The speaker for the evening was none other than Diane Von Furstenberg (DVF), the design queen of the wrapdress and the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
The room was full to the brim with excited fashionastas, old cronies of DVF and students, who like me, were there with their notepads and pens ready in anticipation of those golden nuggets of how to make a name for yourself in the fashion industry and run a succesful business. In the current climate where most brands are shedding staff rather than hiring and the new black is bleak, there were quite a few nervous looking students.
Elegant as ever DVF, took to the stage and charmingly told her life story. Whilst she had been an intern at an Italian clothing factory, she had married a prince (and gained a name that would last longer than the marriage) and before long she had moved to New York, where she and her samples caught the eye of Diana Vreeland, the then editor in chief of Vogue. On the big screen glamorous photos of a young DVF appeared, including her first publicity shot where she had scribbled on the featured white cube “Feel like a woman, wear a dress”.
Quickly, numbers and dates were thrown up in the air. 1972 - the birth of the wrapdress, of which in its saturated heyday 20,000 were sold a week. 1976 - on the cover of Newsweek at the age of 29, apparently they double checked her birth certificate as a succesful woman couldn’t be that young! 1985 - moved to Paris after selling her brand. 1992 - created a line for QVC which sold $1.2 million within 2 hrs. 1997 - relaunched her designer brand which is currently available in 56 countries.
She mentioned names in the industry who had opened doors for her, recounted how surplus stock had twice been the downfall of her business and how she had felt like a has been when licencees were in control of her business. All very noble, but the information was presented rather than put out to discussion. I certainly felt as if I was watching an episode of Diane Von Furstenberg; This is Your (gilded) Life.
There were a few comments that almost made people forget that the recession is no longer looming, but heading our way at full speed. When DVF was about to lose her first business she met with the banker and tried to seduce him. It didn’t work. That might be the reason why she now states that she is good at design and merchandise, but she has a man in a suit who does finance. Or when she relaunched her brand, playing on the vintage element of the wrap dress, the first advertising tag line was “He stared at me all night, then he said: Something about you reminds me of my mother.”
But the meaty elements were quickly swept aside. Only a few minutes were spent on the presidency of CDFA. She believes that designers are stronger as a community than as individuals and that places like H&M and Target, who recently announced that Alexander McQueen will be doing a spring range for them, raise the value of design by employing designers rather than just copying them. Combating piracy is a key objective of the CDFA. She is involved with Vital Voices, a now non govermental organisation originally set up by Hilary Clinton, that works to empower emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs. Again very admirable, but very quickly covered and on to the next subject.
DVF is certainly a succesful, strong woman who has managed to reinvent herself, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help wondering if her success, not her talent, really came down to her posh surname. Making a name for yourself, getting those doors opened surely must be easier if there is a von involved. The question was never asked, students, maybe too young to be cynical, were keener to know if jobs were available upon graduating.
Well, DVF has many talents but she is no clairvoyant. Although she believes that an internship is the way forward and that it is easier today to enter the fashion business than 30 years ago, I struggled to feel the sincerity when she mentioned that there is more support available, i.e. bigger players, more opportunities. Doors don’t open that easily anymore and this was a great opportunity for a key figure in the American market to say it’s tough out there, I was lucky, I can’t guarantee the opportunity will be there for you. But maybe as the president of the CDFA she couldn’t mention that fashion may always be there, but fashion jobs won’t.