Friday, September 08, 2006

Fashion Icon
Takes Measure
Of the Industry

Diane von Furstenberg Says Design Field
Is in 'Great Spot' but Faces Challenges
September 8, 2006; Page B1

When Diane von Furstenberg introduced a jersey-knit wrap dress in 1972, she created a status symbol for a generation of working women as well an everlasting signature for her brand.

More than 30 years later, her dress and sportswear label is still sold at tony stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and considered hip. Her Diane von Furstenberg Studio generates annual sales of about $120 million. Last year, she was honored for her lifetime achievement by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an influential trade group that recently elected her president.

Reporter Teri Agins interviews Diane von Furstenberg at the designer's New York studio about the health of the U.S. fashion industry and the impact of new technologies.The Belgian-born Ms. von Furstenberg, whose first husband was the Austrian-Italian Prince Egon von Furstenberg and is now married to media mogul Barry Diller, benefited early in her career from the endorsement of legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. But that didn't insulate her from setbacks in the 1980s, when she ceded control to licensees who distributed her apparel, luggage and cosmetics too widely. To revive her brand, she stopped licensing so much. She also became a pioneer among designers, marketing silk separates on television's QVC shopping network.

Taking a break from preparing for New York's fashion week, which begins today, the 60-year-old designer recently reflected on challenges facing the industry. Excerpts:

WSJ: With American high fashion facing so much competition from Europe, is the industry healthy?

Ms. von Furstenberg: American fashion is in a great spot. There are a lot of young, fresh new designers beginning to export a lot more. There is a lot of young talent, and a lot of people are helping them. There is an interest, all of a sudden, in the business of designing.

But it is hard. That's why one of the things that I want do [as president] at the CFDA: create a true network center, where companies will come and hire designers as free-lancers, like a search firm for designers.

Let's say you're a small designer. Why couldn't you design sweaters for Limited, or do something for someone else? In Europe, people do that a lot.

WSJ: What are the biggest challenges facing the industry today?

Ms. von Furstenberg: Distribution is a huge issue. It is not just about being talented and making a good product, but where you sell this product and how much you sell. When you are successful, everybody wants you and you want to sell to everybody and that can be the beginning of the end.

Another problem is counterfeiting and how quickly they just replicate designs from fashion shows. They copy you, and it gets into the market before you even ship.

WSJ: Why is the American fashion industry pushing for copyright protection for apparel makers in the U.S.?

Ms. von Furstenberg: At first, my attitude was, "Oh well, my clothes are copied everywhere. There's nothing you can do." And then I started to see how they pull it from fashion shows and copy it. You can see it on eBay. I started to say you have got to have some rules. You have to do something.

Laws are created to intimidate people [with the threat of litigation], to tell them no, you don't do that. The more I talked about it, the more I realized this is good for everybody. Even if you can't stop everything, they wouldn't be boasting about it. By passing a law and protecting design, you elevate the whole industry.

WSJ: People argue that copying propels the fashion cycle because it creates trends.

Ms. von Furstenberg: You still will have trends. Why all of a sudden is everything yellow? Why all of a sudden do young girls wear combat boots? It starts from the street. That's the mystery of fashion.

WSJ: With so many department stores folding into Macy's, how does this affect designers?

Ms. von Furstenberg: There are still a lot of specialty stores. It is great to start with specialty stores because the quantities are small and because they will work with you. With the Internet, you can have your own little store and sell there.

WSJ: Aren't stores making it tough for young designers by saying they only want to buy a few items from their collections?

Ms. von Furstenberg: That's why it is important to sell to some very good specialty stores. Then you have to do a personal appearance in one of those stores. You go and make sure that things sell. If it sells, believe me, your rack will grow very quickly.

WSJ: What if it doesn't sell?

Ms. von Furstenberg: You have to watch the consumer, why they are not buying it. I pay a lot of attention to fit; if it is not fitting right, nobody is comfortable in it. Fashion is not a work of art, that you hang on the wall. It is something that functions and that you wear. It has to fit.

WSJ: More designers are doing exclusive deals with stores, most recently Vera Wang and Kohl's. Is this a good thing?

Ms. von Furstenberg: I like the idea that mass merchants are going more and more to designers. That whole movement will actually raise the level of design in general and mass merchants, even the Wal-Marts of the world, will go to designers. The disadvantage of that is when you make a deal with the store, they control you.

WSJ: You have survived and thrived for 30 years, though it has been up and down. What lessons have you learned along the way?

Ms. von Furstenberg: In order to be successful you have to have a point of view. You have to evolve. But you have to speak to the core of your brand. It may sound presumptuous, but I think that you have to stay close to the DNA of who you are. Pay attention to what is successful, what people respond to.

I had no idea what would be my claim to fame. You have to pay attention and see what works. The wrap dress, for example, is a form of clothing that has existed since forever, with kimonos, but nobody had done it in jersey. You don't necessarily realize that you are doing something special.

The second thing that is extremely important is distribution. What stores you sell to. Who you are selling next to.

WSJ: Why is it that there are so few big American labels that do well in Europe?

Ms. von Furstenberg: I don't know, but they are beginning to. I sell to 42 countries. I started doing that eight years ago. At this point, I would say that my business is probably 60% U.S. But within two years it should be about half and half.

WSJ: What is the biggest obstacle to exporting?

Ms. von Furstenberg: Shipping. You have to think of where you are going to ship from. But you can start small. That's what I did. I had a few boutiques here, a few boutiques there. When it's good, it's good everywhere. In the privacy of a fitting room, all women are the same.


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