CHICAGO — Diane von Furstenberg said she never dreamed the wrap dress she invented 42 years ago would be so timeless.
“At this point, the dress has lived so long. It took me by surprise. People think I made the dress — I think the dress made me,” said von Furstenberg, chairman and founder of her namesake business, who jetted in from Paris Tuesday evening to host a fashion presentation at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue with Ken Downing, the retailer’s senior vice president and fashion director.
Her schedule was jam-packed: She was headlining a VIP fund-raiser reception for Hillary Clinton after the Neiman’s store visit, before flying out the same evening.
Still, while von Furstenberg, 69, is loosening the reins over her fashion empire, there’s one aspect of the job she remains committed to: her relationship with women.
“Never did I think I would still be doing this,” said the designer, referring to making retail appearances at this stage in her career. “But it’s always interesting to meet the women, to see the mother and the daughter and to hear about what they do. You always learn. As I pull back a little bit and hired a chief creative officer [Jonathan Saunders], my relationship with women is what I don’t want to give up. It’s so interesting.”
For the wrap dress queen, a visit to the Windy City was like coming full circle, in a way.
“The first time I came here was probably in the Seventies,” said von Furstenberg, wearing a leather jacket and sweater. The last time she was at the Chicago Neiman Marcus store was nearly seven years to the day — on Nov. 5, 2009. “We do really well here and my sales manager really wanted to reward the person we have who takes care of our little concession.”
With the busy schedule this businesswoman keeps, is the word “retire” in the cards?
“In a sense I would,” said von Furstenberg, who also serves as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “The future for DVF is really to continue to freshen up the brand so it’s really relevant to the brand, while respecting the DNA of the brand and this emotional attachment and familiarity that women have from their mother and their grandmother.”
Backstage before the presentation, Downing talked about first meeting von Furstenberg as a child and how she’s influenced his career in fashion.
“I met Diane when I was eight or nine years old with my mother. The amazing thing was, she was a huge inspiration to me when I was eight or nine years old, but Diane continues to inspire me to this day,” said Downing, while putting the finishing touches on the models’ looks. “She’s the most energetic, most awesome woman who celebrates women and loves beauty. And I think it’s great that Jonathan and Diane have such an amazing relationship as I think Jonathan will be in stores meeting customers, too.”
In a difficult market, in-store designer appearances, like the one with von Furstenberg, are even more important today, Downing noted.
“Certainly, retail has challenges right now and the more that you can connect with a customer and the more knowledge you have, the better,” Downing said. “It’s not just giving the customer what they want, it’s really hearing what the customer does want and being able to deliver. The customer is in control.”
About 175 people attended the event, many of them wearing colorful wrap dresses and pieces from DVF’s fall collection.
Set to Seventies disco music — befitting the fashion legend’s rise during the Studio 54 days — the runway component featured 16 looks with a mix of resort and in-store merchandise, giving the audience a glimpse at Saunders’ work.
The conversation between Downing and Von Furstenberg kept the audience amused and at one point, the designer humorously referred to herself as the “big mamma” of fashion, tracing her story from the time as a young woman toting around a suitcase full of printed jersey dresses to the powerhouse brand her label is today.
“It was exhilarating when I was a 25-year-old girl and I would count the dresses on Fifth Avenue and then I got used to it,” she recalled. “What is nice is trying to figure out what women want. I always say that DVF is your friend in the closet. You wake up, your eyes are swollen, you’re not feeling good, you don’t know what to do and you just go for your friends. That’s what we try to do. We try to be the friend in the closet.”
The event was part of “Make Some Noise,” a Neiman Marcus initiative in collaboration with American Express, celebrating bold women working in everything from fashion and philanthropy to technology.