While in London last week with the graduating class of the CFDA Fashion Incubator, Diane von Furstenberg took part in a new W Hotel speaker series entitled "What She Said," which aims to host conversations with successful women in fashion, music and design at the hotel's locations around the world. Co-starring London designer Mary Katrantzou and moderated by Calgary Avansino, the conversation covered the designers' respective origin stories, overcoming failures and, of course, the evolving fashion industry.
"I think that's about to change the most right now," said von Furstenberg, when asked about the biggest differences between when she launched her eponymous label in 1970 and today. "I think the whole fashion industry is going to go through never-seen turmoil." When pressed if she meant in terms of the schedule, von Furstenberg clarified that "the whole thing" is undergoing a revolution. "And revolutions are bloody," she said.
Von Furstenberg called out social media as the force for change, through which millennials now each create personal brands. "How do you build a brand or how does an established brand deal with that? That's the challenge," she said. "But that's a very interesting and very fun challenge." Katrantzou identified other changes in the seven years since she launched her label, fresh out of Central Saint Martins. "You see a shift in how people buy and how people connect to product, and how loyal they are or disloyal they are," she said. "Even in magazines, what gets edited in, it's now so disparate because there's so many voices."
It makes for a difficult time to be an emerging fashion brand. To that end, von Furstenberg echoed what many of the Incubator designers had highlighted as the most important lesson learned during the two-year program: "Be true to yourself and not to try to copy left and right," she said. "There's nothing worse than doing something because somebody told you to do it, but you didn't really want to do it, and then it was a mistake. That's a nightmare. If you make a mistake because you wanted to do it, that's cool, that's okay." She also advised designers to "get close to a factory or a mill or somebody like that, because that is the person that has the most interest in your growth because they make the product." That relationship helped von Furstenberg navigate the almost overnight success of her printed jersey dresses, which she says she started designing to "pay my bills and sleep with whomever I wanted." (That point earned a big laugh from the crowd.)
Sudden growth can make or break a small designer business, and von Furstenberg advised to take it stage by stage. "You have different plateaus. You look at it and you say, 'Whoo, I overextended myself,' yada yada, so you fix, yada yada, and then you go to the next plateau," she said. "For years and years and years, I wrote in my diary. Any diary that I pick and I open, I'm always at the turning point of my life. It looks like I did nothing but turn."
Katrantzou also struggled with growth as she launched her label during the height of a minimalism trend and wanted to prove there was space for print-heavy designs. "I found myself actually allowing it to grow probably faster than what we should, but at that moment you don't know any better because amazing accounts are coming," she said. "It becomes a completely different beast with completely different needs before you even realize."
Despite being an iconic designer and businesswoman for many people, von Furstenberg rejected the idea that she's "made it," so to speak. "Still to this day, there are days that I wake up and I think that I'm the biggest loser," she said. "I question myself." Katrantzou said she also struggles with self-doubt, and shared a story about her mentor Louise Wilson, the very influential Central Saint Martins professor who passed away in 2014. "She always was able to kind of see through and channel what your thing is," said Katrantzou, who said that once when she and her partner were having dinner with Wilson, said partner asked Wilson why Katrantzou had such self-doubt, despite her achievements. "[Later, Wilson] sent me this amazing quote, and I don't know if I can recite it properly, but it was: 'Perfect confidence comes to those less talented as a consolation prize.'"
And while both Katrantzou and von Furstenberg agreed perfect confidence is a myth, the later cautioned the audience to not let self-doubt override the creative seed that brought them to design in the first place. "My name is always followed by the wrap dress and there were years that I said, 'Okay, I've done other things.' But now I reconciled with it. I was the original wrapper," she said. "You cannot underestimate the power of the first juice, first book, first song, first movie."
Disclosure: W Hotels paid for Fashionista's travel and accommodations.