When Jonathan Saunders packed up his belongings last May to move from London, his home for the past 16 years, to New York City, where he would become Diane von Furstenberg’s designated design successor, his biggest concern was for his dog, an ailing 14-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier named Amber.
“She made it over the ocean, just,” Saunders says, six months after settling into a charming town house in the West Village along with his partner, Justin Padgett, a fashion publicist. “But she now has a kind of strange second wind and this sprightly step. She’s socializing. She’s been feeling a new lease on life.”
Amber, it turns out, is not alone in this regard. First, there is von Furstenberg and the bright new direction that Saunders has brought to her business, which has experienced numerous revivals in its 45-plus years but none as significant as this: In naming Saunders as chief creative officer, she has stepped back from the runway spotlight for the first time to instead focus on her philanthropic passions. And then there is what has happened to Saunders himself, who little more than a year ago had all but given up on fashion after resigning from his signature label in London.
“I wanted to change my pace of life and do something different,” says Saunders, a confident 38-year-old who in fact had made plans to design a furniture collection when von Furstenberg came calling. He was hesitant to follow in the footsteps of such an iconic living designer. And yet the scale of the job—and the resonance of the von Furstenberg name in popular culture as well as in fashion—made it impossible for him to resist. “I saw an opportunity to tell a story with clothes but also to have more meaning,” he says.
In his office at DVF’s modern glass headquarters in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, Saunders sits at a whimsical, rounded metal desk with colorful circular seats that swivel out like a vintage amusement park ride. It was designed by Ringo Starr and Robin Cruikshank in 1970. “I wanted people to relax and feel they could have a game of musical chairs after a meeting,” he says. On the wall is a delightfully cartoonish painting by Greek artist Thanasis Lalas. Behind him is an Ettore Sottsass penis-shaped Shiva vase.
Von Furstenberg says her decision to hire Saunders was somewhat spontaneous but also based on a long admiration for his work, which, like hers, is known for a warm embrace of prints. His love of color theory—how certain tones and combinations make you feel—stems from his early fixation on the Bauhaus period during his studies in product design and textiles at the Glasgow School of Art. Then he switched to fashion at Central Saint Martins in London, where instructor Louise Wilson set him on a course of creating graphic womenswear that delighted with the juxtaposition of luxurious colors with sometimes purposely tacky ones. He also has a doctorate of the arts from Glasgow University.
“His incredible sense of color and prints is unique and so perfect to refresh the heritage of the brand,” von Furstenberg says. While her presence is less felt around the studio these days (she has been remarkably hands-off in the transition), Saunders has been careful to establish his control with respect but not idolization. One of his first moves was to update the label in block letters with white space that literally separates “Diane” from “von Furstenberg.” But he has also taken time to seduce her customers and to understand their emotional attachment to what she represents.
“I see a synergy with the people who have always believed in Diane and loved the clothes here,” he says. “They’re strong women. They are in touch with their emotions. They are funny. They are serious. And they are warm.”
When he presented his spring collection, one of the first of those women he encountered was Allison Williams. She and von Furstenberg have been close since meeting at a party eight years ago for President Obama’s first inauguration, and as an astute observer of fashion, she has developed personal relationships with many designers.
“It just makes the experience of wearing the clothes so much more fun,” says Williams. “The personality type that is attracted to becoming a designer fascinates me—part business and part creative. I’m so impressed they are able to innovate so quickly.”
And once she met Saunders, she was naturally charmed by him. “I think I mostly expressed jealousy for his accent,” Williams recalls.
“She asks a lot of questions, which I always think is a good sign,” says Saunders. “I instantly understood why she was a great person to know and to represent the brand, because of her character, down to where it’s about a talented, smart, emotional, warm, cool girl.”
Saunders’s spring collection was a critical hit and also a departure from the wanderlusty glamour of von Furstenberg’s recent work. His more casual sportswear focus included easy knits, fluid wide-legged trousers, and silk
kimono-like dresses in exotic floral prints that slyly hint at her signature wraps. He was inspired by artists like Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Bridget Riley, “people who used color in quite a provocative way,” he says. And “provocative” is a word he uses to describe the work of von Furstenberg, who famously designed garments that were sensual both in the way they were meant to be worn and unworn.
Saunders arrives in New York at an interesting moment, as other major brands, like Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta, are preparing reinventions that will undoubtedly shift the perception of American fashion even farther from its pragmatic sportswear roots toward something Saunders believes should be seen as purely about individualism. Still, the transition has not been entirely seamless, professionally with the unexpected resignation of DVF’s chief executive, Paolo Riva, in November, and personally with the sudden death of the designer Richard Nicoll, a close friend and classmate from Central Saint Martins, in October. Saunders now wears a necklace that belonged to Nicoll as a sort of talisman, but, like Amber, he finds that life in New York has given him reason to look up.
Ironically, he is now living in a home so irregularly shaped, with triangular floors and walls of windows, that it’s nearly impossible to place any of his own furniture designs. Not that it bothers him all that much.
“I seem to remember people shouting at me all the time when I used to come to New York and that it was a very aggressive place,” he says. “All of a sudden, it’s the opposite.” As for Amber, “she has gotten a whole new range of friends,” he says. “She’s officially an over-opinionated, strong-minded New Yorker.” n
Fashion Editor: Ali Pew