As a nugget of business acumen, the analogy was as opaque as it was disconcerting; surely it is beholden on the founder of any successful business to make sure there’s always something in the tank. But it was also telling for another reason. Von Furstenberg still thinks of herself as the woman behind the wheel.
The question of legacy hovers at the heart of most founder-led businesses. In most cases, provision is made for their business to pass into other hands. But in a creative industry such as fashion, where an individual is celebrated for their vision, product or innovation, the tension only magnifies. And breaking up is hard to do.
Calvin Klein sold his company in 2002 and has left it well alone ever since. But most founders find it harder to walk away. Valentino sold his business in 1998 but the “emperor” still sits front and centre at the shows. Coco Chanel, and more recently Jil Sander, left only to be lured back to the fold.
Some designers divert their interests in an attempt to emerge from the cocoon of fashion; last week, the Italian clothes-maker and philanthropist Brunello Cucinelli raised €100m by selling a minority stake in his luxury business to put towards a “life-long project of restoration” in his local community. And some die. The sudden death of Azzedine Alaïa in November, one of the most lauded designers of recent decades, now leaves the Richemont-owned house with the awkward dilemma of how to manage a succession — a new Alaïa store is due to open in London this spring.
The first advice offered by consultants working with young entrepreneurs is never to put your name on the door. But creatives are still enthralled by the idea of a namesake brand. And clients love the conceit that they nurture a personal relationship with them in each transaction.
Despite expressing a desire to modernise, few founders embrace radical change. Von Furstenberg hired a team eager to implement bold initiatives, only to shrink from their proposals. Likewise, when Ralph Lauren appointed Stefan Larsson to be his successor as chief executive in 2015, ushering in a new “Way Forward Plan”, the relationship quickly floundered. Larsson walked away with a $10m severance cheque less than two years later.