Long admired for his print skills and bold use of colour, Jonathan Saunders is perfectly suited to his role at the helm at Diane von Furstenberg.
Possessed with charm, intelligence and an intoxicating sense of humour, Scottish fashion designer Jonathan Saunders has the air of someone who could convince you to wear, or do, just about anything. All of which makes him well suited to his role as chief creative officer of the much loved, all-American womenswear brand Diane von Furstenberg. Charged with dressing hundreds of thousands of women who flock to “DVF” for flattering, fun and well-priced dress, he is also the first person (and a man to boot) that the brand’s 70-yearold namesake has been happy to hand the reins to. For those who have followed the 39-year-old Glaswegian’s career closely, his appointment last May was not entirely left-of-field.
Since his fledgling days as a Central Saint Martins graduate on the London fashion scene, he has stood out for his textile prints and off-kilter, arresting colour combinations. In his hands, garments are bold canvases of expression. “The first collection I reviewed of Jonathan’s, in 2004, is still one of my favourites … it showed all his talent for clear, zingy colour and print engineered
to flatter,” says Sarah Mower, chief critic at Vogue.com. “That was quite revolutionary in London then … a dull, dark time in fashion and nothing much was happening. Jonathan was the first of the new generation of young colour and print revolutionaries who put London on the map.”
Von Furstenberg’s ascendance was not all that dissimilar. The blockbuster success of that iconic wrap dress – a billboard for female confidence and empowerment – lies not only in its flattering silhouette and carefree fit, but in the way she choose to animate it. Alive with pattern and colour, the DVF look seduced generations of woman seeking clothes with character. “I was always fascinated by Diane as a person,” Saunders says of Von Furstenberg. “At Saint Martins, students, especially print designers, would graduate and go away to this wonderful world in New York called DVF, an amazing workshop where people were making textiles all day.”
Some 18 years later, here he sits comfortably, dapper in jeans and a Prada blazer, with a glass of red in hand on the sofa in Von Furstenberg’s Left Bank Parisian pad. It’s Paris fashion week, but Von Furstenberg herself is not in town. She’s here in spirit, though: her portrait by Andy Warhol is hanging on the wall. Still, her absence is a clear statement: she has officially passed on the baton. Starting with the new spring/summer ’17 collection, Saunders has made a convincing case for the new DVF look, which begins with a collection of a fresh offering of asymmetrical dresses in a seductive mix of block colour and prints. Lively, contemporary and more luxurious than before, the line stays true to that same DVF sensuality, with dresses dropping off the shoulders and baring the décolletage. “I like the idea of a garment falling on or off the body, in an effortless manner, just like that original wrap dress,” Saunders says. “If it takes the woman longer than two minutes to get into it, then it’s just not relevant.”
“Jonathan has a talent for friendship with women … and that charm and easy understanding of women has been important to his work, too,” Mower says of Saunders’s instinct for knowing what women want to wear. “That he and Diane von Furstenberg have found each other seems a natural to me: marriage made in heaven.” Saunders came to fashion by way of product and textile design. As a teen he was into making things with his hands, furniture, mostly – useful items that wouldn’t be deemed as frivolous by his deeply religious parents. The lure of fashion proved too strong, however, and while at the Glasgow School of Art he made the switch from product design to textiles, eventually moving to London to finish his studies. “I love that fashion relates directly to people and it can be emotional, it can make you feel something,” he says now of the switch.
“You can appreciate a piece of furniture from a distance, and you can love it and interact with it, but it’s not as emotional.” After graduation, he clocked up print work for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Phoebe Philo while she was at Chloé, before starting his own line in 2003. Textiles were his first love (something he says he felt trapped by at times), but as the seasons progressed his proposition evolved. “At first print felt very prominent – as if the body was a vehicle for Jonathan’s virtuoso techniques – but gradually the woman became equally tangible; she began to inhabit the clothes and their amazing colour schemes,” agrees Penny Martin, editor-in- chief of The Gentlewoman magazine and a confidant of Saunders. Twelve years later, despite ostensible success, Saunders closed shop and was ready to take a break. “I felt very trapped by the cycle of producing collections,” he admits. “With consulting and my own brand, I was doing 12 collections a year and, at that pace, you forget who you are and what you’re doing. It wasn’t a good moment for me.” Time off saw him designing a line of furniture and relishing in the all-round “slower pace”.
But then Von Furstenberg and her then CEO, Paolo Riva, came calling. “When I was first approached, my gut feeling was that they didn’t need me because they already had such a strong identity,” Saunders admits. “I was also at a moment in my life when I wanted to slow down, I didn’t necessarily want to go and head up another brand.” Still, they met for a drink in her suite at Claridge’s Hotel, and “before I knew it, my feet were up on the sofa and I found myself saying: ‘We could do this and we could that,’” he says, shaking his head and laughing. “I went in as a consultant and basically never left.”
Saunders has since found himself manning a “fiercely loyal team” with the support and means he’s always desired to achieve his ambitions. Without the stress of running the day-to-day operations, as he had previously done, he’s able to tackle the bigger questions. Like, most pressingly, without the brand’s beloved mascot at the helm, who is the DVF woman of today? For that, he’s relying on that very feminine instinct of emotion. “The ethos with which Diane started this brand was effortless clothes with imagination; and there was always an emotional connection between the woman and the clothes. So that is what I ask myself with each design: ‘Is it emotive? How will it make her feel?’” he says, the words turning over in his mind as he says them. “The DVF woman is expressive, she has imagination; she is the person you want to be with because she’s comfortable with herself.”