Female Founders: Diane von Furstenberg on building a fashion empire
Belgian-born fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg has built one of the best-known fashion brands in the world. In a new FT series, Female Founders, we ask her how she started her business.
Executive produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Richard Topping. Filmed by Gregory Bobillot and Ben Marino. Still images by Bloomberg, Getty and DVF Archives.
Belgian born fashion designer, Diane von Furstenberg, arrived in America in 1970 with just a suitcase full of dresses. She has built one of the best known fashion brands made famous by her iconic wrap dress and colourful prints.
But her journey to the top of the fashion world started with a bold vision and an internship with an Italian textiles manufacturer. So first thing I want to ask is why did you found your business?
Well, I founded my business because I wanted to find myself. As a young girl, I didn't have really a vocation. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be a woman in charge of my life and independent.
And so when you start, you have all these doors. And my doors-- my door happened to be meeting this man in Italy, who had a factory. And it was a printing factory. And he also invented jersey fabric. And I was an intern. And then I came to New York. And then I liked New York. And then I wanted to come back. Then I got married and I got pregnant.
And so everything went very, very fast. So and then I came with a bunch of little dresses in my suitcases that I had designed. And then I was lucky to live an American dream.
After marrying Prince Egon von Furstenberg and moving to New York, she set out to establish her fashion business. By the mid 1970s, Ms Furstenberg had sold five million wrap dresses. What was it that was motivating you then? Was it this desire to find--
My motivation was to prove that I could do something on my own and that I was independent. And being independent is clearly to be financially independent.
Is there a particular bit of advice that, as a young woman coming to America with a suitcase full of dresses to sell, you wish you'd had at that moment that might have helped you?
No. No. No. I don't think so. I think I went-- the great thing when you start on your own and you are a founder, or you are your own entrepreneur, you have a certain energy and a certain desire and a certain enthusiasm. That you have that first wind that you just have to go with the wind and not be afraid. You go for it. And especially at the beginning, when you go for it at the beginning, you have no fear. You have nothing to lose. You know, less is, you know, zero less zero is zero.
By the late 1970s, her eponymous label had become one of the world's leading fashion brands. But Ms Furstenberg is the first to admit that creating a brand and managing a business require different skills. You say in one of your books that you don't think of yourself as a great manager.
No. I'm not. I'm not a great manager.
So it's mostly this founder's enthusiasm that drives you.
Yes. The founder-- the founders have different qualities, which means that when you are a founder, you have great ideas. You have-- you can make things happen. You have somehow magic wand. But then, I believe that anybody has a magic wand and then you expect things from people that may not be able to do.
Are the two things impossible to combine, the founders enthusiasm and the--
Listen, it's always that founder versus executives, not a confrontation at all. But you know, it's a very different culture when it's the founder at the helm, then later when the founder is no longer there, it's whatever. It's a different energy. And at some point, you need the second energy to deal with the legacy of the founder. You know, so nobody is immortal anyway. So at some point the founder's got to go.
Ms Furstenberg did part from her label in the 1980s to pursue other ventures, including a publishing company and a home shopping business. But she returned to relaunch it in 1997 and has been at the helm ever since.
In terms of the types of obstacles that you've overcome, you must have learned ways in which to tackle some of these obstacles.
Oh, my God, there are obstacles all the time, you know, all the time. I am-- I have a lot of energy. I tell women to be confident, to be this. That doesn't mean that I don't wake up thinking like I'm a total loser. Still now, I do. You know, you just have to-- and up and down and this and that, but it's always about realising the truth, dealing with the truth, practicing the truth, and fixing things.
And when things aren't good, OK, well, how I'm going to turn this into something positive.
What skills do you think you need most as somebody running their own business as a founder?
I think that you need ambition. I think you need determination. You also need a good idea. I mean, you need an idea that makes sense. And you need to believe in what you do and sell what you do.
What's given you more satisfaction, your business success or your personal achievements?
Oh. You know, the family is clearly the most important thing. And certainly, what I-- my biggest success is the quality of my family, my children and my grandchildren. So I'm extremely proud of that. But I always said, "I had a son. I had a daughter. And I had a brand." And so my children know that the brand is one of their sibling.
And that sibling went to all kind of ups and downs, and this and that. But again, my relationship with the consumer always stayed and because I have a good reputation, sometimes I made mistakes. People usually ask me, "If you knew now what you knew then, what would you do differently?" And I said, "I would probably do a business plan." Which I hadn't done, but things went so fast for me that there was no time to do a business plan.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Well, my legacy will always be the wrap dress, because no matter what I do, that's what people will say. But because I became the woman I wanted to be, I would like my legacy and my message to say for every woman to be the woman she wants to be. And I do that in philanthropy by giving them confidence. They don't have to spend anything. And then my brands give them the tools to be the woman they want to be.
What would the young Diane von Furstenberg say about what you've achieved?
The young-- you know, it's funny because everybody talks about the millennials, the millennials. I relate so much with them because I was so much one of them then. You know? And I was very much on my own and fighting and, you know, and riding a horse with my own little flag. And then sometimes you look in the back and say, where's the army? You know? And so I feel I relate to them.
What would she say, the young Diane von Furstenberg, if she saw me today? I think even-- I think she would say she did a good job. Yeah.