Stealth makeover of Diane von Furstenberg

NEW YORK • Not quite one year ago, Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, who had recently closed his namesake fashion line after 13 years and was thinking about making furniture, was summoned to a meeting with veteran designer Diane von Furstenberg in her suite at Claridge's in London.

Von Furstenberg, it turned out, had decided to hand over the creative reins of her brand to concentrate her energy on philanthropy and women's issues as well as her position as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and she thought he might be the right man for the job. The two had met before, at a Downing Street reception in 2010, and bonded over colour and print.

Still, Saunders said: "A lot of people told me I shouldn't do it. That I would not be able to make my mark on it."

Yet as the 39-year-old designer approaches his third collection since joining the brand last May, he has reinvented practically every part of it.

Introducing the stealth makeover. It is a new, and thus far successful, approach to an old problem.

"In this time, when the revolving door of designers at brands seems to spin ever faster, the smartest approach may be to glide into position and find your voice without calling attention to it," said Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

As Diane von Furstenberg's chief creative officer, Jonathan Saunders has given the clothes a streamlined, cheerful sophistication. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Von Furstenberg has edged into the arena twice before: first with Yvan Mispelaere, her creative director from 2010 to 2012, then with Michael Herz, her artistic director from 2014 to last year. But while she characterised those relationships as partnerships and promoted the designers publicly, both arrangements ended in divorce.

None of this escaped Saunders. While both he and von Furstenberg profess enthusiastic love and respect for each other, he came in with his eyes open and with a plan.

Some of it was strategic; some of it was practical. For example, he is the company's first chief creative officer, a title difference that may sound picayune, but it sends an internal message about responsibility and lines of reporting (and power) that is not immaterial.

He told von Furstenberg that when she communicated with anyone on the team, she had to copy him in. And he also told her she could not come to his first presentation for the brand.

Not because he wanted to replace her, he said while sitting back in his white-walled corner office just under von Furstenberg's executive floor (she lives over the shop and her office doubles as her living and dining room), but because "she fills a room and everyone would look at her when they needed to be looking at the product".

"We need the clothes to speak for themselves," he continued.

Hence last weekend's show, which was not a show at all, but a restrained presentation with little associated fanfare, as was Saunders' first collection in September.

Look closely, however.

Saunders has not only reinvented the clothing, disinterring it from the depths of the 1970s and giving it a streamlined, cheerful sophistication, but also the logo, which is no longer a monogram atop a name, but simply an efficient architectural stack, with "Diane" and "von" sitting on equal but opposite sides atop the "Furstenberg".

And then there is going to be a new monogram (away with the dramatic DVF scrawl) and new mannequins, which were originally based on von Furstenberg's body but have been remade in mixed materials (canvas, wood and bronze) to mimic the mixed materials in the collection.

He is about to redo the store decor and the brand's whole approach to narrative and identity.

He is planning to select a group of women who will represent the DVF spirit - different ages, positions, shapes and opinions - and will roll out its stories each month under the moniker #dvfgirl as new deliveries hit the stores.

Yet he himself is happy to stay behind the scenes, in part because he is uncomfortable with the spotlight and because he has had the visceral experience with the difficulty of detaching yourself from your own brand.

While Saunders and von Furstenberg talk every day, he said she was not looking over his shoulder all the time. Indeed, when contacted the week before the presentation about Saunders, she wrote back: "Is it hard to let go? Not really. Jonathan is very strong and his talent goes beyond creative. I trust him, respect him and want him to succeed."

She had to e-mail because she was in Mexico.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2017, with the headline 'Stealth makeover of Diane von Furstenberg'. Print Edition | Subscribe