COVID-19 has cratered the fashion industry as companies around the globe struggle with store closures and supply chain disruptions. E-commerce and online technologies not only became immediate lifelines to help some businesses stay afloat, but they also helped to accelerate their digital transformation. Among those brands was luxury fashion label Diane von Furstenberg (DVF), which has made a stronger digital pivot during the pandemic, with initiatives such as fundraising and engaging Chinese consumers via Alibaba Group’s livestreaming tool, Taobao Live. Furthermore, DVF became one of the first brands to move its fashion show online at Shanghai Fashion Week.
In this special edition of Alicast, the podcast from Alizila, the news hub for Alibaba Group, the world’s largest online and mobile commerce company, Diane von Furstenberg, the brand’s founder and one of the most iconic designers in American fashion, talks about how COVID-19 has allowed the designer to “reset” and re-evaluate her business, her outlook on the China market, and the role of innovation that has remained at the core of everything she does since pioneering the wrap dress almost 50 years ago. Below are highlights from my discussion with von Furstenberg. (You can listen to the full podcast episode here.)
Christine Chou: It’s really a unique moment, not only for the fashion industry but also for industries around the world grappling with disruptions and an uncertain future because of the coronavirus. How are you spending your time in lockdown?
Diane von Furstenberg: To be forced into confinement and to be forced into solitude forces us, both personally and business-wise, to look at all of the things that have changed, to look at the things that matter the most, to make decisions and to use this very unusual and — hopefully — unique moment in history in the world to reset. I’m very much at a time where I’m resetting my business. In the last 10 [years], 15 years, there has been a digital revolution, and the digital revolution is changing everything.
CC: Are there any interesting retail developments that you’re following, especially innovations that combine the physical and digital in China?
DVF: I’m very interested in the digital. I don’t know about China, but in the Western world, magazines have lost a lot of their authority and influence. And I think that, therefore, brands have to have an editorial point of view. Brands have to speak for themselves. What I like about digital retailing is that you could tell a story, talk to your consumer and really show it.
But I think that it’s also nice to be able to go to a place, especially if your brand has a spirit. If your brand has spirit, what you do eventually is you create a community. You create a community of women in charge. And if you ask me, “What does it mean to be in charge?” the most important part about being in charge is the commitment to yourself. It’s owning who you are. It’s being proud, being happy and assessing who you are. If you own your imperfections, they become your asset. If you own your vulnerability, it becomes your strength.
Therefore, being in charge is about the relationship you have with yourself. The most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. Once you have that relationship, any other relationship is a plus and not a must. Another piece of advice about being in charge is your character. The only thing you have full control of is your character. You can lose your house, your wealth, your beauty, your family, you can even lose your freedom, but you never lose your character.
I think it’s very important — when you make a community of women — that we all feel the same because once we commit to ourselves, and once we feel in charge as individuals, then we can use our voice, experience, knowledge and connections to help other women to be in charge and be the women they want to be. That’s how you create a community. Once you create a community, then you have power.
CC: With the coronavirus, do you foresee any changes happening in the fashion industry or shifts in consumer behavior?
DVF: I don’t know. I think a lot of people, a lot of companies aren’t going to survive the same way. I think that there’s going to be so many changes in so many ways that, of course, fashion will be affected. How? We don’t know. People might work from home more, and that may change what you wear. But I think for a brand like DVF that’s utilitarian, but at the same time it’s to be beautiful and elegant but also about being able to be flexible. I know that in my archives, anything could be worn today. You can wear my clothes down or wear up, you can wear them at home, you can wear pull-on pants with a beautiful top. It’s about the life. I always care more about the woman than I care about the fashion.
CC: We’ve been talking to a lot of brands and seeing how they’re weathering this crisis. A lot of brands have said that the crisis accelerated innovation. More brands are using technologies and becoming more open to it, like online technologies.
DVF: Yes. One of the things that I’m working on is on-demand, especially with the wrap. With technology, you’ll be able to choose your own wrap, choose your own prints, mix and match and all of that.
CC: Are you also using technology in stores as well?
DVF: Yes, it’s an integration. Today, it’s about mixing fashion, entertainment, technology and e-commerce. Stores are important, too, because stores are your community. It’s where you create events, where people can meet and come and do things.
CC: When Wuhan was first hit by the coronavirus, DVF really stood out as one of the first international fashion brands to organize a fundraising campaign that was livestreamed on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms. You, yourself, even made an appearance from the company’s New York headquarters. What was the experience like for you?
DVF: It was a wonderful moment. I shouldn’t take all of the credit. Gabby Hirata, who works for me, it was her idea. And we assembled a few women — Chinese and Americans — we were having drinks and cocktails at my studio, and we talked. We talked about hard times, and we talked about how we survived. And I don’t know, all of a sudden, it was like a therapy session. Everybody felt so seriously and with so much power and intimacy, it ended up being just a lovely conversation. And it was very real. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t planned. It was real. And because it was real, I think a lot of people watching [the livestream] felt the same thing as we felt when we were doing it and experiencing it. There was a lot of authenticity. In the end, I think authenticity and honesty matter.
CC: You’ve been a big supporter of innovation, technology and fashion. And we’ve recently seen you making bold moves, like livestreaming your show from Shanghai Fashion Week. How has DVF continued to adopt digital technologies to be a first-mover in this space?
DVF: Even though I’m an older woman, I love to look ahead. It’s just part of who I am. I’m very curious. And I’m fascinated, and I love communication. I love discovering. I love exchanging ideas and exchanging opinions.
CC: Has partnering with Alibaba or Tmall helped power your digital transformation?
DVF: Yes, of course. And this is only the beginning.