NEW YORK — “The future has started today,” Diane von Furstenberg said on the news that she had tapped Jonathan Saunders as chief creative officer of her company.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen so fast, but we completely, totally fell in love,” said von Furstenberg, 69, who plans to hand over the company’s design reins to Saunders, 38. “And I didn’t want to lose him, and the whole thing happened over the weekend.”
According to sources, Saunders was also meeting with principals from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton over the past few weeks to talk about creative roles there.
The Glasgow-born Saunders, who closed his 12-year-old business in December, is one of London’s bright talents known for his use of color and prints. He began work at DVF on Monday and will relocate shortly to New York. In this newly created post, he reports to Paolo Riva, chief executive officer of von Furstenberg, which does about $500 million in sales at retail.
Asked why he reports to Riva and not herself, von Furstenberg said, “I’ve given them the platform. They are going to be running the company. I am stepping back a little bit. They’ll still have my juice if they want to, but I think it’s time for me to have a young [designer], and not to try to pretend I’m not young anymore.
“And I’d love to see it happen in front of me. I don’t want anyone to report to me, except Paolo. I really want to give them the place in the sun. They’ll put together an incredible team, and I can’t wait to watch them shine on their own. There are a lot of archives, and a lot of history. There’s a lot of everything, let them sort it out,” she added.
This isn’t the first time DVF has had someone in a top creative role, but the title is a bigger one. Saunders takes over some duties previously handled by artistic director Michael Herz, who joined DVF in 2014 and spent two years at the firm. Before that, the creative director’s role was held by Yvan Mispelaere for two years; he had replaced Nathan Jenden.
Saunders’ first collection will be for spring 2017.
Von Furstenberg said she has been admiring Saunders for many years. “I was impressed with him from the very first collection in 2003. It caught my eye. I’ve been watching him since and went to a couple of his shows. His sense of colors and prints is just amazing. His eye is so amazing. I was always a big fan of his,” she said. When she saw that Saunders closed his business last December, she felt that was the time to approach him, and they met in London three weeks ago. “By the time we met, it was as if we always knew each other. He came and did a little consulting, and we fell in love. Less than three weeks later, we’re married,” said von Furstenberg.
Saunders was equally enthusiastic. “She has always been a supporter of the aesthetic of my brand that resonated with her in terms of my love of prints,” he said. Once they started the conversation, it went very fast. “It’s a decision we all made very quickly because it’s so natural,” said Saunders.
It’s the first time DVF has hired a single designer across all categories, in terms of complete brand image. “For me, it’s about understanding the ethos for which Diane started this brand. The approach that she had is thinking about what women want to wear and balancing functionality with desirability. It can never be a better moment for that ideology and that thought process in terms of designing,” said Saunders. “I love simplicity, and I love clothes that have a sense of ease. I think that print and color and optimism are all key values that are so important to the brand that I want to keep at the forefront,” he said.
Another selling point was that von Furstenberg and Riva are thinking about the future of the business and are not adverse to making changes.
“What’s also really exciting that made the decision quite easy, both Diane and Paolo [Riva] are really, really intelligent thinkers. They think about things and they analyze things and they’re not afraid to think about change. All of us are questioning how we can push forward the fashion cycle and how we can give the consumer something that they want and the way that they want it. We’re still going to have lots of conversations like that. That’s what’s so exciting to me. Although the brand has such an incredible history, the company is not afraid of change and doing things in an unusual and interesting way,” said Saunders.
With all the conversations about showing in-season and changing the fashion calendar, Saunders said he welcomes this discussion. “What’s interesting and exciting about the industry now is we’re all talking about how we can push into the future, and how we can cross consumer-led decisions with creative decisions and we can keep the conversation moving so we can come up with something new,” he said.
Creatively, both von Furstenberg and Saunders share a mutual admiration for prints.
“I love prints because prints tell a story and symbolize change and newness, and prints symbolize optimism and all things I hold dear,” said Saunders. “The most important thing is color. Color is such a wonderful thing to work with. Those key elements will always be an integral part of the collection.”
On a personal note, Sauders said he’s excited to be living in New York. “I love the energy of the city. It feels exciting right now. I’ve never lived here [permanently] before. I’ve traveled here before a lot. It’s a fascinating market. I love the close connection between retailers and wholesalers and designers. There’s a much more open conversation here which I think is really inspiring,” he said.
Saunders studied at the Glasgow School of Art before moving to London, where he completed a master’s degree in printed textiles at Central Saint Martins. Upon graduating in 2002 he won the Lancôme Color Award and received immediate recognition for his prints. He was commissioned to design a print for Alexander McQueen and the bird-of-paradise print he created for the British brand’s spring 2003 collection became one of the most photographed for the collection. It was later reproduced for spring 2008. Following the successful partnership he had working with McQueen, the designer was tapped by Chloé and Emilio Pucci — which was under the helm of Christian Lacroix at the time — as a print consultant.
Saunders launched his own label in 2003, which went on to become recognized for off-kilter color combinations, graphic prints often created using traditional silk screen printing techniques and patterned knitwear. His feminine aesthetic appealed to a number of women in the spotlight including Michelle Obama, Samantha Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge.
He received a number of accolades since launching his line, including the Scottish Designer of the Year at the Scottish Style Awards in 2005, the Fashion Enterprise Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2006 and a sponsorship for the spring 2007 season as part of the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Forward initiative. He had also been shortlisted for the Global Fashion Award’s Most Influential Designer of the Year alongside the likes of Miuccia Prada, Christopher Bailey and Phoebe Philo.
In 2008, Saunders collaborated with Target to create a capsule collection for the mass-market retailer. Inspired by artists such as Jackson Pollock, the collection featured graphic prints and color-blocking and went on to sell out. At the same time as the launch of his collection with Target, Saunders had temporarily moved to New York, where he presented his collection for the first time in February 2008.
Other collaborators have included Escada, British department store Debenhams, Matches Fashion, as well as Topshop, having joined the NewGen scheme sponsored by the high-street retailer for three seasons between 2014 and 2015.
As his label was becoming more established, Saunders added men’s wear to his offer in 2012. In 2015, the designer secured a private investor for his label, Eiesha Bharti Pasricha — who also owns a stake in Roksanda — in an effort to lay the foundations for the brand’s growth. “There is a special quality to this investment for me as we enjoy a shared ambition for the business and joint vision for the brand,” Saunders told WWD at the time.
In December, Saunders said he was closing his business for personal reasons. At the time, neither Saunders nor Pasricha would comment further, although it was understood the split was an amicable one. Saunders retained his name and the intellectual property belonging to the brand.
Saunders told WWD on Monday that he was ready to move on from his own business. “I’m happy not to have it. There will always be creative projects I can work on as an individual. I’m excited about change and newness and having a definite thing to work on. Change is good,” he said.
Looking to the future, he said, “I’m so excited about where fashion is headed. Fashion is always a reflection of what is going on in people’s minds and it reflects society. That’s so wonderful about fashion. We work in an industry where people want to challenge it and change it. People want things available to them at the moment. People want value and it’s less about pushing people into brackets and price points. What’s fascinating is that people are looking for value and respect what they’re willing and what they have to spend on the product,” he said. He said that e-commerce was a big part of his previous business, and from a strategic point of view, they’re exploring it at DVF.
Does he have plans to take the DVF collection in a new direction? “It’s day one. I need to immerse myself in it. I think what’s important is that we think about the values this brand has established from the beginning, and the reason why this brand started and why it began, and take it from there,” he said.
As for the fact that he reports to Riva and not DVF, Saunders said, “It’s a new chapter for the business. Diane is such an incredible force. She has her philanthropic work that is an inspiration for women. Both Paolo and my main mission is to think about that with everything we do. Not only is Paolo an extremely deep thinker and really understands product, but to have someone as a ceo who understands product like that is such an exciting partnership,” he said.
“Jonathan is an incredibly talented designer who is able to express his creative vision with great clarity,” said Riva. “He will evolve the identity of DVF and passionately embrace our mission of putting women at the center of everything we do.”
Von Furstenberg said that, after 44 years in and out of the business, she looks forward to this next chapter.
“First of all, every 15 years you have to refresh and now it’s not just about rebooting the looks, but the way you do business.” She said a year ago she hired Riva, and with him got not only a ceo, but someone with a creative mind. “What I didn’t know about Jonathan that I discovered in the last week is that on top of his talent, he’s extremely pragmatic and very interested in the customer and reinventing the way you do business.
“I think we’ll relook how we can simplify the business,” she said. “When Paolo came in, he said he wanted to put the woman at the center of everything we do. That is really our goal. We are going to focus on the woman, where she is when, and to give her the right product then. The goal is DVF should be your best friend in your closet.”
Von Furstenberg, who is also chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said that now that Riva and Saunders are going to be running the company more, she will continue her speaking engagements and philanthropy. While she wouldn’t confirm that Saunders has an equity stake in the business, she said, “He has a great deal. And he and Paolo are really my dream team. I don’t think I could have found a better person for me [than Jonathan]. He’s cool and he’s young, and this weekend he was up in the country and we looked at archives. I love his eye.”