NEW YORK — On the surface, Egon von Furstenberg was Prince Charming personified, the dashing, blond hero who turned a young Diane Halfin into his princess and gave her a fashion empire as a kingdom. But he didn’t exactly play by the rules of the standard fairy tale.
This story first appeared in the June 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Von Furstenberg, who died on Friday in a hospital in Rome at age 57, was the charismatic and controversial Austro-German prince with the breeding of a gentleman, if not the moral code. He was characteristic of a new generation of New York society, who commuted with designers and gadabouts from Studio 54 to Fire Island. Von Furstenberg was an investment banker, a fashion designer and a family man — remaining close to Diane von Furstenberg and their two children, Alexandre and Tatiana, even though their marriage lasted only four years — but was mostly known as an international playboy, turning up with great style at fashionable parties, nightclubs and hotels around the world.
The cause of death could not be learned. Services were held on Saturday at the Chiesa degli Artisti (The Artists Church) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Von Furstenberg’s body was then expected to be flown to Strobl, Austria, where he is to be buried today following a funeral mass in a church there.
“His personality being so big, it way overshadowed what his contributions were in terms of style,” said Calvin Klein, who befriended the von Furstenbergs in New York, where they moved following their wedding in 1969 and quickly became the couple of the moment. “But I think he was a great spokesperson of what was modern, for life and for freedom of expression. His sense of being overshadowed everything, and that was a gift.”
A picture in Vogue in 1969 of the young Prince Edouard Egon von und zu Fürstenberg, shirtless and sitting cross-legged in the village of Porto Rotondo in Sardinia, showed the “super looking brother of Princess Ira [who] takes his tan and the good beach life where he finds them —?which is all over the map” — a trait of internationalism that played throughout his life.
He was born in Switzerland, the son of two houses — on the side of his father, Prince Tassilo von Furstenberg, an Austro-German clan whose title dates back to the 15th century; on the side of his mother, Clara Agnelli, sister of the late Gianni Agnelli who controlled the Italian Fiat fortune. Through his family connections, he was christened by Pope John XXIII, and after his parents separated, von Furstenberg was raised in Venice with his older sister and a brother in a privileged existence, considering the family controlled about 37 percent of the country’s economy at that time, von Fürstenberg said in a 1994 interview in WWD’s sister publication W.
Von Furstenberg was never shy about going after whatever entertainment interested him at the moment, describing himself as a spoiled child who saw his first couture collection at the age of two, in his mother’s arms, and could identify a Pucci bathing suit on the beaches of Italy at four.
As an economics student at the University of Geneva, von Furstenberg met Halfin, who was from Belgium. They married in Montfort-l’Amaury in France and moved into adjoining apartments at 1050 Park Avenue, one for them and one for the children and their staff. They were a glamorous couple, appearing at El Morocco at night, while von Furstenberg proudly rode the subway each day to a training program at Chase Manhattan and then worked as an investment broker at Lazard Frères & Co. Diane knew she wanted to work, “and not be a Park Avenue socialite,” she once said, and her husband pushed her into fashion.
Through a friend, Angelo Ferretti, a flamboyant Italian entrepreneur who owned factories in Italy for printing, T-shirts and lingerie production, Diane von Furstenberg, pregnant with Alexandre, created a small collection of simple, printed T-shirt dresses that she brought back to America and presented to Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Vogue. With a partner on Seventh Avenue, she launched her signature collection in 1970 under the tag line, “Feel like a woman, wear a dress,” and the couple shot to fame with her signature jersey wrap dress, their photogenic good looks and enviable titles.
“Egon was a real beauty when he came on the scene in New York, and Diane was a gorgeous woman,” Klein said. “Egon was this absolute beauty. They were the couple of the moment.”
Yet they also personified the anything-goes element of the Seventies. A cover story in New York magazine in February 1973 set the social world ablaze when the couple discussed their open relationship. Diane commented that “the only way for a relationship to survive, I think, is to have no sex at all,” and Egon, a prince photographed with just a towel around his waist, said, “You just live once, and I am getting the most out of it. After a while, passion — you know —?cools. So a little here, a little there at three in the afternoon. What harm?” Were he to meet an attractive man, he said, he wouldn’t mind experimenting, and in later interviews, von Furstenberg declared himself bisexual.
That article did a lot of damage to his relationship with Diane, he once said, adding, “What she said, what I said, wasn’t what we thought of each other.” They divorced later that year.
He remarried several years after his divorce from Diane to the Mississippi-born Lynn Marshall, who had walked into his store on Madison Avenue. Their relationship was less dramatic, though they spent only about two months of the year together by the Nineties.
After tiring of banking, a career that he felt was expected, Egon worked for Korvettes as an assistant buyer and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology at night. While doing some women’s apparel, Egon was known best for his men’s wear, and started his own men’s wear line, first as part of Diane von Furstenberg’s collection and then on his own, with offices in the Empire State Building that he opened in 1972. He described his collection as “a look at a price,” arguing in favor of fashion for the volume market.
Oddly, despite their fortune, the von Furstenbergs were frugal, discussing their frequent travel to Europe on youth fares, taking the subway to work and Egon saying in Fairchild Publications’ Men’s Wear magazine, “I often walk 10 blocks to save a fare. But, on the other hand, I’ll spend $1,000 on something I truly want without hesitation.”
Von Furstenberg remained a fixture in New York throughout the Seventies, at Le Jardin, the Sewer and later at Studio 54. He described in W the scene on Fire Island with Calvin, Halston, Roy Cohn and David Geffen as “the craziest of them all. Studio was like a school of Southern Baptists next to what happened on Fire Island.” Yet Klein remembered how proud von Furstenberg was when his son Alex was born.
“I remember how he kept a picture of Alex on the night table next to his bed on Fire Island,” Klein said. “We always had that in common, that we had children, little children that we were so proud of.”
By 1978, von Furstenberg’s men’s wear company had 11 licenses in the U.S. and Italy. He published “The Power Look” with Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1978, a how-to-dress guide for men, with tips on exercise, sports, travel and success: “Where to find the movie colony in Bombay — a suburb called Juhn; how to prepare for conversation in Paris —?read Balzac, Proust and Kafka,” according to an article in W. Two years later, William Morris published “The Power Look at Home,” based on the dark and brooding interiors of von Furstenberg’s many apartments around the world.
In the late Eighties, von Furstenberg moved back to Italy, where his company remains based in Milan, selling both a collection of custom-made clothes and an inexpensive line marketed to retailers like Upim, Europe’s equivalent to J.C. Penney. However, he continued to spend winters in Miami, and traveled around to his other homes in Paris, Salzburg, Mexico City, Mikonos, Greece, and Rio de Janeiro, and even recently returned to New York to see a few fashion shows.
“He was a sweet, lovable friend that, even in dark moments, with his smile and joyful life, always brightened up the room,” said Valentino.
Von Furstenberg’s longtime friend Pierre Cardin recalled, “I knew Egon since he was a young boy of 17 on Capri and he wanted to be a designer. He was a good friend to me, and I am sorry to hear he is gone, especially as he was so young. He made a big name for himself and his story had such romance.”
Carla Fendi added that she met Egon in New York right after he married Diane. “They were a couple that took my breath away, with their innate beauty and elegance. Egon was a refined, brilliant, cheerful man with a great esthetic sensibility that he expressed in the world of fashion.”
Von Furstenberg is survived by his mother, Clara, his son Alex and his daughter, Tatiana.
Many of his friends acknowledged that von Furstenberg had been ill recently, and had been slowing down for years. Still, Mario Boselli, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said he saw the designer during the last women’s wear collections and was unaware von Furstenberg was sick. Klein last saw him this spring in Rio, where von Furstenberg owned an apartment facing the ocean and a house in the mountains outside the city.
“He was so great, he insisted on showing us the city, even though we had already been there before,” Klein said. “He wanted me to see it the way he sees it. We’ve all grown up now, but it was only a couple of years ago when I was on a dance floor in a club in Budapest, it was two in the morning, and who comes across the dance floor but Egon? I would always just unexpectedly run into him in fun places, he traveled so much. I always knew if I was in the right club in the right city, Egon would be there.”
— With contributions from Luisa Zargani, Amanda Kaiser and Alessandra Ilari, Milan, and Jessica Kerwin, Paris