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President Von Furstenberg Sets Agenda

Diane von Furstenberg's first adjustment at the Council of Fashion Designers of America might come as a surprise to members.

NEW YORK — Diane von Furstenberg’s first adjustment at the Council of Fashion Designers of America might come as a surprise to members — she wants everyone to wear name tags at meetings.

The idea could have sparked a controversy in the designer community, which has made “ego” one of its by-products, but at a meeting last week, the CFDA president swayed board members with her signature charm.

“I announced it at the board meeting and I said, ‘Don’t be offended if I ask you to wear one.’ And I said, ‘I have gone to conferences with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates putting little names on, so I think we can, too,” von Furstenberg, who assumed the presidency last October, said on Thursday.

It’s a good kickoff for the expansive agenda she has sculpted for her initial two-year tenure at the helm of the CFDA. Not only does von Furstenberg aim to strengthen communication within the American fashion community, she also has the powerful connections in fashion, entertainment, politics and other business segments that can make things happen. And she has major goals and plans. Her main aim is to elevate the status of American fashion, both locally and globally.

Von Furstenberg unveiled her agenda at a closed-door meeting of members at the W Hotel on Union Square Thursday evening, but gave WWD an exclusive preview Thursday afternoon. “My job as the president of the CFDA is to represent the designers,” she said. “My first and main goal is really to increase the exposure of American fashion.”

The agenda includes:

  • Creating a Business Service Network that could help the designer community by sharing information and expertise.

  • Guiding designers on how to build their export businesses and profiles abroad.

  • Working closely with New York City and Mayor Michael Bloomberg on issues such as the venue for fashion week, with the ultimate goal to develop a permanent Fashion Center that could serve a multitude of purposes, including fashion shows, events and conferences.

  • Reassessing the show system with her counterparts in Paris, Milan and London.

  • Protecting designer’s original designs by lobbying for antipiracy laws on Capitol Hill.
“I want to work on all the benefits,” said von Furstenberg. “When you’re part of the CFDA, what does it mean? It means you’re part of a community, a constituency, and I think it’s the role of the CFDA to give its members benefits. Sometimes it is financial benefits, because we come as a group and can therefore have discounts, but it’s also guidance, such as on trademarks. I am very lucky. I have had my second career, which is only eight years old, but very, very successful, so the way I take this job is that it’s about giving. I think with the most successful members of the CFDA, it will be about giving, and with the people who are less successful, it’s more about taking. And so we are a community.”

To help her achieve these goals, von Furstenberg has appointed a cabinet, which consists of Reed Krakoff, Coach’s president and executive creative director, as vice president, essentially making him von Furstenberg’s number two and giving him a key role on behalf of the American fashion community; Richard Lambertson, treasurer, and Yeohlee Teng, general secretary. Von Furstenberg also named two committee chairmen: Stan Herman, her CFDA predecessor, has become chairman of the admissions committee, and Joseph Abboud will serve as chairman of the educational committee. “I have never been president before, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a cabinet,” she said.

And politics are clearly close to von Furstenberg’s heart.

“I went to see Mayor Bloomberg the minute I was elected,” she recalled. “We had a great meeting. It was short and effective. You go to the mayor’s and there is no private office. He took over the ballroom, and he sits in the middle of it, like a newsroom. He is very committed to the fashion business, which is the number-two industry [after finance]. We are going to work together. I am very lucky. This is an administration of do-ers. I hope that within my term, we can make things happen.”

She remained tightlipped on the issue of a possible show venue once fashion week leaves Bryant Park, referring the matter to IMG Fashion, which organizes Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. But she said the mayor is extremely supportive of the industry and fully understands that a central location needs to be found.

“I would like there to be a real Fashion Center in New York, where people can put on their shows,” she said. “This is my dream, and they heard my dream and there is a large possibility that it could be part of theirs too.”

Von Furstenberg also hopes to develop a Business Service Network. “In America, there are really no search firms for designers, like there are for executives and sales people,” she said. “We have the database, the information, the members. I want to…create this so that companies will come and interview each of the designers. Maybe a designer who designs jewelry had a major in knitwear, which he is not using, so he could do a private label for Federated. I want to make use of this information.”

Given her extensive Rolodex and recognition beyond Seventh Avenue, von Furstenberg has already been able to make her mark in Washington, where she has helped kick off an initiative to fight to protect original designs and antipiracy rules. On her first visit last October, she managed to have face time with the likes of Congressional members Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Nancy Pelosi, Olympia Snow, Maxine Waters and Diane Feinstein. “It is very important that design is recognized and copyright is recognized,” she said.

This weekend, von Furstenberg will be traveling to Paris in time for the couture shows, where she has arranged a meeting Wednesday with her counterparts in Milan, Paris and London: Mario Boselli, president of the Camera della Moda; Didier Grumbach, president of France’s Chambre Syndicale, and Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, respectively. The main goal of the meeting is to discuss show schedules, and, upon the urging of Boselli, the skinny model issue.

“This is our first summit meeting,” she said. “I am calling it to discuss dates. Every year, they seem to be a little earlier so you get to a point right after Labor Day, which is difficult for everybody.

“The fashion industry has changed so much in the last five to 10 years,” she continued. “Can we change it in a season? No, I understand Premiere Vision is linked to it, and it’s all a huge machine. Fashion shows used to be for the trade, now they are for the consumer, too.”

Von Furstenberg is confident her collaboration with Grumbach and Boselli will be smooth — after all, she has known them both for 30 years.

“It helps that I speak the languages,” she said. “I can scream at Boselli in Italian and beg to Didier in French.”

A subject she is passionate about in the short term is the September show dates, which currently clash with Rosh Hashanah. At this point, it looks like the entire week will shift to Wednesday, Sept. 5, through Wednesday, Sept. 12, the eve of the Jewish holiday.

“I absolutely don’t want America to go at the end in October. There’s no way we can do that,” she said. She added that one of her goals is to encourage exports, and many designers take their collections to Paris or Milan after they’ve shown in New York, and work with buyers who are overseas for those shows.

To fulfill her agenda, von Furstenberg has set a weekly Monday meeting at CFDA’s headquarters from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“I’m very organized,” she said. “If I wasn’t organized, I couldn’t get through a tenth of what I do, so I said immediately, ‘Let’s do, let’s plan.'”

At a cocktail party after the meeting Thursday night, designers gave von Furstenberg’s agenda two thumbs-up.

“It was brilliant, I loved it,” said Donna Karan. “How can a woman not love another woman? She has the compassion and the desire to make a difference in the world, and she’s got the wherewithal to make it all happen.”

Dana Buchman said: “She is using all her energy and vision and has really come up with substantive ideas. She has got great theatrical style but you can tell she is a do-er. It was strong and visionary.”

Lana Marks added, “She wants to take American fashion and promote it in the most amazing way globally. It’s phenomenal what she says she wants to do.”