Fashion is big business. It is certainly big business in Antwerp, a fact which is now being increasingly recognized around the world. Diane Von Furstenberg, born in Brussels and now the embodiment of the American dream, received an honorary degree from the University of Antwerp on March 30. Belgium has a huge number of successful small-scale fashion designers, and they have more in common with this top-notch designer than you might think.
Diane Von Furstenberg
The daughter of a Russian father and Jewish mother with Greek roots who was born in Brussels and went on to try her luck in Paris and New York, she is the poster-girl for successful immigration and an inspiration for young designers everywhere. She is the daughter of persistent and hard-working individuals who went against the grain, but as a designer she is first and foremost one of the many love-children of the passionate and enduring affair between Antwerp and fashion.
"Antwerp is a symbolic place for me because I've opened one of my first international boutiques here." - DVF
These days, Diane Von Furstenberg is well known for her social activism. She campaigns for diversity, fights for women’s rights, is the Statue of Liberty’s godmother and in Antwerp she is an active supporter of the Red Star Line Museum. "I immediately recognized myself in the story of US immigrants. Antwerp is also a symbolic place for me because I've opened one of my first international boutiques here."
Diane has helped generate the publicity required to make the Red Star Line Museum the success it is today. She has spent her life fighting for equality and is a passionate proponent of the rights of women and minority groups. She was awarded her honorary degree because she is much more than a fashion designer, but that is how she first made her name. She made her name in America, but in Belgium – her motherland – the fashion industry there is also a force to be reckoned with.
A recipe for success
Belgian fashion industry success stories are widely known, and continue to serve as sources of inspiration. For young designers, however, the road ahead seems far more complex and chaotic than the calm retrospective view taken from the heights of a successful career. Someone who knows all about this is Sofie Jacobs, who wrote her PhD on “The success of Belgian fashion designers” at Antwerp Management School. She looked at 54 cases and picked up several tips and strategies for fashion designers seeking success.
"Personal success is very subjective, but very important. Think about reputation, how much freedom you have to do what you want, independence, ... Success is more than just a number." - SJ
Her findings indicate that the three most important factors to success are: finding the balance between exploiting and exploring, being able to work as a full-time designer whilst also having reasonable entrepreneurial skills, and following the dominant business model (for personal success) or breaking it and taking a risk (for commercial success). She distinguishes between commercial and personal success. Sofie: "The latter is very subjective, but at least as important. Think about reputation, how much freedom you have to do what you want, independence, ... Success is more than just a number."
To achieve that personal success, it is important to strike a balance between exploiting and exploring. On the one hand you have to make sure that the company is running smoothly (exploiting), but on the other hand, you want to keep discovering and need to take risks (exploring). That is a sense of independence and freedom that young entrepreneurs often have to let go of because of work pressure or insecurity. According to Sofie you should look to your colleagues for the former. “Look around you to see how other entrepreneurs do it, ask them for advice. Free workshops can be very helpful as well. Make sure you keep learning and keep exploring.”
"Diane is a real entrepreneur, she’s open-minded and not afraid to take risks. I recognize some important results from my research in her: to be successful as a small independent designer it’s important to be daring” - SJ
Creative vs. commercial
As an entrepreneur, you have to dare to take that ‘leap’. It’s best if you can start working as a full-time fashion designer immediately, you have to have the courage to commit yourself 100%. Diane is a perfect example of this: “From her story you can tell that Diane is a real entrepreneur, she’s open-minded and not afraid to take risks. She pursued her passion fully. In that sense I recognize some important results from my PhD in her. It shows that to be successful as a small independent designer it’s important to be daring, as well as striking that balance between the commercial and creative side of your fashion company.”
Taking risks is also very important to your commercial success. Following the dominant business model is practical, but to have lasting success you have to dare to stick your head above the parapet. “For commercial success, you have to be bold and go against the grain”, says Jacobs. The ultimate combination is a daring fashion designer, who is not afraid to take risks and also has a good knowledge of what it means to be an entrepreneur. You should not, however, neglect to hone your entrepreneurial skills. The chances are that it will give you just the extra insight you need to get over your fear of failure and to take calculated risks.
"The Belgian fashion world is intimidating for someone like me. Along with Martin Margiela and the Antwerp Six, she made history." - DVF
But to be successful, you don’t have to cross oceans anymore. Von Furstenberg herself is very enthusiastic about the Belgian fashion industry: “The Belgian fashion world is intimidating for someone like me. While I rather accidentally rolled into the industry, the Antwerp school is a serious fashion school. Along with Martin Margiela and the Antwerp Six, she made history. Belgium is a small country, but it is bursting with talent. That’s because it’s so grey and boring here, I think. That makes you look around.”
The message is: be bold. Antwerp Management School can help you to develop your entrepreneurship. The Creative Industry & Fashion Management Knowledge Network focuses on entrepreneurship and innovation in organizations in the creative sectors. Discover our Knowledge Community Creative Industries & Fashion Management!