Jonathan Saunders

“It’s been an adventure.”

This story first appeared in the September 10, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s how Jonathan Saunders describes the lead-up to the unveiling of his first collection for Diane von Furstenberg.

“Adventure” might be an understatement. Saunders’ first contact with von Furstenberg was a scant four months ago, he joined the house shortly thereafter, in May, and will show his first collection beginning today in a series of private appointments. On Thursday, he talked about his immersion into the world of DVF during a preview at the brand’s Meatpacking District headquarters.

Saunders calls his new employer a brand with “great values.” Its core essence, he says, is the delivery of “effortless clothes that are easy to wear, but they still have a sense of imagination. They were printed and colorful. They weren’t little black dresses.”

As Saunders sees it, that ethos is evergreen, as there will always be a customer passionate for clothes that project positivity and prettiness. His mandate is to define “how you interpret that for how the modern girl wants to dress, the modern woman.”

Though Saunders had met von Furstenberg more than once, the first time when she came to one of his early shows, they didn’t know each other well at all when the brand approached him for a meeting. He, she and chief executive officer Paolo Riva met in London, and after wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am discussions, he was on his way to New York. Prior to that initial sit-down, Saunders had anticipated connecting well with von Furstenberg, based on his respect for her entrepreneurial spirit and their shared love of prints. He didn’t know what to expect from Riva. He discovered an executive whose vision felt highly developed and on point, and was drawn to “his attitude and modern take on how you push a brand forward,” Saunders says. “His passion for the brand, his love for clothes — he’s an amazing merchant as well as being a ceo.”

They bonded, too, over the need to deliver value with product. “We’re a brand that has designer product with democratic pricing,” Saunders says. “Making [some products] accessible and attainable for a wider audience — that really resonated with me.”

Saunders acknowledges that taking ownership of the DVF legacy will be a work in progress. A perusal of the racks in his workspace indicates that he’s proceeded with confidence. For starters, while he references the wrap dress in numerous ways, not one is literal. Nor did he look to the archive for prints. Rather, he went for motifs that speak to him — a range of florals, kimono prints, African motifs, classic polka dots and plaids, often combining then in unlikely pairings, for “funny clashes” between patterns and finishes. Many dresses are cut asymmetrically and on the bias. Movement, he notes, is an essential element of his work.

Saunders voices tremendous respect for von Furstenberg, both as a woman and the founder of an enduring fashion brand with a rock-solid point of view. Yet he claims not to be intimidated by the power of the DVF persona. “Diane is provocative, she is intelligent, and there’s an emotional attachment,” he says. “You get an emotional response when you speak about her. [My job] is to determine how all of this resonates with a modern customer.”

Jonathan Saunders

Jonathan Saunders  Joshua Scott