Diane von Furstenberg saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time in 1970 during her inaugural trip to the U.S. She made the decision to travel by boat from Belgium because the vessel would go more slowly and she wanted to savor the moment when she cast her eyes on the massive sculpture in New York Harbor that she’d heard so much about. “I saw her in the morning, Lady Liberty,” the designer said. “She was wearing a toga. It was feminine, yet her posture was so strong.”
Thus began von Furstenberg’s relationship with the statue, recognized around the world as a symbol of freedom. In a new documentary, “Liberty: Mother of Exiles,” premiering on HBO on Oct. 17, the designer sets out to discover how sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s dream became a reality and what the statue means to people around the world.
Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who directed the classic documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” about the wife of defamed Rev. James Baker, said their earlier film and “Liberty: Mother of Exiles” “are both about icons whom we think we know, until we get to know them. With some documentaries we have a sense of where they’ll begin and where they might end.”
“What I think is nice is that when you watch the movie, you can see that we discovered it,” said von Furstenberg, who spearheaded and reluctantly stars in the HBO documentary. “Diane said, ‘I’m not going to be in the film,'” said Bailey. “I was personally thinking about hair and makeup. She’s a princess. You’d imagine someone like that would have a lot of airs. She is what you see is what you get.”
“I didn’t know any of this was going to be in the movie,” von Furstenberg said. “It was a little too natural. I didn’t have any makeup.”
“We interviewed 70 people,” Bailey said. “From the get-go, it was a tourist attraction. We connected and found the backstory of the people who are still involved. The statue told its own story at the very beginning. It was surprising and moving. It was an extraordinary experience.”
Lady Liberty has had a colorful history. Von Furstenberg read Auguste Bartholdi’s diaries, and traveled to France to meet with descendants of Édouard de Laboulaye, who inspired Bartholdi to build the statue, and Gustave Eiffel, who designed its metal framework. The production traveled to China to see the people who make the Statue of Liberty replicas that are sold all over the world. “It’s just the adventure,” von Furstenberg said of the quest.
She said since the statue is so familiar throughout the world, it’s sometimes taken for granted, so she enjoys bringing visitors and seeing their enthusiasm. “Last week I took Madame Macron [First Lady of France] to see her. Every time I go, I get moved and take hundreds of pictures of her.”
“We started before Trump was elected, but the film took on greater meaning afterwards,” Barbato said.
Members of the Trump administration subverted the meaning of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” written to raise money for a pedestal for the statue: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”
“She isn’t saying wretched refuse is an invasion from s–thole countries,” Barbato said, paraphrasing President Trump.
Von Furstenberg was more measured, saying, “She’s very much a symbol of freedom. She transcends all the presidents. She’s been around for a long time and hopefully will be. She’s a woman, and 2020 is the year of the woman. Her chains are broken, [symbolizing an end to] slavery.”
“Obviously, as a symbol of freedom, she’s being used all the time for protests,” von Furstenberg says in the film. “Even the day she was revealed [in New York Harbor], the first day, suffragettes rented boats and circled the island. Here we have this massive statue of a woman representing freedom and yet women aren’t allowed to vote.”
If the 305-foot high lady in New York Harbor is the matriarch who watches over those new to these shores, then von Furstenberg is the mother — or rather, godmother — of the statue. “Diane was raising money for the [Statue of Liberty Museum],” and they would call her the godmother of the statue, the director said.
Von Furstenberg, who in June stepped down from her job as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America to devote more time to her role as fund-raising chairman for the museum, was triumphant at this year’s Met Ball, dressed as Lady Liberty. “Today, on May 6, 1944, my mother was arrested and sent to Auschwitz,” she wrote on Instagram. “I’m going to the Met Ball as her torch of Freedom.”
The film came about in typical DVF fashion. “One day, I was at the Vanity Fair party next to Richard Plepler, who was running HBO at the time. Then, Sheila Nevins got involved,” von Furstenberg said of Nevins, who in 2018 retired from her role as president of HBO Documentary and Family Programming and who now heads MTV Documentary Films.
In the film, von Furstenberg visits the new museum on Liberty Island. “Oh, we missed the boat. Shall we go inside to keep warm?” she says. In the gift shop, its operator, Brad Hall, tells the designer how his Jewish grandparents escaped the Nazis. The business is named after his grandmother, Evelyn, who worked the cash register until she was 88 years old. Seeing the miniature Statue of Liberty souvenirs, von Furstenberg says, “Can I buy one? But I don’t have any money.'”
“She’s a bit like the Queen of England,” said Bailey in a phone interview. “She never has any money.”
In “Liberty,” outside the Museum of Modern Art, von Furstenberg sees a street artist whose subject is the statue. Touching a silk-screened abstract treatment of the icon, the designer said, “How much is this?” The artist, who explains that he’s from Russia, says $500, and von Furstenberg said, “I’m going to buy it.”
“People project their dreams on Lady Liberty, and project their own fantasy, and so do artists,” von Furstenberg says in the film. In the artist’s studio, she looks at versions of Lady Liberty in chains and a naked Liberty. “She’s a prostitute, so if you have money, she’ll be yours,” the artist says. “If you have the money, you’ve got the freedom, if you don’t have the money….You ain’t got it.”
The designer believes she owes a lot to the Statue of Liberty, even claiming her garb was the inspiration for her wrap dress. “You see the fabric and follow the movement of the draping of the dress. It was built in Paris in 1884,” she says in the film. “I love her and she’s part of me and my family forever.”