For any business owner, the path to success is full of uncertainty. That’s especially true in fashion, where trends come and go and designers vie for attention in a crowded marketplace.
So when Mary Lai and Kelsea Slade, two young designers and recent winners of the American Express OPEN Ones To Watch competition, had the opportunity to participate in a mentoring session with Diane von Furstenberg, they were thrilled. “It was an absolute honor,” said Lai, who makes a line of luxury handbags under the MARYLAI label.
She and Slade sat down with the fashion legend at the recent OPEN Forum: CEO BootCamp event in New York. Their conversation covered topics from following your heart to finding commercial success, and sparked insights for entrepreneurs in fashion and beyond.
As any company founder knows, business ownership means wearing a lot of hats, so it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of your long term goals. With than in mind, Lai, the 2013 Ones to Watch winner, started the session by asking von Furstenberg what goals a young entrepreneur should keep in mind when building their business. Von Furstenberg’s reply was simple: Focus on success. “You want to be successful, and successful means commercial,” said von Furstenberg, whose DVF line is sold in over 55 countries. “In fashion, people hate the word commercial, they think commercial means bad. And I say no, commercial means successful.”
Kelsea Slade, an Indiana-based designer who makes sophisticated leather bags under the K.slademade brand, wanted to know about getting feedback from customers and finding the right balance between the entrepreneur’s creative impulse and what customers want.
Von Furstenberg drew upon her own career. “When I was a young girl, I did what I wanted for myself,” she explained. For von Furstenberg, that meant easy, effortless dresses of good quality and a modest price point. As it turns out, what she wanted, millions of other women wanted as well. “I’m solution-driven. You wake up in the morning, your eyes are swollen and you think, ‘What do I wear?’” she said, as the crowd laughed in agreement. Her jersey dresses were designed to be the ones you reach for again and again, the dress that never lets you down. “DVF,” she said, “will always be a friend.”
Slade also wanted to know about marketing. The fashion field is crowded with designers, so how, she asked, did von Furstenberg market herself when she started out?
“I didn’t think about marketing myself," the designer confessed, “I wanted to save money on the model and I did it myself.” And she reiterated her DIY work ethic. “Some people do it with a big marketing plan. That is not my story,” she continued. “My story is completely in the flesh. It’s through experience, through hard work, through mistakes, through ups and downs that I learned everything.”
Acknowledging the sense of doubt that overtakes many business owners at one point or another, Lai asked if von Furstenberg ever lost her confidence, and how she dealt with that.
“Often. Very, very often,” replied von Furstenberg. She explained how, just three years ago, DVF lost its way, a story she recounts in her memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be. “I lost confidence. My company lost confidence. I had no clarity,” she recalled. “Clarity and confidence are very, very linked. And you can’t fake clarity.” Those times can feel like a fog, she said. But if you work hard at it, the clarity will return, as it did for her. “It happens, and it’s very painful. But we can get out of it.”
At the root of all of von Furstenberg’s advice is the importance of honoring your own beliefs and doing what feels right for you. Asked what principles an entrepreneur should embrace as they grow their brand, she replied that it’s an individual decision.
“It’s about your heart. But everybody has a different heart, everybody cares about different things. As long as you stay close to your heart, you can’t go wrong.”
For Lai, the session was eye opening, and von Furstenberg’s comments about commercial success hit home. “I’m now thinking more as a business person than just a creative person,” she said, speaking about the event afterward. For example, before adding expensive embellishments such as special trim or pockets to her bags, she now considers the cost, keeping in mind the ultimate price tag. Von Furstenberg’s counsel to focus on success, Lai said, “shows me that if I want to scale my business, I have to be smarter about things. She opened my eyes to that, that it’s okay to be commercial. That’s how she was able to build such an empire.”
Slade, too, was moved by the experience. She found the famous designer refreshing and down to earth, and was inspired by her advice to follow your heart. She returned to Indiana emboldened to try something she’d been thinking about for a while: showcasing other young, made-in-the-U.S. designers on her web site. “That’s something I’ve wanted to do but was afraid to try,” she said.
Von Furstenberg’s story of hard work and no master plan resonated with Slade as well. “I can’t imagine where I’ll be in forty years, but I feel like if I work hard, I can achieve success like her,” she said. “It’s encouraging to think about that girl that came over with a suitcase full of dresses and built an empire. That’s really had an impact on me and how I think about what I can be someday.”
OPEN Forum: CEO BootCamp is a program designed to help business owners reach their full potential as CEOs and grow their businesses. To learn more about upcoming events and access videos, articles, guides and more, visit openforum.com/ceobootcamp.
Photo: Scott Kowalchyk Photography