By Lisa Lockwood
with contributions from Vicki M. Young
 on January 3, 2018
Diane von Furstenberg Pre-Fall 2018

Diane von Furstenberg has entered a new year that could bring lots of changes to her contemporary sportswear business.

Last month, DVF revealed she was interested in selling all or part of her company and a week later that her chief creative officer Jonathan Saunders had resigned. All this is on top of the fact that her business has been without a chief executive officer for more than a year.

Von Furstenberg said of looking for a potential investor that “2018 will be the year in which we will be able to attract the best expertise and leadership to protect the legacy of the brand and make sure DVF is relevant in this disruptive moment of the industry.”

The designer revealed she would hire Michel Dyens & Co., a leading independent investment banking firm, headquartered in New York and Paris, which focuses on mergers and acquisitions, to sell a stake in the business. Dyens has extensive experience leading transactions in luxury goods, beauty, spirits and other premium brand consumer goods. In fact, Dyens worked with DVF some 35 years ago when she sold her cosmetics company to British pharmaceutical giant Beecham Group Ltd. in 1983.

“My goal in the next phase of my life is to focus on my commitment to women’s causes,” von Furstenberg, 70, said last month. She acknowledged that over the years, the brand has been cleaned up and shrunk a bit in volume.

She also revealed that she planned to bring back Paula Sutter, president of DVF Studio LLC from 1999 to 2013 and a highly regarded executive, as a member of the board of directors after the first of the year.

Meanwhile, the search continues for a successor to Saunders, who it is understood didn’t want to renew his contract. He had served in the role since May 2016 and was responsible for all product categories, store design, web site design, a new corporate brand identity and marketing, including advertising campaigns. The company is also in need of a ceo following Paolo Riva’s departure in November 2016. He was brought in as “an heir, somebody to take it on for the next decades,” von Furstenberg said at the time, and lasted 18 months. Since that time, DVF’s family has become more involved in the company.

Karen Harvey, ceo of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, doesn’t think there would be a problem finding an investor when the company doesn’t have a ceo or chief creative officer. “Uniquely, she [DVF] could find that [investment] partner with or without that ceo or the creative director. She would clearly be bringing those people in within a short period of time,” Harvey said.

In an interview last month, DVF said she has 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,” von Furstenberg said. “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.”

She said in December that the company would be naming Saunders’ successor “in a month,” and that there’s a team in place. “I want to make sure that I make the right decision,” she said. Saunders’ last collection for DVF was his pre-fall lineup, inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.”

As for how involved her family is in the business, she said, “[They’re] 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.”

Allan Ellinger, cofounder and senior managing partner of Marketing Management Group, said, “I can see her doing a joint venture with a company or a strategic relationship. Given who she is, and who her husband is [Barry Diller] and the relative importance of the family name, I don’t see why she would even sell a piece of it.” He added that there’s a heritage to the brand name.

Ellinger said there isn’t a fashion business that doesn’t hit a brick wall at some point.

Gary Wassner, ceo of Hilldun Corp., said, “It’s a heritage brand and it has great respect globally. I think it [selling a stake] is a good idea because Diane has other things she wants to focus on. I think it’s probably frustrating for her not finding the right creative director. That’s been a challenge. I think the brand has great global reach, great global recognition. It’s probably the right time.”

Further, he noted, “I think the potential for the brand is really significant. The fact that it’s struggling now should not be an impediment because the brand has such strong value.”

Asked who could be a potential buyer, Wassner said, “The Chinese are so active today. They’re buying and buying and buying. It resonates globally and has a global retail footprint. They’ll probably find quite a bit of interest from Chinese private equity.”

One financial source, who requested anonymity, said, “While DVF is saying she is selling a stake, the belief is that she would prefer to sell the entire company.” The source didn’t know who would buy it, but said DVF has been thinking about it for several months. This individual acknowledged that the business hasn’t been doing well.

“DVF has been putting money into the company since Joel Horowitz [former vice chairman] left and apparently doesn’t want to do it anymore,” the source said.

The source said volume has declined since Horowitz left the company, but this person also believes that a number of missteps were made during his tenure, such as letting Sutter go and opening stores when the business was heading downward. This person, as well as other market sources, also said a problem for anyone looking to buy it is that von Furstenberg can be very demanding.

Meantime, another source said, “She has no need for the money and would be embarrassed to sell it for too little. It’s a tough sale. It’s her child.”

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