NEW YORK — Diane Von Furstenberg is a woman on a mission.
She wants the world to know that television home shopping is here to stay, and revels in revealing the kind of QVC sales figures that make other designers envious.
In 1984, Von Furstenberg sold her name to licensees and moved to Paris after having created a sensation with a wrap dress that was so successful, it was featured on the cover of Newsweek. She returned to the U.S. in 1989 and remembers people saying, “She’s a has-been, she made a few dresses.”
But things change.
“Now,” she says, “I have the momentum of success.”
Not only did she manage to buy back her name, Von Furstenberg managed to angle her way into the red-hot center of electronic retailing.
The latter is partly due to her close friendship with QVC chairman Barry Diller — who bought the company at her behest — and partly due to her unbridled support for the medium.
“A lot of people can edit other people’s ideas or stimulate other people’s ideas,” said Diller. “She’s instinctively creative, with ideas, concepts and themes. She has the ability to produce genuinely good ideas.”
In addition to designing and selling a line of clothing on QVC, Von Furstenberg is playing a major role in the development of Q2, QVC’s weekend lifestyle channel.
As creative planning director of Q2, a job she began on March 3 after collaborating with Diller on the concept for nearly two years, Von Furstenberg is more sought-after than she was as a Seventies party girl.
It’s a feeling she relishes after getting the cold shoulder when she tried to reenter the fashion business.
“Q2 is really a team,” Von Furstenberg said. “I don’t have a day-to-day function, but I spend a lot of time working on it. I don’t want to run the company, but I know a lot of people.
Von Furstenberg — who describes her new position as “an ambassador, talking to people and conceiving ideas” — has been working the designer circuit like a seasoned politician, trying to broker deals with everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Madonna.
Lagerfeld hasn’t signed anything yet, but has said he will work with Q2.
“One shouldn’t be afraid of being a pathbreaker,” said Ralph Toledano, president of Karl Lagerfeld, addressing what some sources cite as a concern that selling on Q2 could upset the company’s major department store accounts. “If this is properly done in terms of marketing, it could be a very successful business. It doesn’t have to hurt our current affairs.”
Von Furstenberg said she has also met with Gianni Versace, Claude Montana and other European designers for preliminary talks.
The format of how Q2 will cover the European collections is still in development, but Von Furstenberg said she’s thinking of offering individual pieces from different designers rather than full collections.
She had lunch with Ralph Lauren, but glosses over the question of whether Lauren wants to sell on Q2, saying, “Ralph is intelligent enough to be interested in anything.”
Lauren could not be reached for comment.
Von Furstenberg says Madonna called with an idea to sell accessories and apparel and met with her twice.
“I think there’s a way we can work together,” she said. “We’re developing samples.”
On May 2, Von Furstenberg met with Louis Sagar, the owner of Zona, the environmentally oriented store in SoHo with products ranging from candles to furniture.
“I think we are going to do things together,” Von Furstenberg said. “They will probably do shows that are celebrations of the holidays.”
“We’re definitely working on a series of themes,” said Sagar. “The emphasis will be on handcrafted and artisan products because the perception of TV shopping has been through commodity products.”
He said wares such as hammered bronze bowls from Thailand, baskets, ceramics and candles could be sold, among other things.
Von Furstenberg has also spoken to Emily Woods, senior vice chairman of J. Crew.
“I’m talking to Diane,” said Woods. “We’re watching it and staying abreast of the developments but have not decided how J. Crew will partake in it yet. But Diane makes it intriguing, as only she could. She certainly has a lot of very interesting people involved in [Q2]. She’s a woman with vision and she’s aggressive.”
Von Furstenberg will produce a program called “On the Go,” with luggage and organizers designed to simplify packing. She is also working on a home concept, involving bedding, a subject she explored in “Beds,” a coffee-table book published in 1991.
“I can’t believe that all of a sudden I’m in the middle of this whole big retail revolution,” Von Furstenberg said. “I had a psychic who used to tell me, ‘Television, television, video,’ and I said, ‘What a bore.”‘
Von Furstenberg discovered home shopping when she visited QVC in February 1992 and saw Susan Lucci selling hair products. She had a vision.
In November 1992, Von Furstenberg was on the air selling Silk Assets. The line has done $15 million to date by offering bright prints and solids, with the premise that the palettes will work together season after season..
Asked whether she feels constrained designing for the masses, Von Furstenberg said, “Yes, of course I feel constrained, but I have news for you: No matter who you sell to, you feel constrained. For me, the most important thing is the quality of the fabric and the style. It’s bringing a little bit of sophistication to the masses.
“It goes back to my original idea when I made little dresses,” she said, referring to the ubiquitous wrap dress she designed in the Seventies. “I want to offer great quality at a great price. I’m glad I ended up 20 years later with the same point of view.”
In the fall, Von Furstenberg will introduce Casual Chic, a collection of relaxed knitwear on QVC. She is working on a Christmas gift show with his-and-hers silk pajamas, wallets and handbags. And she plans to meet with representatives of QVC-The Shopping Channel, QVC’s home shopping joint-venture in the U.K., to discuss what she can hawk over there.
Not all of Von Furstenberg’s ideas are instant hits. Surroundings, a line of home fragrance has been a hard sell, although she recently sold $700,000 worth of it when it was featured as “Today’s Special Value” on QVC.
“The prices on Surroundings were too high,” she said. “Price is very important on television. We will improve the offer.”
Von Furstenberg’s stake in QVC Inc. has something to do with her level of commitment. While she refused to say how much stock she has in the company, she said, “I have a little piece of what Barry has because I am his consultant. I have some financial interest, so that makes me very involved.”
Diller’s 16 percent stake in the company is worth some $280 million at current stock prices. The company is traded over-the-counter.
“To Barry, I am his adviser on everything,” she said. “I always have been. We go back 18 years. We talk quite a few times a day. I got him into this business. Sometimes I don’t want the responsibility. Sometimes I want the credit.”