Diane von Furstenberg has often said that she owes her own freedom and independence to the wrap dress, which made her a household name 40 years ago, and she’s positioned philanthropy — particularly women’s empowerment — among her top passions ever since.
“I think she feels as though she is a woman who has made it beyond what her wildest dreams were,” said Alyse Nelson, president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices, the Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization that trains and empowers emerging female leaders around the world. Von Furstenberg has been a board member of Vital Voices since the early Aughts, when she started donating a percentage of sales from her store on International Women’s Day to the organization — and still does.
“She looks around and she wants to give back,” Nelson continued. “But she doesn’t just want to write a check. She wants to get personally involved in women’s lives.”
In 1999, von Furstenberg founded the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation with her husband, Barry Diller, and her children from her first marriage to Egon von Furstenberg, Alexander and Tatiana. The private foundation provides philanthropic support to nonprofit groups in arts, education, human rights and the environment. “All of us have different causes — mine tend to be around women and girls,” von Furstenberg said.
One of the events the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation underwrites is the annual DVF Awards, which heighten exposure to individuals who work on women’s causes and provides grants of $50,000 to further their efforts. The event saw its fifth installment last April, honoring Alicia Keys, Gloria Steinem and three others — two of whom were chosen from the Vital Voices global network of women. Past honorees include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Smart and Natalia Vodianova.
“There are so many women doing amazing things, so it is very difficult to narrow the field [to five women each year],” von Furstenberg said.
Many of the chosen women, like Sunitha Krishnan, activist and cofounder of Prajwala who was honored in 2013, are former victims of sex trafficking and abuse, violence or other hardships.
“She turns them into survivors,” said Nelson. “One of the things [Diane] says that I love is that she’s never met a woman who isn’t strong. Sometimes that strength is being pushed down [if a woman] is in an abusive relationship or difficult financial situation, but when that strength is tested, it comes out.”
Beyond her work with women’s organizations, von Furstenberg has been involved in several charity initiatives in her role as president of the CFDA since 2009: most notably Fashion for Haiti, Fashion for Sandy, Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, Seventh on Sale benefitting AIDS and HIV research and the organization’s health initiative for models.
“She’s always present and involved in those programs, but really what she’s demonstrated since she’s been president is the organization’s response to disasters,” Steven Kolb, ceo of the CFDA, explained. “When [the earthquake] in Haiti happened, that very morning Diane immediately said, ‘What are we doing as an organization?’
“She was organizing very quickly to get the industry behind a collective effort, and [likewise] with Hurricane Sandy here. She sees the human element and she responds very much to how those disasters impact people,” Kolb said. “But she also understands the power of the fashion industry and the message that it can send to the world.”
The Fashion for Haiti campaign donated $1 million to the Clinton Bush Haiti fund, while the Fashion for Sandy Relief initiative raised $1.7 million for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and other relief organizations.
Another cause dear to von Furstenberg’s heart is the cultural enrichment of the Meatpacking District.
“It is where I live and work and it has always been so welcoming to me,” she said of the neighborhood. In 2011, the Diller-von Furstenberg foundation bestowed a record $20 million gift to the High Line — which ultimately helped finish the project — amounting to a total pledge of $35 million over the years. To honor the foundation and the Diller-von Furstenberg family, Friends of the High Line renamed the High Line headquarters the Diller-von Furstenberg Building.
Von Furstenberg is also a board member of the Culture Shed at Hudson Yards, a cultural center slated to open in 2018 that’s said to be the future home of New York Fashion Week.
Von Furstenberg said it is her mission in life to empower women through her work, mentoring and philanthropy. She even has a dedicated section called Giving Back on her Web site.
“Where she goes, people will follow,” said Nelson. “She’s got a voice that carries weight with a different kind of audience. She’s made these issues cool to a whole new generation of men and women.”