Most fairy tales end with the girl marrying the prince,” said Diane von Furstenberg as she introduced her story during her keynote address. “Mine began that way.”
This story first appeared in the November 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Few designers could describe their careers within the framework of a magical allegory, let alone do that twice. But as von Furstenberg illustrated during her presentation, “Turning a Passion for Life Into a Penchant for Business: The Second Time Around,” she has actually had two blessed careers as a professional fashion designer, first in her 20s and then again in her 50s. As she described the history of her two business lives, common threads appeared between them, as von Furstenberg’s combination of determination and charm, plus a good bit of sex appeal, were a strong enough recipe to overcome almost any obstacle thrown in her way, not the least of which was her own naïveté.
Her first tale began at the age of 21, when von Furstenberg wed Prince Egon von Furstenberg in Europe. As the glamorous couple was destined for life in New York, Diane knew she wanted to work, “and not be a Park Avenue socialite.” Through a friend Angelo Ferretti, a flamboyant Italian entrepreneur who owned factories in Italy for printing, T-shirts and lingerie production, von Furstenberg created a small collection of simple, printed T-shirt dresses that she brought to America and presented to Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Vogue.
“She loved the clothes and put them in her magazine,” von Furstenberg recalled. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was only 22. I had just arrived in this country and I was pregnant all the time.” She recalled pleading with Ferretti to produce quantities of 20 dresses, something unheard of within the scale of his factories.
“I didn’t know how to go about it in a less amateurish way, so I thought it would be easier to become part of a larger company,” she said, although there appeared to be little interest in the young, ambitious socialite within the-then clubby confines of Seventh Avenue. John Pomerantz at Leslie Fay was nice to her, though, and suggested she start out on her own by opening a small showroom and hiring a salesman. It was her first lesson — that when most people say, ‘No,’ she was left to either prove them wrong or simply fade away.
“He introduced me to one [a salesman] who was 40 years old,” she said. “That seemed so old to me then.”
They became partners, and von Furstenberg took out an ad in WWD, an image of herself with the tag line, “Feel like a woman, wear a dress.” The collection took off, first with celebrities and then, once the wrap dress was born, her line became such a sensation “that any store with four walls and a ceiling wanted to carry the wrap dress,” she said. Licensees pursued her, and her partner accepted many of them. On her 25-block drive to work every day, she and her driver would count the number of women wearing her signature look —?as many as 65 of them. “I was just a young girl, and everyone was wearing that famous dress,” she said.
Her fame continued to grow, and on the day her face appeared on the cover of The Wall Street Journal, she was on a plane to Pittsburgh for a public appearance at Kaufman’s, when the man next to her asked, “What does a cute girl like you read The Wall Street Journal for?”
“I looked at him and thought, ‘Jerk,’” von Furstenberg said, recalling the satisfaction she felt at proving her ability to succeed. “The truth of the matter was I said nothing. Of course, I’ve used this anecdote over and over, so this poor guy has been used a lot.”
After von Furstenberg pursued her own deal with Sears to design a home collection, which generated $100 million in sales despite the reservations of her department store clientele, she began to grasp the expanse of her exposure. But when it suddenly hit the point of saturation, she was not prepared, and found herself sitting on $4 million worth of inventory, and on top of that learning about markdowns. Von Furstenberg was fortunate to meet Carl Rosen, “a real cowboy of Seventh Avenue,” as she called him, and struck a deal to turn over the apparel business to his company, just as it was coming out with Calvin Klein’s licensed jeans collection. She turned her attention to her own beauty business, again with no experience, “like Willy Loman,” she said. “I go on the road and make an appointment.” To promote it, she wrote a book, which von Furstenberg recalled as an ironic marketing ploy.
“How can you write a beauty book when you’re 28 years old?” she said. “When you’re 28 years old, of course you’re beautiful.”
While her first fragrance, Tatiana, was a big success, von Furstenberg didn’t realize that her partners had actually borrowed $10 million to finance its launch, and when the banks demanded her personal signature on the loan, she balked. Instead, she sold her beauty company to Beecham Pharmaceuticals in 1984. “By that time, I had lost control of everything,” von Furstenberg said. “I had very little involvement in the product, other than taking pictures for the licenses that I had.”
So von Furstenberg packed up and moved to Paris, where she took up with a writer, novelist Alain Elkann. “My heart had a little escapade in Paris. My children by then are teenagers, and when children are teenagers, you always love them, but you don’t like them anymore,” she said, to laughter. “They went to boarding school and I said, ‘The hell with this, I’m going back to Europe.’”
She was getting millions in royalties, and spent her time conceiving decorating books. But after five years, von Furstenberg decided to come back, and this is when she began her second fairy tale life. The only problem was, when she approached several retailers and manufacturers, and even some of her existing licensees, “they looked at me like I was really a has-been. It was really bad.”
Her next big opportunity didn’t come until February 1992, when she was called to QVC to explore a potential deal. “The minute I got there and saw Susan Lucci selling shampoo, and in one-half hour she sold $600,000 of shampoo, I said, ‘Oooh,’” von Furstenberg said. Then, as an inside joke, she told the audience, “I heard myself say, ‘I want to own this place.’”
(Barry Diller, now her husband, acquired the company shortly after von Furstenberg introduced her Silk Assets collection on the network. Sales during her first show totaled $1.2 million in two hours.)
Von Furstenberg’s success on QVC led to other offers and inspired her to discontinue many licenses as they expired, eventually enabling her to restart her signature line at a higher price point. Even though a proposal to design private label for Federated Stores was turned down after a focus group determined her brand was “too old,” Rose Marie Bravo, then at Saks Fifth Avenue, encouraged the designer to bring back her famous wrap dress, which was relaunched at the store in 1998. But they were even more popular at specialty stores like Scoop, which introduced the designer to an entirely new generation of young women.
“To them, it was the hottest little dress,” she said. “Scoop sold thousands of them.”
What’s happened since, of course, is the happy ending. Von Furstenberg’s collection has ripened into a powerful contemporary brand. She has opened signature stores in New York, Miami and London; introduced a new beauty collection; outfitted Venus Williams in her Rbk by Diane von Furstenberg collection with Reebok and, most importantly, proved that a brand that some had derided as “too old” could still have another pair of legs. And sexy ones at that.
“The most important thing I learned,” she said, “was to control your own destiny.”