At a time when fashion is in a state of flux, we're looking to the industry's next generation of influencers as a guiding light. This New York Fashion Week, Refinery29's Future of American Fashion series is highlighting the designers, brands, and retailers we're betting on big. The future starts here.
What does it take to replace a storied American designer, someone whose personal identity and brand identity are practically one? According to Jonathan Saunders, who recently took the reins at Diane von Furstenberg, one needs “balls of steel.” “Thankfully, I have those,” the 39-year-old laughs on a sunny late July afternoon, which happens to be the same day he's moving from his four floor West Village townhouse to an airy warehouse in South Williamsburg. “They’re two totally different New York experiences,” he says. “Year one was the townhouse, and now I’m going to explore what it’s like to live as a Brooklynite. Is that what you call them?” Saunders may still be working on his New York cool factor — trust, he will get there — but acclimating to his year-old job as DVF’s first chief creative officer — has been swift.
“I was never coming in to replace Diane,” he says. “That would be A) an impossible feat and B) not relevant. The brand needs to stand alone as a brand. What the company stands for is not just about clothes, it’s about freedom of expression, it’s about creativity, it’s about community. It’s about all of those things.” Von Furstenberg herself previously made this point clear when she said, “I wanted to be an empowered woman, and I became an empowered woman. And now I want to empower every woman. And I do it through my clothes, I do it through my words, I do it through my money, I do it through everything.”
Complete creative control was the first order of business, which of course, started with Von Furstenberg’s Newsweek-worthy wrap dress. “Rather than it just being a jersey wrap dress, I’ve used biased cut silks and satins to still have that certain feeling of fluidity, femininity, and simplicity, but from me it feels like a more relevant product for now,” he says. An Instagram-worthy accessories line has followed suit, as well as outerwear spliced with Saunders’s signature clashing of colors and bold graphic elements — think a marigold-hued fur chubby paired with Adidas-esque black-and-white track pants.
The New One-Stop Shop
“If it was five years ago, I would have said to myself, ‘Pick a lane, decide the audience you want to target and channel in that direction,’" Saunders says, dispelling the notion that one fashion house can't do it all. "Now it just seems very different, because customer culture has changed, and because I’ve changed.” What that means to Saunders is that the idea of pairing luxury with basics (think: a biased cut silk printed slip dress with a simple white T-shirt) is more relevant than ever. And you certainly don’t have to go to H&M to do it. “Where can you mix those things together, those different worlds and it doesn’t feel wrong? Why not have that under one roof?” he asks. “It’s an effortless, non-elitist way to dress.” Prices have also reflect that concept — you can still find a head turning, party-worthy dress for $398 on the DVF website, while more embellished styles, like a paillette-festooned sleeveless midi dress, top out at $1,698.
This dichotomy has also made Saunders hopeful about expanding the business. “Thankfully we’re not dying,” he half-jokes about the current state of retail and fashion at large. Eight new global stores are in the works, with the designer’s modern imprint all over them — just look at the mixed material mannequins cast from canvas, wood, and bronze. “We’re thinking about different ways that we can incorporate other things within the store, which add breadth to our offering. Maybe one day it won’t just be clothes and accessories,” he hints. “The brand lends itself to such a broad spectrum of products that I think the world is our oyster, really.” A DVF-branded textile and furniture line, for instance, would not only benefit from Saunders training at Central Saint Martins, but would be ripe for the picking.
Conveying his vision from an image point of view has been equally important to the designer, who quickly rejiggered the logo, monogram, and brand colors in January — the words Diane von Furstenberg are now featured in a bold, all-capped, geometric typeface — and introduced his first advertising campaign in August. In the latter, models Luna Bijl, Yoon Young Bae, Angok Mayen, and Cara Taylor are seen spritely dancing and swaying with real New Yorkers (break-dancers, chess players, rope jumpers) in and around Harlem, Tompkins Square Park, and Liberty Island — New York discoveries Saunders has come to love over his year here. “It has humor, and it also has optimism,” he says.
The DVF woman is also becoming even more important to the brand than she already is; Saunders is planning on letting his customers into his studio on West 14th Street. “We are doing some really great initiatives where we start to build a community with different projects,” he says. “We have a concept which is about opening up our studio, opening up the offices, and letting the customer see what is actually happening here.”