From day one, Diane von Furstenberg has been a journalist’s delight, a ready-made gift from the press gods. And in the 40-plus years since she arrived on American soil — as one half of a young, exotic European royal power couple, ready to work hard, play hard — there has been no dearth of copy devoted to her story. It’s a fairy tale, really, except the Belgian princess ends up as president — of American fashion: three terms and counting at the CFDA — and her (second) prince charming is a bona fide media king.
Casual research yields an avalanche of press clippings chronicling four decades of DVF’s fabulousness and fortitude: her 1969 marriage to Prince Egon von Furstenberg, who gave her their two children and her name; her sensational wrap dresses and her company’s resulting fortune. Newsweek! Cloudwalk! Open marriage! Divorce!
Market oversaturation. Fashion irrelevance. A string of high-profile flings followed by a four-year lovers’ retreat to Bali, then four years playing the part of obedient Parisian homemaker. And then — poof! — the epiphany that working, specifically in fashion, was her identity. Von Furstenberg made her reentry through the very un-glam back door of QVC in 1992.
Through the ups and downs, there is a consistent figure: Barry Diller, DVF’s billionaire best friend, who she married in 2001, forming a union that, at the time, WWD described as “a bit too Cole Porter for the undersophisticated.” Writers have routinely described von Furstenberg as “feline” and a “catwoman” for her seductive purr. She always seems to land on her feet.
Lest anyone wonder what could possibly be left to tell about this woman’s life, in addition to this article and the entire, 40-page special section in WWD, von Furstenberg has a new book out this month titled “The Woman I Wanted to Be.” It’s the sixth she’s written about herself and her lifestyle. Other DVF editions include “Diane: A Signature Life,” “The Table,” “The Bath,” “Beds” and “Diane von Furstenberg’s Book of Beauty.” There’s also a forthcoming biography called “Diane von Furstenberg: Her Own Brilliant Invention” by Gioia Diliberto, which von Furstenberg mentioned on the last Wednesday in July during a two-hour window she allotted for WWD before sailing off on Eos, Diller’s 305-foot yacht, until September.
It’s fair to say von Furstenberg would be the kind of girl girls love to hate if she weren’t a girl’s girl — a woman’s woman, rather — down to her marrow.
“My mother always told me, ‘It’s so important to be a woman.’ I so much like to be a woman,” said von Furstenberg. “So women’s causes, clearly, resonate to me. The first thing was to empower myself, but the minute I was empowered, it was to empower other women through my work, selling confidence.”
Her mantra of female celebration and power has always been the fiber — jersey aside — of her brand. “Feel like a woman, wear a dress,” was the directive she wrote to accompany her first wrap-dress campaign in 1972. That spirit remains dynamic today, which finds DVF in a reflective moment. “I’m at the autumn of my life, which is nice because it’s also my favorite season and the afternoon is my favorite moment of the day,” she said, sitting in the corner of a massive purple couch in her pink palace of an office on 14th Street. “It’s a very good time to be, and now…you know, I’m delusional. I am 67 years old. That is old.”
Von Furstenberg is in legacy mode, positioning her company for the future using the considerable flash of her past. In January, she staged her blowout retrospective wrap exhibition, “Journey of a Dress,” in the former May Department store space in Los Angeles, the final leg of its international tour, which included South America and China. Her latest memoir, “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” furthers the brand’s endowment.
“I was so honest that I almost felt like I’m at the gynecologist,” said von Furstenberg. “I mean, I hold nothing back.”
Oh, yes, a journalist’s delight.
Divided into chapters including “Roots,” “Love Beauty,” “The American Dream,” “The Comeback Kid” and “The New Era,” the book gets personal: losing her virginity; the first time she slept with Diller, when both were so nervous they each took a Valium and fell asleep; the first time she actually had sex with Diller; her “girl crush” on Gia Carangi; surviving cancer; her insecurities about aging, and her many business impulses and misjudgments. Anyone remember Diane, the store she opened on a whim in the Sherry-Netherland hotel?
“It’s my journey with my faults and my advances,” she said. “I realize how crazily impulsive I am and how it’s good and how it’s bad. But I also became the woman I wanted to be through fashion — and through fashion, that was my way of giving it to other women. There’s so many messages. The message is that it doesn’t matter how successful you are, you can still be insecure. But at the same time, the big message is, the most important thing in life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because if you have that, then any other relationship is a plus and not a must.”
For all her fascinating history, von Furstenberg is very much a creature of the now. “I was so lucky to be young in the Seventies and enjoy the Seventies and have fun at Studio 54 but be young enough to be part of the digital revolution,” she says. “I love the digital revolution. I love my e-mail. I love the fact that I can introduce to you somebody else without ever speaking. It gives me so much flexibility. I have access to everything. I can see, learn, everything at any time I want. I love that.”
Two years ago, during a preview of her spring collection with WWD, DVF stopped the walk-through and said, “I want to introduce you to someone.” Enter Sergey Brin, doing his best to validate the Silicon Valley stereotype in shower sandals, gym shorts and a thermal, a deer in headlights in front of a clique of fashion editors. After a round of introductions, von Furstenberg said something to the effect of “How does it feel to shake a $10 billion hand?” She wouldn’t reveal what Brin was doing in her studio, but, a few days later, Google Glass launched on her spring 2013 runway. Though Google Glass has yet to gain mainstream traction, it’s on its way courtesy of von Furstenberg’s fashion eyewear collaboration earlier this year.
Such a partnership is a testament to von Furstenberg’s instincts, her ability to see, since her first business venture, where the culture is going. She was, after all, a princess selling affordable dresses based on the design of a bathrobe. She also shilled Diane von Furstenberg Silk Assets, her line of washable silk separates, on QVC before home shopping was a celebrity sure thing. (To be fair, Susan Lucci was there first.)
Asked where that intuition comes from, von Furstenberg replied, “Because I care! I read. I’m reading [“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty] because I care about the distribution of wealth. People don’t see it as a revolution. People pay no attention to what is going around in the world. I mean, I am engaged. Once you are a little bit successful, once you have a voice, you meet people.”
Von Furstenberg has always run in an impressive circle. There were Egon and Barry, of course, but a few of the names that punch up the copy of her book include Marisa Berenson, Yves Saint Laurent, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andy Warhol, Richard Gere. The guest list at her July 4, 1976, party included Mike Nichols, Candice Bergen, Louis Malle, Milos Forman, Slim Keith and Claudette Colbert. She’s bonded with Bruce Springsteen over their love-hate relationship with their curly hair. Deepak Chopra made a house call to Cloudwalk when von Furstenberg received her cancer diagnosis.
Exposure like that is not only good for networking and business deals but also impacts one’s world view. What does a woman blessed with the best of the best think of the current global state of affairs?
“Truly, right now, I am very worried about the world,” said von Furstenberg, referring to the intolerance and terrorism emanating from the Middle East. “I think it’s never been as scary as it is right now for me in my lifetime. Who would have thought we would have religious wars now? When I was young, there was none of that. So, it’s a very scary moment.”
Von Furstenberg is nothing if not a consummate optimist. Thus: “But what I like about now is this new technology,” she said. “Thank God. Imagine if there were no digital revolution? All the wealth would be built on investment and real estate. It would be so depressing. This new wealth and new ideas and all these people — it’s so fun. They don’t really care about money. They want to change the world. They want to conquer Mars, they want to do all these things, and I think that’s really exciting.”
She, too, is thinking ahead, particularly when it comes to her company. At 67, she has a renewed business focus, investing in infrastructure so that DVF, the brand, can thrive once the woman herself is no longer involved.
In October 2013, von Furstenberg’s then-president Paula Sutter left the company. Sutter began working with DVF in 1999 and was instrumental in building back the brand from scratch. “We were Thelma and Louise,” said von Furstenberg, referring to the relaunch with Sutter. “She was 31 and had just had a baby. She had so much energy, and it was so much fun. And it was really a women’s company. We rode the wave in a big way.”
They had a $200 million business. Von Furstenberg wanted a $2 billion business. In 2012, Joel Horowitz, the former partner of Tommy Hilfiger, came on as cochair of DVF’s board. Since then, they have made massive internal changes, including the recent hire of Michael Herz as artistic director. He comes from Bally and curated the “Journey of a Dress” exhibition.
“I really would love for Michael to be my Christopher Bailey,” said von Furstenberg. “Right now, my role in the company is to carve as deep into the DNA as I possibly can so that the company will be able to live after me. People say, why do you always say that? Because I always think that way. Everybody that comes to Cloudwalk, I take them to show them where I’m going to be buried. There’s not a day in my life that I don’t think I can die.…So, now, I realize that, OK, my company should last after me. And, therefore, I want to prepare it.”
Von Furstenberg is scouting for a new ceo. The dress exhibition and the book are all part of the boost strategy. Later this year, a television show, “The DVF Project,” will air on the E network. The premise involves young women competing for the role of DVF global ambassador. “She’s got to be more than pretty,” said von Furstenberg. “It’s basically about young girls learning about the fashion business. It’s also about all those shows that tell you that if you have fake tits or if you’re the bitch, you win — and this is the opposite. I’m very nurturing, very mentoring. It’s fun.”
Maternal warmth comes naturally to von Furstenberg. She exudes it. She interrupts an interview to take a call from her daughter, Tatiana, with whom she speaks once a day. One side of their conversation: “Oh, God bless you! I’m so happy for you. I love you so much, Tatiana. I love you so much. And I love the House of the Right Words. I love it. I love it. Yes, I love it. I love it, and I’m so proud of you. And I love you, love you, love you. And I only picked up because it was you, but I can’t speak. OK, God bless. Ciao.”
“She bought Norman Mailer’s house in Provincetown,” von Furstenberg explained.
She encourages all women to have children. She’s the woman she is today because of her own mother, Lily Nahmias, who survived 13 months in Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. She was 22 years old and weighed 49 pounds when she was liberated from the camps. Pregnancy was not recommended for someone who had been through such physical stress, but von Furstenberg was born a year and a half after Lily’s liberation. Von Furstenberg says it wasn’t until her mother’s death, in 2000, that she realized what an influence her mother had been. Lily was not the coddling type.
“She was very tough,” von Furstenberg reflected. “She was a tiger mother.” Though that wasn’t DVF’s parenting style, she believes in the tiger mom.
Asked if her mother gave von Furstenberg her work ethic, DVF said, “No. She told me that I was responsible for myself.”