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Q&A: Diane von Furstenberg Is Tapping Into Millennial Tastes to Secure Her Brand’s Legacy

Iconic designer takes the global stage

Diane von Furstenberg's reality show is one way for her to reach millennials.

In the world of fashion, there are few figures as legendary as Diane von Furstenberg. While the 68-year-old, Belgian-born designer debuted her namesake brand in 1970, it was four years later that she truly revolutionized the modern woman's wardrobe with the introduction of her now-famous jersey wrap dress. By 1976, she had sold more than a million dresses, introduced fragrances and cosmetics, and landed the cover of Newsweek—all before reaching her third decade.

She eventually sold both her dress design license and beauty line and moved to Paris where she started a publishing company. But von Furstenberg couldn't stay away from designing for long. In 1992, she boldly reentered the fashion business with Silk Assets, a lower-priced separates collection sold exclusively on QVC, the then-6-year-old shopping network in which her husband Barry Diller was an investor. Von Furstenberg's first QVC collection sold out within two hours, and over the course of four years, Silk Assets netted more than $40 million in sales.

The massive success of her partnership with QVC gave von Furstenberg the confidence to relaunch the DVF brand in 1997. This time, her target customers were the daughters of her original patrons—and they proved to be just as crazy about her easy-to-wear designs as the previous generation. Since its rebirth, DVF has expanded into shoes, handbags, jewelry, luggage and home goods, as well as tech accessories. (As a matter of fact, Google Glass made its New York Fashion Week debut on the DVF runway in 2012.)

In addition to growing her retail brand, von Furstenberg has remained a vocal proponent for women's rights (in 2010, she created the DVF Awards, presented annually to female leaders) and the American fashion industry (she has been president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 2006), among other causes.

Last year—in addition to publishing a memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be—von Furstenberg embarked on yet another adventure: reality television. Currently in its second season, House of DVF, airing Sundays at 10 p.m. on the E! network, follows the designer and her team as they search for their next "brand ambassador," doling out life lessons along the way.

Meanwhile, von Furstenberg's company is now entering its own uncharted territory with the arrival of its first CEO, former Tory Burch and Valentino executive Paolo Riva.

Adweek spoke to von Furstenberg about her plans for the future, the challenges of reaching millennial consumers and what it takes to maintain a global fashion empire.

Adweek: Since relaunching your brand in 1997, your distribution has expanded to more than 1,500 points of sale in 55 countries. How do you maintain a successful global brand while staying true to the all-American DVF image?
Diane von Furstenberg: The truth is that I was a brand before we knew what a brand was. I started my company with a dress, and I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the woman I wanted to be. I became that woman through that dress, and all of a sudden, I became a brand. Looking back, I was always obsessed with coherence. If everything that you have done reflects the same thing, then you know you're successful in your life. Celebrating freedom, empowering women and inspiring confidence is what I am about as a person and as a brand. So that's one [part of the brand]. The other part is mentoring. I speak to young women's groups and I tell women that you have to be the woman you want to be. That's what I promote. So I guess that how you maintain a global brand is with as much honesty and authenticity, coherence and sincerity as possible.

How do you keep that message consistent when you're speaking to people in so many different countries and cultures?
Every woman relates to the DVF woman. If people ask me what do I want to be remembered for when I die, I would like to be remembered as someone who reminded every woman she could be the woman she wants to be. That's my ambition.

Tell me about how you see the brand's global footprint evolving.
Right now, I am at the beginning of my third phase. The first phase was "American Dreams" and then it was "the Comeback Kid" and now it's "Legacy." So how do you institute that? I'm setting up a new team. I wrote a book. I did the [much-hailed "Journey of a Dress"] exhibition [which was staged in Asia, the Middle East, South America and the U.S. last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the iconic wrap dress] because I wanted to look back at the past. And so now it's really in the hands of a whole team of people knowing the past, knowing what we stand for and how do we relay that message to the millennials. That is how we're building the future.

How do you keep a legacy brand relevant?
You stay relevant by putting the young woman in the center of everything. It's always the young women who bring their mothers back. After I relaunched my company, I started with a whole new generation. It comes very naturally for me to understand that. And you know, what I stood for back then is still very much relevant to what girls want today.

This year, you brought on Paolo Riva as CEO. Why was he the right person for the job?
I was looking for either a CEO or a creative director with a business mind. I interviewed a lot of people who were already CEOs, and finally my husband said, "You're looking at it wrong. You should look for the new superstar, the one who is not a CEO yet." And then I met Paolo and that was it. He was trained as a banker. He's a very strong businessman. He was part of a big consulting group. But then he realized that he loves product and he loves fashion, so he became a merchant. And now he is truly a merchant. So for me, it's the ideal situation.

You've spoken about how you see Paolo as your successor. And yet, you're such an integral part of the brand. How do you see your own role changing?
I am the face of the brand and to some degree I'll still be the face of the brand even when I'm not there, but I'm always looking ahead and I want to be able to put this company in the hands of a leader and a new team and detach myself a little bit. I will still be influential. I know that I still want to agitate the magic wand and show everyone that I'm relevant and make sure that they have the right connections. But I've reached a point in my life where I want to use a bigger voice, and I have a very big platform now. When you're successful, two things happen: One is that you have financial independence, which is great, and two, you have a voice. And if you have a voice, it's your obligation and your privilege to use your voice for people who have no voice.

There have been rumors that one reason you hired Paolo was because you plan to take the company public. Any status update on that?
Not right now. We are very, very happy that the family owns the company 100 percent and it gives me an enormous amount of flexibility. We are going to make major changes and some things will be very much out of the box, and I feel so privileged that I will be able to do that precisely because I can take those risks. What will happen later, we'll see.

One of your other projects is your E! show, House of DVF. Why did you decide to do a reality show? It's not like you need brand exposure.
It was one way of reaching [millennials]. Strangely enough, the period of my life that I remember the most is that age between 22 and 30. That's when I did everything: I got married [to first husband Egon von Furstenberg], I had two children, I moved to America, I started the company, and I was a huge success. I did all of that before I was 30. And therefore, talking to girls that age is very important to me. I relate to them, and I also feel it's so great because that's the moment when if you say one thing, you open a door and their lives could change.

How important is social media in marketing to millennials? Do you feel that it's become more effective than traditional advertising for fashion brands?
Yes, and not just for millennials. Listen, I am happy that I was old enough to have danced in Studio 54 and young enough to have been part of the digital revolution. My iPad is my best friend. One thing that is so exciting about this generation of millennials is that all of them feel that they are a brand. So how do you talk to them if you are an established brand? It's all very interesting. And that's another reason why [doing House of DVF] is also good. It's important for me to hear what [the contestants] have to say.

You've always been a big supporter of technology in fashion, whether it's using Google Glass on the runway or introducing tech accessories before most other designers had begun to.
Yes, I've been very, very excited about technology. It's very much part of what we're doing, which is all solution driven. I think we will no longer discuss technology and fashion as two separate things. Technology is so much a part of our life that we don't think about it that way anymore.

There has been criticism that fashion's adoption of tech sometimes feels forced. Do you think that's true?
I don't think it's forced. I mean, at the beginning, I don't know, but now technology is part of our lives. So not using it seems unthinkable.

You were an early adopter of mass retail collaborations, specifically the QVC collection you did in 1992. Was that considered a shocking move for a designer at the time?
Yes, at the time. It was a revolution. My husband had just left Fox [and purchased a stake in QVC], and when he first went in there and saw the television screen being used in an interactive way, for him, it just opened a whole new horizon. It was a major thing for both of us.

In recent years, though, DVF hasn't really taken part in the high-low trend. Why is that?
I've always put myself in a niche where the value and price is always good. I've never been very expensive, and that's where I want to stay.

Your retail footprint has been expanding quite rapidly; there are now 132 DVF stores around the world. How important is brick and mortar to your global business?
Retail is important for many, many reasons. It is important because [our stores] are like little embassies. It's all about harmony. But all that is changing. There will be a big shift in [our retail strategy] in the next year.

What can you tell me about that strategy? Are there any areas that you're looking to expand into, whether it's reintroducing beauty products or adding more lifestyle products?
Oh, yes, yes, yes, very much so. We really want to focus on this millennial woman who is active. The baby boomers were a huge generation for us, but the millennials are even bigger. When I started as a young woman, I wanted it all, and I wanted it in a very simple, easy, effortless way. And that is where the concept of my accessory line and my clothing is going to go. At every brand, you lose yourself at some point, you know. People get comfortable with what they sell. But sometimes you need to shake it up. And now is the time I'm beginning to shake it up again.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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