Lesa Sawahata: How would you define “purpose” in your life?
Marlies Dekkers: Oh, that’s a big question. And a beautiful one – I get a little emotional about it. It is so important to do something that you really feel your heart is in. Where you feel, I can do this every day with a smile, and have the energy to see it through because I think it’s my purpose. And where you also think, I can make a difference here – what I’m doing is important; it matters. This is the opposite of that terrible feeling of emptiness or loss. Your sense of purpose pushes you, and guides you, through life.
Where does your sense of purpose come from? Were you influenced by a role model, or…?
I come from a working class background; it was an environment that didn’t encourage women to follow their dreams. I’ve been asked this question many times and the fact is that my purpose just comes from within myself. I didn’t even know it was possible to have a dream, which is why it’s now so important for me to tell women ‘dare to dream’ – because nobody told me.
When did you first understand “purpose”?
There was a kind of fire inside that helped me during difficult times. When I was 15 or 16, my parents enrolled me in a huishoudschool [vocational training for housekeeping], but I wanted my studies to be more academic, even though I didn’t even know what the possibilities were. So at that age there was really no example for me, but there was this fire burning inside and I thought ‘there is more to life, and I have to do something.’
At that time I often fantasized that I was an 18-year-old girl with breasts and curves, which I didn’t have. I knew that when I turned 18, I could make my own decisions, and then my life would really start. So that was the moment curves and lingerie became kind of symbols for my own dreams, for spreading my wings. And I think that’s why it has ended up being my work, and the form of my purpose.
So is this where your motto ‘Dare to dream, dare to grow, dare to be’ comes from?
When I went to art school [St. Joost Academie in Breda, from which she graduated cum laude in 1991], I saw the young women around me often didn’t find themselves beautiful or desirable, and didn’t believe in themselves. I thought, how can I show them how strong and beautiful they are if they started believing in themselves? I believe all women are as beautiful, desirable and sensual as they find themselves to be. That’s how I came to my purpose: to challenge women to follow their dreams. It sounds so simple, but it’s not.
Why is it not simple for women to follow their dreams?
Women, particularly in the corporate world, are in a very early stage of daring to dream. In fact, we have to challenge women to not stop dreaming, and encourage them to dream big – bigger than they ever have. There I was: born in 1965 in the Netherlands, and it was still natural for my parents to want me to be a housewife. This is an important point: you have to understand the times in which you are living, the zeitgeist. In every time period there has been a certain way of thinking about women in society. You can reject it or embrace it, but it’s very important to understand it – because that is how you can understand your own position.
As context, you mentioned the various ‘waves of feminism’ during your keynote presentation at the RSM Leadership Summit . What are those waves?
The first wave of feminism was around 1900, when women fought for the right to vote, and for access to higher education. And in the 1960s there was a second wave, in which women fought for financial equality and sexual liberation.
The third wave came when I was in my twenties. This was the point of embracing individualism. Madonna was becoming famous, and she was so important to me – she was individualistic, powerful, and showed her strong and muscular body. It was in this time that I created my own design language, which I continue to work with all these years later.
We’re in the fourth wave of feminism now, which is about true gender equality. I’m so proud that by helping to shape the third wave, I helped prepare the way for the new generation of feminists who are stepping forward.
How does your personal sense of purpose connect to your purpose as a leader? How do you express it?
When I started my company in 1993, I thought ‘I want to do this with women.’ At that time – and it’s often still like this – people thought that only men were able to run a business. For the whole 25 years, between 85-90 per cent of the company’s employees have been women. I strongly believe that in business women are equal to men. In my company, of course, there is an even better fit: women understand deep down what I am speaking about. And yes, there are men working for the company, and I’m very happy with them. So I think as a leader I can inspire people – especially women, and anyone who works in my company. I think I can give them that inner fire I have had since I was young. That’s how my personal and leadership purpose connects. My mission is to give women self-confidence.
How important is a sense of purpose in accepting and dealing with change, personally and as a leader?
The position of women in society has changed over the past decades, and as an entrepreneur you have to adapt to that. For example, #MeToo is a very important social movement. It’s also something I’ve been talking about for 25 years – about how women are not just objects of lust. Since the recent scandals related to #MeToo, men also understand. They say, ‘Oh is that what you meant?’ Yes, it’s what I’ve meant for 25 years.
Some years ago the Marlies Dekkers brand came under attack: a knock-off company copied our unique style and wanted to turn women into sex objects with marketing that was about “dressing less to impress”. We won that lawsuit. As a company and as women, we have been fighting so long not to be reduced to objects of lust. But, there is something beautiful in having to deal with and adapt to these big challenges and changes, because the result is that things move.
What do you mean by ‘moving’?
We are creating movement in the bigger world; doing something that matters and that is strongly connected to society. Society has its own opinion about this subject, of course – but you can be the visionary, you can be the oracle, you can see things years before anyone else does.
As a designer, sometimes you make a statement but it’s too early for people: nobody listens to your message; they can’t understand what you’re talking about. And when they do, what follows is a period when everything is blooming and you’re on top of the world. If you are driven by purpose, you know that you’re not doing something average: you’re working on something that matters, not just for yourself, but also for the generations after you. That’s purpose.
As a leader, where do you get your “juice”, your inspiration to keep inspiring others?
That’s why I was so emotional with the first question. It’s so beautiful to start with a view of doing something that matters over time, and then to re-align your purpose during difficult periods. For example when my company went bankrupt, I really had to dig deep. I felt like I was dying. For 20 years I had been CEO and creative director of my company. And I thought, what if I really was dying? What would I want on my headstone? Not ‘Here lies a very good CEO’! That’s not my purpose. The purpose of my life is to make a difference for women. It’s what I was born to do. In that moment I changed. I got the company back on its feet. And I said ‘I don’t want to be CEO anymore. I want to be creative director, and I really want to spend more time getting women to hear my voice, to understand my message, and to become inspired.’
Q: How do you keep your sense of purpose strong?
I think it’s the opposite: it’s the purpose that keeps me strong.