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At DVF, Multitasker Jonathan Saunders Revamps An Icon

A year into his tenure as the label's chief creative officer, Saunders is taking the commercial side of the business as seriously as his design duties. Is he succeeding?
Jonathan Saunders | Photo: Mark C. O'Flaherty
By
  • Lauren Sherman
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — 9am. That's when Jonathan Saunders, chief creative officer of the American fashion brand Diane von Furstenberg, is keen to meet at the company's offices in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. It's a fairly early start time for a design studio, but on this particular mid-August morning, the open-floor seating is heavily populated, with teams already deep in discussion.

The Scottish-born Saunders — clad in a softly puckered black gingham shirt, hair greying perfectly at his 39-year-old temples — is poring over printed copies of his marketing budget. These days, he is as interested in speaking about customer engagement as bias-cut silk.

"In many ways, [DVF] has been more creative than I was able to be with my own brand," says Saunders, who joined the company just a little over a year ago. His first collection — for Spring/Summer 2017 — was designed in just six weeks. Saunders relocated from London for the job after a brief sabbatical from fashion. (His namesake designer ready-to-wear line ceased operations in December 2015 after facing financial difficulty, although he still designs furniture under his own name and retains the intellectual property.)

On Sunday at New York Fashion Week, Saunders will present Spring designs once again, this time with a year of experience from which to draw. It’s been a difficult year to be in New York, in Trump’s America, and yet Saunders dismisses this. “I’m from Scotland, I’m from a working class background. I have fought tooth and nail to get an education and have a career. Hardness doesn’t ever frighten me or intimidate me — it excites me,” he says. “When I got to New York and started working here, I loved the directness of the city, the normalcy. I love being busy, I love working, I love design, I love creativity, but I also love making it happen.”

"It", in this case, means designing clothes that sell. While Saunders has long been a fashion-world darling — he was rumoured to have interviewed to replace Raf Simons at Dior — he has struggled like many of his peers to make a designer ready-to-wear business work. At DVF, the clothes are more affordable. His task, instead, is to usher a brand that was built on a dying model into a new era.

DVF has played disruptor several times over the course of its 40-plus year history. First, in the 1970s, by liberating working women from an old way of dressing, landing the brand’s founder, Diane von Furstenberg, then a young entrepreneur, on the cover of Newsweek wearing her signature wrap dress. (The cover line? “Rags & Riches”.) In the 1980s, waning demand and bad business decisions drove the brand to the verge of bankruptcy, but a successful stint in the world of home shopping gave Von Furstenberg the boost she needed to persevere. By the late 1990s, DVF was well positioned to stake a claim in the then- emerging contemporary market. With the help of then-president Paula Sutter, the wrap dress became a must-have once again.

Now, it is Saunders’ turn to bring relevance to the classic style. Much has been made of the relationship between Von Furstenberg and her chosen successor — and how he has worked hard over the past year to stand on his own. She, in turn, has been quite open about how important, if difficult, it has been for her to get out of the way.

But this morning, like every morning, her presence is felt. A basket of apples from her Connecticut farm sits at the bottom of the studio stairs for the taking, with famous-artist portraits of her likeness — including Andy Warhol screenprints — hanging on the walls of the waiting room.

These are small, but definitive, reminders that she is not going anywhere. Saunders’ biggest challenge is to be able to use this fact to his advantage instead of trying to work against it, all the while making DVF reflective of his own undiluted creative vision. “Diane has created a fantastic business over the last 40 years,” Saunders says. “She has an iconic product that still resonates, and without this I wouldn't have anything to work with.”

However, before Saunders’ arrival, DVF had fallen into the same pattern as many of its contemporary peers, serving up heavily merchandised product that succumbed to the demands of wholesale partners. They’d ask for fit-and-flare dresses one season, bandage skirts the next. Who cares if these styles and silhouettes were in line with a brand’s ethos as long as the sell-through was good? Or so the logic went.

However, as consumers have shifted their spend away from department stores, those temporary, season-by-season merchandising fixes have proven increasingly ineffective.

“Brands became so big and so overdistributed and higly merchandised that they oftentimes lost their personality and point of view,” says retail and fashion consultant Robert Burke. “At the exact same time, the consumer became more educated because of e-commerce. They have an incredibly high desire to wear unknown brands or emerging brands — things that you’re not going to see a million-times over on Instagram.”

As a private company, DVF declined to disclose revenue figures, but a 2015 report estimated annual sales of about $500 million, though market sources suggest it could be less than half of that. Still, it’s a respectable figure for a brand whose main source of revenue is not handbags, fragrance or t-shirts. DVF makes its bread by selling clothes — lots of them — that can cost $500 or $600 a piece. (A whopping 80 percent of the business is apparel, with only 20 percent of sales coming from other categories.)

But as the industry evolves, Saunders must prove that a market still remains for DVF’s product. “My past experience in America and New York was very merchandise-led in a different way than what I was used to,” he says. “I feel like that’s changing. Not everybody is going to love what you do, and not everybody has to love what you do. It doesn’t have to suit every single person, for every single social or functional need in their wardrobe.”

Instead, for DVF to be successful today, it has to stand for something. Luckily, Saunders has source material. There, of course, is Von Furstenberg herself and her larger-than-life persona. “The brand’s ethos stems from Diane,” Saunders says. “In many ways, it was about ease of lifestyle... it was about women being able to dress in something that felt like fashion, but also didn’t feel so precious that it was unattainable.”

I love being busy, I love working, I love design, I love creativity, but I also love making it happen.

But most importantly, there is the wrap dress, perennially known as a universally flattering style. (The “flattering” bit is debatable, but wrap dresses are indeed adjustable, which means they are more forgiving to fluctuations in body size.) Perhaps it’s because of his background in product design, but Saunders has managed to see the dress for what it is — an idea — and cast it in a different light. “For me, it was important to be able to articulate the fluidity, the movement, the ease of the product without just replicating the product,” he says. “How does it resonate now? I’m trying to articulate it in a new way without ignoring the past.”

The result? People seem to genuinely like what he's doing, including Von Furstenberg herself. At first, his changes to the brand identity — in particular, the sans-serif logo — felt premature to her. Saunders' Autumn 2017 advertising campaign, shot by the young British photographer Oliver Hadlee Pearch in Tompkins Square Park and styled by Camille Bidault-Waddington, was also a major departure from the glossy studio portraits of the past. "When Jonathan started a year ago, it was tough for everybody, but it was tough for me because I let him be completely free," Von Furstenberg says. "It was difficult to let go, but I wanted to, and I'm so glad I did because he gave it a huge fresh-up."

Autumn’s leopard-print wrap dress, for instance, has all the components of a traditional DVF design — a classic pattern, that “easy” silhouette — but he cut it in silk instead of a pill-prone cotton blend, and dropped the hem to mid-calf. Over the course of multiple deliveries, he has also turned out several dresses and blouses in panelled florals cut on the bias: They are punchy and joyful, and rely heavily on his very specific sense of colour.

“In the traditional contemporary world, one doesn’t usually see this kind of design and individuality,” says Elizabeth von der Goltz, a luxury retail veteran who joined Net-a- Porter as global buying director in July 2017. “We’ve seen his fresh direction attract a new client, so we’ve been able to grow this business.”

That’s all to say that the collection looks special, not some generic department store play. “Jonathan has managed to retain the accessible price positioning of DVF while vastly improving quality to high designer levels,” says Marc Menesguen, a L’Oréal veteran who joined the company earlier this year as co-chairman of the board. “This allows us to develop a very competitive brand positioning and gives us global opportunity for growth.” Oftentimes, companies that experience an overhaul must shrink before they grow, and Von Furstenberg acknowdges that DVF had to “shrink a little” in order to move ahead. However, the company is tight-lipped on sales figures and will only acknowledge that e-commerce is driving a “substantial” amount of growth and that there are “pockets of growth” in the US, specifically on the West Coast, as well as in the Middle East, Brazil and the United Kingdom.

According to DVF, growth categories include knitwear (a Saunders' specialty), outerwear (particularly leather, suede and faux-fur), dresses and "modern" evening wear. Saunders is also particularly bullish on accessories, which he sees as a significant opportunity, enlisting his friend (and longtime Marc Jacobs handbag consultant) Katie Hillier to collaborate on designs. "It was important to me not to try and provide somebody with solutions for day bags. Yes, obviously functionality is so important within a product, but for me it's just about having fun, and really enjoying the process," he says. "It is about a joyous decoration.... Because otherwise, what's the point?"

So far, wholesale partners insist that shoppers are indeed falling in love with Saunders’ designs. Multi-brand sites with an international reach — such as Net-a-Porter — are faring well in particular.

Currently, the business is split 50-50 between US and international sales. Overall, 60 percent of revenue comes from DVF stores (this includes international franchise doors) and 40 percent comes from true wholesale doors. (The collection is available in 35 directly owned stores — as well as DVF.com — and 973 wholesale-partner doors worldwide.) For a brand so associated with its presence on the American department store floor, both figures must be reassuring to those plotting out DVF’s financial roadmap. (Direct sales and increased international distribution are both key paths to growth.)

Right now, however, Saunders doesn't seem to have clear counterpart on the business side since the resignation of former chief executive Paolo Riva, who left the company in 2016. Von Furstenberg is still very much involved, as is her board of directors, which includes Menesguen but is mostly made up of family members (including her husband, IAC chairman Barry Diller) and close confidants (including Hamilton South, founding partner of public relations firm HL Group).

Jonathan Saunders: Source: Christian McDonald

For now, however, Saunders — who works closely with Melissa Sussberg, the company’s EVP of global merchandising and US sales and Philip Atkins, its VP of global merchandising — is okay with a CEO seat left vacant. “Every brand, and every company at every stage of its development, needs to take their own situation, their own experience, and deal with it in the right way for that moment, and right now, it’s not the right moment for this brand,” he says of the company’s vacant chief executive role. “What’s so exciting right now is that we have a direct line to the consumer in a way that we’ve never had before. It means that designers, creative directors, creative people can no longer live in this elitist bubble of ‘we’re making clothes for ourselves’ self-indulgence. Yes, it’s wonderfully fun, but it’s also detaching yourself from what you’re trying to do.”

Von Furstenberg seems to agree, especially as she weights her options for the future. “It may seem odd the way I put the pieces together,” she says, referring to the current set up. “But there’s more that’s going to come and I am pleased with what we have have accomplished.”

While speculation regarding a potential initial public offering bubbled up a few years back, and there is always talk of DVF’s prospects as an acquisition target, the only certain thing is that Von Furstenberg wants to do the right thing. “At this stage of my life, I want to make sure that my brand gets in the very best hands so that it will last forever,” she says. “That means putting the right talent in place and also the hiring those with expertise in the new way of running a business. Jonathan was the first step. Now that we have lots of great assets, I may be looking to the next step.”

For now, Saunders is allowing himself to take pride in approving those marketing budgets — and thinking about new ways in which he can communicate with the customer, whether that means via an Instagram post or an in-store event. “It’s an interesting kind of dialogue,” he says. “It’s not about saying, ‘What do you want? I’ll design it for you.’ It’s about saying, ‘This is what I believe in. What do you think about it?’”

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