Diane von Furstenberg Took “Family Approach” to Her CFDA Reign – WWD
“I’m a mother, I’m a Jewish mother and I wanted to make it a family and that was super important to me. That was my goal number one,” von Furstenberg said. She added that while the CFDA members are competitive, they support each other too. Over the years, she would get offers she couldn’t accept and would pass them to other designers.
According to von Furstenberg, when she took over the role, the CFDA wasn’t that strong globally. “I really amplified what it meant and what it was. Because I am European and I speak Italian, I speak French, I met with the English, I met with the French, I met with the Italians, I made CFDA more important and gave it more recognition,” she said.
She said the CFDA’s most important mission was really to promote the designers. It was started by Eleanor Lambert, who was a publicist. She couldn’t understand why in Europe you would highlight the designers, but in America, the designers all belonged to Seventh Avenue firms and they were at the end of the corridor and nobody was pushing them.
Lambert made it happen and she believed in it, said von Furstenberg. “Her spirit was very much what the mission was. I turned it into a family where designers did not necessarily compete and would be part of a family, and would share prizes, opportunities and travel,” von Furstenberg said.
One key initiative that grew under her leadership was the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. It began three years before she came on board. “We amplified it and that was really important because it highlighted opportunities for young designers,” she said. Von Furstenberg said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, was really supportive of the CFDA. “She realized that it was important for her, and she was important for us, and the CFDA/Vogue collaboration was extremely important,” von Furstenberg said. They created a Paris showroom for the fund’s participants during Paris Fashion Week, increasing their profiles and businesses.
Von Furstenberg said one of the things she and the organization’s president, and now chief executive officer, Steven Kolb, did was to go to Washington, D.C., to try and get copyright protection for designers’ creations. They met with lobbyists, who told them they wouldn’t be able to see anyone. “We saw every senator, we saw Hillary Clinton, we saw Nancy Pelosi. Our effort to have the designs protected completely failed, but because we made so much noise about passing the bill, what we got was the attention of the mass merchants who would normally copy the designs from the designers, and we said, ‘hire the designers.’ Our efforts were not lost.” After that, H&M, Kohl’s and Target started hiring the designers.
“The reason for the CFDA is to value the value of designers,” she said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Discussing how the endowment grew on her watch, she said, “That was Steven. He said we needed to raise more, and I said, ‘Let’s take an American flag and let’s sell each star for $50,000’ and we raised $2 million. Steven is a good fundraiser; before him, we never had money.
“I came up with the idea for the American flag,” she said. It was hanging in the CFDA’s office.
Asked if she forged the Swarovski partnership while chairwoman, von Furstenberg said, “No, but I kept it alive.” She also went to Geoffrey Beene’s executor and forged that scholarship. “They give a lot of money.” The CFDA doubled its membership during her tenure.
“I wanted it to be much more inclusive,” she said.
Describing how she and Kolb worked together and what were some of the highs and lows, she said, “I love Steven. The first thing he knew nothing about fashion. We went to Washington together, we went to Paris together, we had great fun,” she said.
In January 2007, the CFDA formed a Health Initiative to address the concern about unhealthily thin models and whether or not the industry should impose restrictions. The CFDA expanded the initiative with Bethann Hardison and her Diversity Coalition in 2013 to improve diversity in fashion, and evolved it with Sara Ziff and the Model Alliance in October 2017 to include sexual harassment and assault and help the women and men who have experienced abuse in the industry. In January 2018, the CFDA Health Initiative became the Initiative for Health, Safety and Diversity to incorporate all these factors.
What about the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion nowadays, did that begin during her regime?
“That was Tracy [Reese]. She’s the star. She always reminded us of that. She’s a great person and a great addition on the board,” von Furstenberg said.
Von Furstenberg said the CFDA has been important for young designers. “But I don’t know anymore. The world was changing. I always felt to show six months in advance is not necessarily an advantage for designers. If they’re being very creative, they get copied. We commissioned the Boston Consulting Group. The truth is when you talk about something, even if you don’t make it happen exactly as you wanted originally, you raise the issue, and by raising the issue, you make things change.”
The CFDA commissioned the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study on best practices for the future of American fashion. The findings were both broad and not too specific. “Basically, the conclusion was every designer should do what they want to do,” von Furstenberg said.
Several designers had jumped on see now, buy now, which didn’t exactly take hold.
“It didn’t and it did, it’s not so black and white,” she said. “You have to understand, you have a whole industry threatened by it. You have magazines threatened by it. We live in such a changing world. We have the internet that changed everything. Before, fashion shows were for the trade. Then we changed. Then all of a sudden you had social media and people got confused….People went to the shows and couldn’t find the clothes.”
Do you think fashion shows are still as important as they were? “I think fashion shows are the best way to show fashion, but the timing of it is up to debate,” von Furstenberg said. “Every company works their own way. That’s what happens when you’re in transition mode.”
So what are they transitioning into?
“That’s the bigger point,” she said.
Von Furstenberg was asked where she sees the CFDA headed in the future.
“I think the CFDA is an organization that protects its members. How we protect them changes according to the times we live in,” she said. “The original mission is to promote American designers.” She noted that a new chairperson will be named shortly.
Von Furstenberg said she never intended to stay in the role as long as she did and certainly not for 13 years. “I said I would do it for two years, which became four years and then six years, and then enough already. I wanted to get the right one [successor]. It took me a year to convince Tom [Ford]” to take the job. He, too, initially said he would stay for only two years, but ended up serving three due to the pandemic.
Another key achievement during her tenure was acquiring the Fashion Calendar, which gave the organization control over the New York Fashion Week schedule. “The Fashion Calendar, to me personally as a designer, was the very first call I made. When I went to see Diana Vreeland [at Vogue] with my first dresses, she told me this was great, and Kezia Keeble, her assistant, told me that in one month is fashion week and you should take a hotel room in the Gotham Hotel. That’s where the California lines show and you should list yourself in the Fashion Calendar. She gave me the phone number. I booked a room, called the Fashion Calendar and took a small ad in Women’s Wear Daily. So these three things became very symbolic. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Fashion Calendar.
“It gave us more clout and it made everybody happy,” she said of taking it over. “I had the good ideas and Steven made that happen. Steven is wonderful. He’s the best thing that happened.”