In a sitdown with WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley that covered many of the thornier issues facing the fashion industry, as well as the country at large, Diane von Furstenberg was as unscripted as ever, detailing her own career’s trajectory and the current state of affairs.
To set the stage for the discussion, Foley shared a quintessential von Furstenberg moment that had happened with a photographer moments before. “Diane pulls out her sunglasses and does her Diane body language, which I can’t do.” Foley said, “I said, ‘Diane, he wants candid,’ and Diane said, ‘Fake candid.’”
Bridget Foley: So let’s start there. By the way, she is among the most genuine people you will ever meet. Is that not a perfect toward explanation of fashion or what fashion can be?
Diane von Furstenberg: Actually, I don’t believe in anything fake. It was a joke. I practice the truth and the truth is what I practice. Sometime it’s provocative and sometimes it’s whatever. But that’s the only thing I know.
B.F.: What about fashion’s ability to create or our ability to create fashion for a level of self-creation?
D.V.F.: I got into fashion a little by accident as a young girl who came to America with a bunch of little dresses, and lived this incredible American dream. For me, it was always the woman first, and I was a woman. I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the woman I wanted to be, which is an independent woman. I became that woman with a little dress. That little dress made me confident. I would go around schlepping in all the stores, meeting women, tying the dresses in the fitting rooms. As I was becoming more confident, I was selling confidence. It was a very personal thing; it was a very successful thing. In a way, I was doing social media before there was social media. All of that direct contact with the consumer was always normal to me.
B.F.: So you never really separated the product from the concept of what it delivers, in terms of the confidence and the way they should feel?
D.V.F.: For me, it’s always about making a woman feel confident. When I work with a designer, the filter always is, “Who gets laid in that?” The most important thing is for a woman to feel confident.
B.F.: Talk about a topic open for development. Did you design a dress for women to get laid in?
D.V.F.: No, actually it was a very proper dress. As a guy once told me, “The guys liked it and their mothers did not mind.” Which means it was proper and sexy at the same time.
B.F.: At what point did you realize, it was a fashion bonanza and a business bonanza?
D.V.F.: Only years later. Of course, it was great, it was wonderful, I was young. I was making overnight 25,000 dresses a week — it was just crazy. Then you went up, then you went down, and then Women’s Wear declared it was the end of a trend and vroom. Then it came back again. It has had an amazing life, but it’s only very recently that I realized what a phenomena it is.
B.F.: Let’s talk about 40 years later. You’ve brought in Jonathan Saunders as creative director, you have a new ceo. Are you stepping back?
D.V.F.: I had three eras – American Dream, Comeback Kid and now 40 years later, how do I use this and make sure it continues after me? That is what I’m doing now. It’s about really redefining the brand’s equity, being fresh because this is fashion and you need to be fresh. Jonathan is the perfect heir for this company because he’s about prints and colors….You want freshness, newness and all that, but you also want to respect the brand’s equity. I never thought I was the brand and then you become the brand. Then all of a sudden, these marketing people say, “Oh, you’re a love brand,” and then they say, “Oh, you are a brand with a purpose.” Then we say, “Oh yeah, we are a brand with a purpose, but what does that mean?”
Until now, this brand was so much about me and my life, and all of that, which has positives and negatives. The positive is that it has a uniqueness and an authenticity. People are always saying, “We need authenticity.” Well, I had too much authenticity. It’s a matter of combining it all and making sense so that it will last. Over the generations, I’ve touched a lot of generations. I started at 25. My mother was only in her late 40s, so I touched her and even above her, and then my daughter and now my granddaughter. That is a lot of generations already. There’s a familiarity. There’s a lot of warm, beautiful, loving things that need to be respected. But by the same token, you cannot just indulge in them and just be boring, doing the same thing over and over and over again. My clothes don’t go out of style and they don’t fall apart. So a lot of people have better clothes in their closet than you offer in the store. You have to balance a lot of things. So much is going on for everybody, for every industry, for every brand — everyone is kind of surfing the tsunami. And it’s going so fast. It’s like, “Wow.” In 2030, 60 percent of the jobs that people have right now won’t exist. You hear things like that that are just crazy.
B.F.: Talk about the tsunami. You’ve used that word before in regard to the industry with everything that is going on. The change has been incredible, the growth has been incredible, the interest in fashion, not only the consumerism in entertainment, but also the flood of people wanting to be a part of it, the flood of young designers out there, which the CFDA has certainly championed. Is it set for a correction? Has it gotten too big?
D.V.F.: There’s definitely product pollution — too many things, too many in the same pile, too much is being offered so in the end, people don’t want anything.
B.F.: Do you see how coming from the chairman of the CFDA, part of your platform is to support, grow and raise the profile of fashion, so that is a frightening thing to hear?
D.V.F.: Well, it’s reality, so you have to hear it and then you address it. When I think about young talented designers, there’s a lot of opportunity, precisely because of the Internet. When I meet with them, I say, “Don’t worry. Don’t look at the way things were done. Just focus very much on who you are, what are you bringing, what is your point of view, how different is your product. Focus on the intention. Spend time on the intention, on what you want and then stay true to yourself.” I can’t say that enough. Stay true to who you are whether you are small or big or whatever. Just go back to your brand equity — what you meant. Go back to the emotion. Go back to the authenticity. Then obviously the growth strategy, the distribution and what is different. The pricing is a huge, huge topic. But the good thing is we are all in the same boat so you shouldn’t worry about changing everything, hiring people and firing people or any of that. Right now is the time you can do provocative things.
B.F.: How does someone starting out try to find what his or her expression is?
D.V.F.: In the end, it’s the product. I mean, I was nobody when I started. I was nobody, I was like a little European princess. But I had little dresses that didn’t look like anything. I went around and people didn’t really understand it. The one woman who understood it was Diana Vreeland. She said, “This is genius.” I was like, “Really?” But then you started to put it out and women started putting it on. In the end, it’s the product. It’s always the product.
B.F.: It seems to me in the frenzy of the shows, there is so much that’s great. There’s so much that’s not. But the product, the fashion of fashion, gets increasingly less focused and the conversation seems to swirl about everything else. Is it buy-now, what does it look like, what are the deliveries, where is it made, how frenetic was the show? In all of the craziness surrounding fashion, do you think that the fashion of fashion is getting lost?
D.V.F.: That’s why everybody has to pull back a little in everything. I think it’s time for pruning. It’s pruning season for everybody.
B.F.: You talked about one of the great advantages of self-ownership is being able to do that without having to answer to anyone?
D.V.F.: That’s great. That doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. My company is interesting because it has very strong brand equity, with a very strong name, with global distribution and yet it’s still small. So we are able to maneuver and think about, “How can we get closer to the consumer?” because in the end, it’s that. The closer you can get to where it’s made, the better price you will have and the better message you will have in a sense. I’m fortifying my board. Listen, I have a lot of other things I want to do in my life. I want to solve this and to know the business and the brand are in a good place so that it will continue, and to continue to send the message — confidence for women, be the woman you want to be — all of that. I just went to Paris last week because my book was translated into French, which is ridiculous because my language is French. I had to rewrite it. I was very afraid. You’re always afraid to go to your own country — you can bulls–t outside. But when you go back to your own language and everything else.…I was really intimidated. I did all the TV and radio shows with these really intellectual straight guys. I was worried how they would talk to me. It was funny because they all talked to me about the erotic souvenirs they had with their wives or girlfriends wearing my dresses.
B.F.: Let’s go back to the idea of pruning. Do you sense the need for an industrywide pruning?
D.V.F.: Yes, I think everyone needs to prune. Absolutely. Every tree needs to be pruned and it doesn’t really look pretty when you cut the branches. But it will be much stronger.
B.F.: How about the Kardashian-ization of fashion? Does it have a limit?
D.V.F.: Listen, now she stopped posting because of what happened. All of these things that are happening are symbols of our period. The idea that we have Donald Trump as a candidate for being the leading person in the world just reflects the power of reality television and mediocrity. The lesson to take is those things are here to stay. Let’s try to promote good and let’s just try to elevate. There are a lot of good values, I hate how it sounds, there are a lot of good things coming out of people. But everything needs to be fixed — the prison system, the voting system, the medical industry…it’s just all a mess.
B.F.: You’ve been a big Hillary supporter for a long time. Do you think about the effects of a Hillary presidency on the industry, or do you think the issue is so much bigger than to think about the pocket?
D.V.F.: I think Hillary is getting such a bad rap. I know her, I’ve worked with her. I’m on the board of an organization for women that she started when she was first lady. She is the most impressive and the most equipped candidate this country has ever had. Hopefully, she will win and that will be a very energetic thing. People say, “We don’t like her. We don’t like her.” One year after she is in, people will love her because she is a very bad candidate but she is a fantastic executive.
B.F.: Let’s talk about the Kanye-ization of fashion. Is there a limit to antics in fashion? People seem to have had enough of it after Roosevelt Island?
D.V.F.: Yeah, but there’s something fun about it. That’s the good thing about America and democracy. Even Donald Trump, as long as he doesn’t make it, it’s OK that it happened. That’s what this country is about — everything is possible. That’s why I came here. That’s why people love this country. It’s actually very welcoming so things like the Kanye-ization, it’s OK. It’s a moment. It’s a thing. He ended up falling on his face so it’s fine. But the attitude of Kanye West — he’s cool so there’s something there.
B.F.: Do you think there is a risk in spectacle trumping fashion?
D.V.F.: I think there’s going to be two ways. On one side, everything is going to become more intimate and people will focus more on the craft. Design is a value. There’s no question about that. Actually, I think the pruning is going to happen.
B.F.: Has fashion become too corporate? It’s far more corporate than it was 10 years ago, never mind 20 years ago.
D.V.F.: Yeah, because it became a big business. I believe in the soul, the soul of the brand, what it stands for. I believe in truth and in truth messaging, and the man with the hood [referring to USA Network’s “Mr. Robot”] it’s so great. It’s the same thing. That will always happen.
B.F.: That’s sort of the emotional and broad sense. In a more clinical sense, you’ve spoken about the need to respect the calendar. We saw the phenomena of buy-now-wear-now really take hold in New York. Is that the inevitable direction?
D.V.F.: No, people need to digest. They don’t just go and buy. What happened was shows were always for trade. The trade would come and they would write, and everything was fine. Then, came the celebrities and what did they wear? They wear something that you can’t have for six months. Then social media and all of a sudden people were inundated with images. It’s not that they wanted it now. It was just very confusing. So people need to say, “OK, how much do we do?” I think people should have in the stores what they need then. Everyone was pushing, pushing, pushing — the pricing, the sales, the discounts — such a mess and everyone wants to get out of it. But then they need to make their numbers and they don’t get out of it. So everybody has to pay the price.
B.F.: You have lived your life as a free spirit, hardworking free spirit, but focused. When we spoke in August, you talked about one of the most driving forces in your life is being disciplined. Can you talk about that?
D.V.F.: I’m disciplined and then I’m not disciplined. I’m just going to tell everyone what my tai-chi teacher told me. I was making a speech and I was very nervous because Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court was also there. I was doing my tai chi and he said, “Focus on the intention,” because tai chi involves movement that is complicated. I said, “Yes, that’s it. That’s the word I’m looking for – intention.” Then he said something wonderful. He said, “If you only practice your power you fail. If you only practice your energy, you stagnate. But if you spend a lot of time on the intention, and really focus on the intention, you will get the energy and the power.”