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Diane von Furstenberg and Nadja Swarovski: Conduits of Positive Change

DVF and Nadja Swarovski.

The CFDA Fashion Awards is usually a big night for Diane von Furstenberg, chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But tonight will be especially poignant as she receives the Swarvoski Award for Positive Change. Von Furstenberg is being recognized for a commitment to empowering young women and being a role model for women who are looking to create change in their communities and around the world.

In a conversation between von Furstenberg and Nadja , who serves on the executive board of Swarovski, the two chatted about how their respective companies and they personally approach philanthropy and social responsibility.

In addition to her roles at the CFDA and as chairman of the fashion brand she founded, von Furstenberg has a foundation, The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Fund, which actively supports such initiatives as Friends of the High Line, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Vital Voices, The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the Awards.

Swarovski, who is based in London, chairs the Swarovski Foundation, which has a focus on education, supports projects that foster creativity and culture, promotes well-being and conserves natural resources. Among the projects the foundation has supported are the restoration of the San Giorgio statue at the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the new Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning at the Design Museum in London, Women for Women International and Water Aid. She also oversees the corporate social responsibility initiatives and philanthropic programs for the group, which generates more than 3.2 billion euros in revenues. She is an ambassador for Women for Women International and under her leadership, Swarovski has signed up to the U.N. Women’s Empowerment Principles and the U.N. Global Compact.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

WWD: Why do you feel Diane is the right person for the Positive Change Award? And how long have you known each other?

Nadja Swarovski: I think we’ve known each other since the late Nineties and what I’ve seen Diane do and touch has really turned into gold. She’s truly had a positive impact on the fashion industry, the design community, and the entire role of females at work. The topic of female empowerment is being emphasized so much, and it’s wonderful to see how you’ve taken your position within society and within the industry to really emphasize female empowerment. You have spent so much time shining a spotlight on other people. This is a really great opportunity to shine a spotlight on you.

Diane von Furstenberg: I’m very proud of Nadja since I have seen her going from a young girl who was always very professional and part of a very large company that belongs to a very large family, with all the difficult things that entails. She’s a remarkable woman because she’s done so much for this company. Swarovski is a huge company. People think all they make is the little crystals, but it’s not. They make every lens of every camera, every microscope and every telescope. It’s a huge, huge company. And then there’s Swarovski and what it represents to fashion, which is also very large. I’ve known Nadja as a professional woman with ideas, who is a visionary, who helps young designers, who takes risks and pushes things. I’ve seen her as a sponsor of the CFDA for so many years.

WWD: Tell me how philanthropy and social responsibility have become central tenets of both of your companies.

D.V.F.: Philanthropy can be at the beginning of your life. It can seem intimidating or it can seem forced and you’re kind of shy about it. The older you get, the more comfortable you are with it.…I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be a woman in charge, who can have a man’s life in a woman’s body. As I became that woman very early through a little dress, the more confident I was, the more confidence I was sharing with my consumers. It just happened completely naturally and organically. I was doing social media before there was social media. I was a feminist. When Gloria Steinem came about and created Ms., I was a princess at a time because I married a prince. I thought Ms. was more glamorous than princess. I was always an advocate for women and I didn’t realize it was philanthropy. I went on the board of Vital Voices, and I became very active.

Then nine years ago, I created the DVF Awards where I give these awards to these incredible women who have the courage to fight, the strength to survive, and the leadership to inspire. Yesterday, I had lunch with Veronika Scott from Detroit. When I gave her the prize four years ago, nobody knew her. Then she got the CNN Award. She’s a remarkable young woman. She’s from Detroit, and her parents were drug addicts. She was being evicted from her home all the time. She really had a rough life and then she went to art school Her dream was to develop a coat for homeless people to sleep in. Through that, she employs homeless people.

WWD: Are your philanthropic endeavors personal or part of your company’s philosophy?

D.V.F.: It’s really my philosophy, but this year for International Women’s Day we did four days of events here. We did all these panels and all these interesting people. There were girls from the Parkland School to the Crown Princess of Norway [Mette-Marit].

N.S.: Philosophy and charity have always been important to the Swarovski family. My great-great-grandfather came from Bohemia as a poor boy who was cutting stones out of long, glass rods. He took the stones to the local crystal factory. He actually went to the first electricity fair in Vienna established by [Thomas] Edison and [Werner von] Siemens and he wanted to create the ultimate crystal cutting machine, and so he did. No more hand-cutting, and the process was fully automated and the quality was increased. He moved to Austria away from all the competition, and overnight he became such a success. Eventually the Iron Curtain went up, and the entire glass cutting community was in Communism, and it really made him the monopolist in the supply of crystals to the fashion industry, jewelry industry and so on. And he always felt so grateful in remembering where he came from. He was an incredibly giving man. He was a socially aware man. Soon he was employing the entire town that he moved to work for him. He started the company band, they had a medical system, they had a canteen. He had a strong corporate sense of responsibility.

WWD: Describe some of the current philanthropic initiatives at Swarovski.

N.S.: The company is 123 years old. We’re the biggest employer in the Tyrol region. We’re considered number two in Austria, after Red Bull. Typical Austrian, our heritage stands so much for craftsmanship and tradition. That’s something we embrace. We have manufacturing plants in Vietnam, which we built ourselves, and Thailand. We built them ourselves so we have full control over how the employees are treated. We also try to give back wherever we have factories. We’re working with Teach for All in Thailand. We have a water program in those locations and we’re looking at giving them financial education. Right now we have water schools in seven different locations. We’re rolling out water programs. Thailand is one. Obviously there’s a lot of flooding. It’s causing so much damage. People can’t get to work and can’t get salaries.

WWD: Do you think your customers are aware of your philanthropy and does it move the needle?

D.V.F.: I don’t like to think that you use philanthropy as a marketing tool. Now all of a sudden, it’s women, women, women. We’ve been doing this forever. But, by the same token, if they want to do good for marketing reasons, it’s OK, too, because you get good. First of all, I believe that generosity is the best investment. Generosity is also about paying attention. I have a little game I play with myself. The first two e-mails I do every morning don’t benefit me. With e-mail it’s so easy. I can introduce this person to a person who will change their lives. It doesn’t cost me anything. You introduce and explain the whole thing, you don’t have to leave a message, you don’t have to speak but you have a magic wand. If you have any kind of success, two things happen. You can pay your bills and you have a voice. If you have a voice, it’s a huge privilege to use your voice for people who have less of a voice.

WWD: How did Swarovski get involved with the CFDA?

N.S.: One of my first bosses when I was in New York was Eleanor Lambert. She was always telling me about the CFDA.

D.V.F.: She was the founder. She really promoted American fashion. American fashion was not promoted; Seventh Avenue people kept their designers in the back room. So she decided to promote them.

N.S.: I worked in New York and Eleanor meant so much to me.

D.V.F.: She was tough.

N.S.: We’ve been involved with the CFDA for 17 years.

WWD: Do women represent a large percentage of your workforce at your companies?

N.S.: We have about 26 percent women in senior management positions. We have 56 percent women in general. A lot of factory workers are actually women. We’ve seen more females in management.

WWD: Diane, have you ever considered hiring a female designer?

D.V.F.: I did have a woman once or twice. By the same token, everyone else is a woman.

WWD: What role do you think women play as change makers in business and society?

D.V.F.: The first thing we have to do is we have to convince the women that they can make a difference. Very often, the insecurity comes from the woman. It’s in our genes, and education. And we like a man to feel strong. But the truth is women are stronger. I have never met a woman who is not strong, but very often they don’t show it. Yet, when a tragedy occurs, a woman takes over and she is the savior. I think we need to make sure that women assert their strength without a tragedy. Once you assert your strength, you don’t have to bully. You don’t have to advertise it. What’s most important is you yourself believe in it. My mother survived the [concentration] camps. I was put in the world like that. She said, “God saved me so I can give you life. You are my torch of freedom.” I was born with a torch of freedom in my head. It can be heavy for a little girl. But it’s a privilege.

N.S.: I have an older sister, but in my Austrian family, it was always the men who were expected to take over the business. I think people were a little bit surprised. Our customers are 98 percent women, and I understand what they’re thinking.

WWD: What have you gotten out of supporting emerging talent through the CFDA?

N.S.: We get from them tremendous creativity and vision. We provide them product to play with and in return, they show us a new way of implementing crystal in a way that’s relevant to the consumer today. They get a cash award and product award. We see the difference $2,000 makes for a designer to get that.

D.V.F.: It’s also the mentoring. It’s a big deal for designers. Swarovski is a magic word for young designers.

WWD: Diane, how did you feel when you got word you had won the award for Positive Change?

D.V.F.: It completely took me by surprise because I run the board meeting. At first I didn’t understand, and then I looked at everybody. When I went home in the car, I said, “I can’t accept that.” But it was too late. They had published it.

WWD: What are your favorite philanthropies?

D.V.F.: I’ve done so many things. I made the High Line happen. I became the godmother of the Statue of Liberty; I raised $90 million to build this [Statue of Liberty] museum. I’m very active on the Shed. I’m on the board of the film academy in L.A., I was the first one to even think about celebrating all female nominees at the Oscars. Nobody had even bothered to do it. You just do things, and you can’t believe no one has ever done it.

N.S.: I really love our water schools, we support teachers who are educating children. UCLA’s graduate students went to Africa, India and China to document our schools. They zoomed in on women and children. Throughout this 50-minute documentary, you’re seeing how these young girls are empowered because they’re learning about the environment.

D.V.F.: Philanthropy sounds like such a big word and it sounds intimidating. But then you get involved, and before you know it…The High Line. I moved in this neighborhood 20 years ago. On West 12th Street. Everybody said, “What’s she doing here?” It smelled like the butchers. Two guys had this dream about building a park and they asked me if I would give them a fund-raiser. Before I knew it, I gave them the fundraiser. The last thing [Rudolph] Giuliani did as a mayor was sign the destruction of the High Line. And we reversed it, and we made it happen. And it’s now the number-one tourist destination in New York. Seven million people a year. I walk in it and I still can’t believe it happened.

WWD: Do you think the Shed at Hudson Yards will be the place for fashion shows?

D.V.F.: Yes, I think the Shed will be an incredible cultural place and it’s also opening next year. Next year, I have three museums opening. I have the Shed, the Liberty Island and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

WWD: Tell me about the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

D.V.F.: The museum is on the LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] campus, it’s the corner building that used to be the May Co. For years, LACMA used it as its storage. I used it to make the exhibition of the “40 Years of the Wrap Dress.” I put in the eyeballs. They already had the plan to turn it into a museum but that was the turning point. You have a magic wand and you don’t even realize it.

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