” I personally love that beginning. It’s very touching and it’s very nice. In some ways, I feel that we continue to carry that torch of bringing unknown talent into the light.

WWD: Was that your first priority?
DVF:
My first goal was to say, “We are a family.” This is not a trade union; we are a family. This is not a syndicate like it is in France. We are a family of designers, and we are more powerful together than we are alone. I think that I, that we, have really achieved that.

WWD: Who are the “we”?
DVF:
Steven [Kolb] and I started together. There is no Steven without I or I without Steven. I would not have taken this job without Steven—and Steven would have left without me. He has been amazing. Lisa [Smilor] has been amazing. It has been a beautiful ride. And we have had the incredible help of people. I cannot not mention Anna Wintour. They say, “Oh, the CFDA and Anna.” I know that, what Anna has done with the CFDA/Vogue [Fashion] Fund is unbelievable. She will be forever known for helping launch these people. The training that goes into just the application process is remarkable.

WWD: Is the CFDA too focused on younger designers at the expense of older, more
established ones?
DVF:
I don’t think so. I think if you ask Ralph, or if you ask Donna or Oscar, I think they are very happy about it. Clearly, they don’t need the help of the CFDA. I always say that in a family, the ones who are big help the little, and the little get help until they become big and then they will help the little. You know how important it is to focus on newness and making a New York Fashion Week that is less boring and more exciting. It’s all part of that. We also should not forget about the city and Mayor Bloomberg, who is extremely helpful. Everyone has been so supportive. You know how much I’m covered [in the press] myself—me and the brand—all over the world? Everywhere there is “Diane von Furstenberg” the next line is “CFDA.” Those initials have become a brand. Five years ago, nobody knew those initials.

WWD: Is it important that the CFDA is now a brand?
DVF:
It’s not the brand of the CFDA; what is important is American fashion. CFDA is just a way of calling it—we’re not going to make CFDA clothes.

WWD: But it has become a brand.
DVF:
We live in a world where if you’re not a brand, you don’t exist. The point is that it is the brand of American fashion.

WWD: Very recently CFDA/Vogue Fund winner, Doo-Ri Chung, and nominee, Simon Spurr, lost control of their companies and names. Does that concern the CFDA?
DVF:
That happens—almost everybody at some point loses their name. Whether they over-licensed or they made a bad deal. The truth is, we know by experience, if they wait long enough, they’ll get their name back. In very few cases will they not get it back.

WWD: Your early career experience—the big, splashy cover of Newsweek at 29; then over-exposed, over-produced and out of business—how did it inform the whole young designer initiative?
DVF:
I often think, whenever I’m sitting there in the jury at Vogue, “My God, if I had had to fill those applications, I would have gained five years.” Or, “I would not have made mistakes.” Just to fill those applications forces you to do a therapy that you never do before you start.

WWD: The focus on emerging talent—your biggest accomplishment?
DVF:
I would say that my biggest achievement is to make it a family. I think that’s what I have done the best, because I am informal and warm, and I make a point to make people feel welcome and warm—I think because I’ve been a mother. It’s the Jewish mother in me.

WWD: All families have their sniping. The CFDA has been thought to have its share.
DVF:
I don’t look at the negatives. All I focus on is what I want it to be. When I sold my company and I had no company and I came back in the Nineties, I felt like an outsider. Stan [Herman] asked me to come be on the board. I felt so warm about them welcoming me that I felt I owed them something.

WWD: Stan invited you in?
DVF:
Yes, and [the CFDA] made me feel important when I wasn’t. And you never forget the people who make you feel important.…It was tough to be really successful very young and then to lose it all. You never forget. The point is that I never forgot that feeling of warmth. That’s why I’m there and that’s what I think I have given. That’s what everyone has told me, from Nicolas Ghesquière to Alber Elbaz, all these people they say “Oh, my God. I wish we had you in France.”

WWD: You’ve accomplished what you set out to do.
DVF:
You’re never finished. We did the awards, the Fashion Fund, and I think we need to step up.

WWD: Step up in terms of…?
DVF:
I don’t know. We have a new office and we’ve done this and we’ve done that. I want to sit down with Steven and say, “OK, what are our goals now for the next 10 years when I’m here and when I’m not here,” and then you have to go for the next goals.

WWD: Is it possible to have long-term goals
in fashion?
DVF:
The CFDA doesn’t decide fashion. What we’re deciding is we want designers to represent, or [that] we want designers to have a place. We want designers to make money; we want designers to get awarded. That we can do.

WWD: What are the goals?
DVF:
We don’t have them. I just know we are ready for the next step. I still have this dream of having our place. When I became president, I went to see the mayor, and the mayor said, “what do you want?” and I said, “Give me a pier.” And [he] said, “Well, we don’t have a pier, but we may have something else we can give you.” And it is happening.

WWD: A move from Lincoln Center?
DVF:
I can’t announce it. But we are working on something that will be announced fairly soon.

WWD: Another permanent or semi-permanent home, à la Bryant Park?
DVF:
I want a fashion center. And hopefully that will be my legacy.

WWD: You mentioned Nicolas and Alber saying, “I wish we had this in Europe.” Could this model work internationally?
DVF:
In Europe it’s so different. It’s the syndicate and—there it’s so old. It’s not 50 years; it’s 200 years.

WWD: But could this model be followed to make an international committee, the Council of Fashion Designers of the World?
DVF:
That’s an interesting question; I’m not sure. Certainly, it’s not going to be me.

WWD: In an increasingly global industry and world, does it make sense to continue to promote fashion nationally, as American fashion, as French fashion?
DVF:
It’s shown in America, it’s shown in New York and it’s American fashion, and that’s it….We have Chinese exchanges, and we are the only ones who honor an international designer at the CFDA, even though some members don’t like to do that. We embrace them and we make them loved. We embrace them before anyone else.

WWD: People don’t like the International Award?
DVF:
A lot of people say that, and I say, “Who cares?” I mean, generosity is not about that.

WWD: Have your roles as designer and as president of the CFDA ever clashed?
DVF:
No. A lot of offers have come to me personally, and I have transferred them to the CFDA.

WWD: In those cases, have you had a particular designer in mind?
DVF:
I do not do it like that. I say, “I cannot do it,” but what I can do is put my other coat on, and being the mother of designers, I know there are a lot of designers who would like to do it.

WWD: Let’s talk about all of the initiatives—the Health Initiative, the green initiative Clean by Design, Fashion’s Night Out—does all of it ever get to be too much?
DVF:
There is a lot of editing going on. We say no to most things. The Health Initiative, I thought that was a responsibility that we had to take. If we’re going to be accused that we make the girls too skinny, there must be some rightness to it. I’m surprised how much difference we can make by just raising [an issue]. The copying and all of that, [going] to Washington to lobby and meet these senators, I mean, God forbid—trying to pass a law is absurd. We haven’t passed the law yet, but we certainly have created an awareness and the shame in people who took pride in copying. Those same mass merchants who used to just blatantly copy anything and were proud of it, now they hire designers, whether they use the name or they don’t use the name. And all of a sudden, what does it do? It raises the value of design. Because if you copy and copy and copy, then the design has zero value. But if you glorify the design, or at least if you respect the value of design, the design will become better. We have done a lot to make mass merchants hire designers. And that is one of the most valuable things we’ve done.

WWD: The high-low concept has exploded. Are you at all concerned about ramifications for the higher end of fashion? Laudomia Pucci has told me she would never do a fast-fashion version of Pucci.
DVF:
I’m not doing H&M, either. That’s my choice. The designers can do it for a few reasons: They can do it for money, if they need money; they can do it for exposure. But it’s risky. OK, you’re doing H&M—it’s great. But be careful, because how are you going to have your own business? You make a million dollars; you get paid for a million dollars. There are no shortcuts. But the idea that mass merchants can have [real] design—that’s good. The idea that you can have designed goods cheap is good for the consumer. For the designers, they have to be careful. But in some cases, it’s a vehicle for something, whatever it is.

WWD: You’ve taken the mentoring role very seriously. Who were your mentors in fashion?
DVF:
My mentor was Diana Vreeland. The person who inspired me the most was Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. When I came to America, it was Giorgio and Stephen Burrows and Halston, and it was so fun compared to how stiff it was still in Europe—other than Yves Saint Laurent.

WWD: Who inspires you today?
DVF:
What inspires me today is the young girls. Yesterday I sat with 20 young bloggers, and they were so inspiring. They were all 20, 25, and I just felt so much like them. I said to them, “Do you see me as an old lady? Because I feel like I’m part of you.”

WWD: What was the event?
DVF:
[My office] did a whole rendezvous with bloggers because my collection is called Rendezvous. What was the question? Who inspires me today? I don’t think that I get my inspiration from designers today.

WWD: But you pay attention.
DVF:
I think that Rodarte is incredibly talented. I think they are the most talented that has happened in a long time in America….I will say that I found Galliano inspiring. McQueen. I find Raf Simons very talented…and Marc Jacobs. I, we, are all so proud to have him at the CFDA, as a member [and] board member, but most importantly, as an example of American fashion as well as the designer for [one of] the biggest brands in the world, Louis Vuitton.

WWD: What do you love most about American fashion?
DVF:
What I like most about American fashion is what I like most about America.

WWD: That’s a good line.
DVF:
It’s the celebration of freedom, the celebration of the practical, and [good] design. And a sense of fun.


MEET THE PAST PRESIDENTS

Sidney Wragge (1963-1965)
Norman Norell (1965-1973)
Oscar de la Renta (1973-1976, 1987-1989)
Herbert Kasper (1977-1979)
Bill Blass (1980-1981)
Mary McFadden (1982-1983)
Perry Ellis (1984-1986)
Carolyne Roehm (1989-1991)
Stan Herman (1991-2006)
Diane von Furstenberg (2006-Present)

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