Hours after Saunders’ departure was revealed Friday, von Furstenberg told WWD, “This is a changing world and a disruptive world where you really have to be modern. As a family, we decided that we are willing to face that and follow that….First of all, Jonathan was here for 18 months and he was completely and totally free. He had a completely clear palette. And I am very happy that I made that decision because he has had an impact on many things and whatever he did, some of that heritage will last. I really want that. Now it is a matter of using his heritage and the heritage of the brand.”
The exit of Saunders, who it is understood did not wish to renew his contract, is the latest upheaval to hit the DVF brand. In addition to a successor for Saunders, the designer label is searching for a chief executive officer. More than a year has passed since Paolo Riva — who Saunders repeatedly praised when he joined — stepped down, and von Furstenberg’s family became more involved with the company. Earlier this month, WWD exclusively reported that von Furstenberg plans to sell an equity stake in her business with the help of Michel Dyens & Co., a leading investment banking firm headquartered in New York and Paris that specializes in mergers and acquisitions.
Von Furstenberg said she has already been “overwhelmed by private equity people who want to participate and are showing what types of expertise they can offer. With that, you also get ceo’s, experts and leadership that this brand, at this point, deserves. We need to have an investor so that there is a discipline that is created with leadership and strategy, and it has to be a new strategy.”
In speaking with a lot of prospective investors, including many who have approached her, von Furstenberg said she has realized “what is most unique and desirable about the brand is the history of the brand, what I stand for, and how women of all generations relate to the history, and associate it with the brand.”
Saunders understood that completely, according to von Furstenberg, who said, “He was hired to be chief creative officer. Now there needs to be an integration. He feels like his mission is accomplished and I respect that.”
After joining the company in May 2016, Saunders oversaw all product categories, store and web site design, a new corporate branding, marketing and advertising.
The company is expected to name Saunders’ successor in a month. “He is leaving a team. There are people there…I need a few weeks. I want to make sure that I make the right decision,” von Furstenberg said. “In the meantime, Jonathan has offered to help as much as I want him to. So overall, it’s exciting. I thank him. I mean it. He will have had enough of an impact that there will be a Jonathan heritage and voila.”
Saunders had begun to work on the fall collection, but some of that may change, according to the designer. The British designer’s last collection for the label was his pre-fall lineup, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.”
Asked if it was Saunders’ decision to leave, von Furstenberg said, “Absolutely.” As for how his exit will affect her plans to step back from the business, she said with a laugh, “Well, for the next six months — only the next months. But now is very exciting because I’m meeting all these really intelligent people who are interested in investing in the company. Because they feel the heritage is so important, I want to make sure that it’s all nice and neat so then I can step back.”
In recent years, the DVF brand has been challenged, as legacy contemporary brands have faced difficulties in department stores. There have been rumblings that the designer is interested in closing some of the label’s freestanding stores.
Referring to the ongoing ceo search, von Furstenberg said. “All of this is all linked.”
As for how involved her family is in the business, von Furstenberg said, “Of course, very involved because my son [Alexander] and I are the ones who put the money in it. We will have new money and then those people will be involved. I’m not selling the company. I’m looking for new investment. The reason why I’m doing that is not only to bring money but leadership, expertise and discipline.”
The designer said, “It’s all very exciting. I love Jonathan. I really mean it and I am really thankful for what he did. I understand. It’s a wise decision for him. It’s good for everybody.”
She wasn’t about to say what Saunders might have done better. “What he did well was he was free to create his vision. That was great. Therefore, it was uncompromised. Now I can integrate more to the brand. I don’t think he did anything wrong at all. In any case, he did everything he wanted.”