NEW YORK — Hours before the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Monday night, Diane von Furstenberg wasn't putting the finishing touches on her dress or having her hair done. The designer was in her new 2,100-square-foot Meatpacking District store here talking with customers and offering advice.
With ears tuned to catch bits of conversation, von Furstenberg detected a foreign accent across the room. "Are you Brazilian?" she called to a customer. "Yes, from Brasilia," the woman replied. Displaying her many connections to the powerful and privileged, von Furstenberg asked the shopper if she knew Tassos Jereissati, governor of the Brazilian state of Ceara. "Oh, yes," said the woman, "I know him and his wife. We see them all the time."
When von Furstenberg realized the woman was waiting for a dressing room, she told a sales associate, "Let's get a room for this lady," and went off to find the contractor who is building them.
"I need those rooms," von Furstenberg told the contractor, pointing to stairs leading to the lower level where four VIP dressing rooms will be built. The purple-carpeted VIP fitting rooms will be used for civilian customers when the main floor rooms are occupied.
Open just three days, the flagship at 874 Washington Street still had some kinks to work out, but von Furstenberg didn't want to hear any excuses. "We're pushing to have [the changing rooms] ready on Friday," the contractor said. "Why so long?" von Furstenberg asked.
Von Furstenberg was one of the first designers to believe in the far West Village when, in 2001, she opened a store, studio, office and residence on West 12th Street. Now that she's moved a few blocks north, the Meatpacking District has become a bona fide fashion zone.
The flagship is part of a larger complex under construction that will include the DVF headquarters, a 150-seat theater, showroom, studio, offices and an apartment for the designer.
Jeffrey New York is across from the complex on West 14th Street. To welcome von Furstenberg, the message "We [heart symbol] DVF" in huge letters appeared on Jeffrey's windows. Opposite the DVF store entrance on Washington Street is the Scoop fiefdom, with Scoop Kids, Scoop Men's, Scoop NYC and Scoop Street. The High Line elevated railway passes above Washington Street and Tenth Avenue and over the DVF building. The Whitney Museum of Art and the Standard Hotel are coming to the area. Farther east, an Apple store is said to be opening at 401 West 14th Street."The neighborhood is amazing," von Furstenberg said. "I'm on a great corner. Barry [Diller, her husband] has his offices four blocks away and you have the river. It's heaven."
Von Furstenberg began working on the project two years ago when her son Alexander told her about a building he had seen. "It was a butcher," she said. "I walked in and said, 'Let's go.' In a week, I sold the other building. I interviewed architects and found someone."
Last summer, von Furstenberg was a guest on the boat of billionaire software engineer Charles Simonyi, who in April traveled to the International Space Station. "We were sailing in the South of France and someone told me about these architects I had to meet" named Dan and Amale Wood of Work Inc., she said. The designer sent an e-mail telling them that she had already hired an architect. "I said, 'If you can draw something that I fall madly in love with by Monday, I can change my mind.'"
It was the staircase in the lobby of the headquarters that did it. The staircase's 77 steps seem to dissolve into a skylight at the top landing. On both sides of the stairs, prism-shaped Swarovski crystals are suspended between taut wires. "I fell in love with the staircase," von Furstenberg said.
The theme of reflective materials is carried through to the store, where hundreds of round mirrors twinkle on the ceiling. A fuscia diamond-shaped banquette anchors the diamond-shaped store, which has a high gloss lilac floor.
The collection, which is hung along the perimeter of the store, features signature wrap dresses, long white cotton tunics for $220, gold crochet dresses, $385, and gold jacquard minidresses, $425. Symbols such as ginko leaves and love knots appear on shoes, bathing suits and totes, and von Furstenberg's fine jewelry collection for H. Stern. A heavy gold chain-link bracelet has the word "love" etched on it. Another bracelet includes all the sutras (basic text of Buddhist scripture) von Furstenberg recites when she meditates in the morning.
Handbags and shoes are featured in an alcove behind the jewelry counter, including designs by Christian Louboutin and DVF ballet flats with gold-tone ginko leaves for $198. Gowns from the luxe group, including a polymide and polyester tunic for $1,500, and a long black sequin-covered dress for $2,100, hang against a frosted glass wall.Von Furstenberg introduces new items every month to keep up the collection's momentum. A long wall visible from Washington Street is used to display the latest fashion story. Spring's "All About Eve" theme was recently featured with a fuscia, orange and white trench, $575, and a silk chiffon gown in a red, beige and white pattern, $385.
The designer has always welcomed collaborations, and evidence of her forays are evident in everything from a room candle packaged in the house's signature cane print to the Funky Zebra rug von Furstenberg created for the Rug Co. A selection of the DVF beauty collection will also be sold in the store.
"Right now my goal is to carve into the DNA of the brand and make very clear what it is," she said. "I'm definitely starting accessories, shoes and handbags. That's where the growth is. We'll grow in categories."
Unlike some designers, von Furstenberg has no interest in doing a populist collection à la Target or H&M. "I can understand if you want to do that to pay your bills, but a lower-priced line is not something I want to do," she said. "I believe in my price point. It's great value, great design and great quality. If I go any lower I can't have that quality."
Nor is she rushing to expand her department and specialty store distribution. "I have a select distribution," she said. "I'm in Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue. By the end of the year I'll have 22 [of her own] stores. I want to take control of my own destiny. That's why having a big headquarters is important."
Von Furstenberg is protective of her brand and what it represents to women. "It's a very woman-empowering kind of brand," she said. "It has a special emotional attraction for women."
Unfinished dressing rooms notwithstanding, von Furstenberg seems energized by the huge project. "When I started again eight years ago I didn't know if I was going to be successful," she said, referring to the business she sold in the late Seventies, then relaunched. "Now I'm president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. I do things not only for myself but for the whole industry. This is a very nice time in my life for me."
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