“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was growing up, but I wanted to be an independent woman who could pay her own bills,” Diane von Furstenberg told a packed audience at the Fashion Institute of Technology Tuesday evening.

Von Furstenberg, who has served as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 2006, was the first speaker for “The CFDA at 50: The Presidents Speak” series celebrating 50 years of the CFDA’s achievements. The next two speakers will be Stan Herman on April 10 and Oscar de la Renta on April 19.

RELATED STORY: Diane Von Furstenberg RTW Fall 2012 >>

FIT is celebrating the CFDA jubilee with an exhibit at its museum, which runs through April 17, called “Impact,” a word von Furstenberg described as “synonymous with American fashion…aesthetic design but also pragmatic fashion.”

Von Furstenberg charmed an audience of over 270 with her personal insights on the trials and tribulation of becoming a world-class designer. Here’s what she had to say.

ON GETTING STARTED

As a wedding photo of she and Prince Egon von Furstenberg in 1969 was displayed, von Furstenberg said the tall, dark, handsome man in the background was Angelo Ferretti, a textile manufacturer for whom she had interned in Italy.

“I learned everything from him — applications, colors, pigment, knitting, mixing different yarns and making wonderful fabrics.…At the time, Egon lived in America and we met in Rome, where we got engaged. Angelo had a Maserati and we went very fast from factory to factory and I became nauseated and I thought it was because of the car. But I was pregnant. So I told him I’m getting married and I’m going to America and asked him if I could make a few [dress] samples.”

Von Furstenberg said she later “went back and forth to Italy. I did everything myself from my dining room table. It was a lot of work.…Of course, if I ordered blue goods I got red and everything was wrong. But everything I made sold.…After two years, I realized it would be easier to be part of a large company and become a division. I was 23 years old and pregnant, always pregnant.…The third person I saw was John Pomerantz. He said, ‘You don’t need us, all you need is a salesman and a showroom.’ But I was afraid and he said, ‘Come back next week,’ and I did and he introduced me to a man whom I thought was very old, 39 years old. He said, ‘I’ll be your salesman for $300 a week and 25 percent of the company.’ I thought 25 percent of nothing is good.

ON MEETING DIANA VREELAND

“I was very, very nervous and intimidated in this office.…Everyone was so glamorous and I was so unattractive and fat [pregnant].…I brought in this rack and started to show the clothes I had brought and heard her coming into the office.…There she was with her red nail polish and big cigarette holder. ‘Chin up, chin up, chin up,’ she told me and then said, ‘Oh, wonderful,’ and then I was out of the office. I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ Her assistant said, ‘I think she will help you,’ and suggested I take a room at the Gotham Hotel where the California designers show, and put a small ad in Women’s Wear Daily. That’s how I got started.”

FIRST BREAKTHROUGH

“It was a very tough time because it was the time of Mary Tyler Moore and dresses that stood up on their own on the floor.…In 1972, I made a little wrap top to go with a skirt and I turned it into a dress. I had my first Women’s Wear Daily cover and overnight everybody in America wanted a wrap dress and everyone came to me for licenses.”

FIRST ADVERTISEMENT

“For the first photograph I sat on an oversize cube but it was too big. So I wrote on it “Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress” and that saying has stayed with me ever since.”

ON REINVENTING HERSELF

“In 1976, I was on the cover of Newsweek at age 28. At the time, 25,000 dresses were being made each week — that’s 50,000 sleeves. But of course when you make too much of something you risk making too much of a product and stores began to mark down my dresses and I would be stuck with $400,000 of inventory. And of course, the companies who didn’t want anything to do with me at the beginning wanted to take over my company. So I thought ‘OK, I’ll become Estée Lauder.” My first fragrance was Tatiana, named after my daughter….I sold my cosmetic company in 1983. At that time, I had lost control of everything because everything was a licensee, so I went to Paris for five years and started a publishing house and worked with books.”

Von Furstenberg said when she returned to the U.S. in 1990 her brand had “disintegrated” in the market place. She thought she had landed a private label deal with Federated Department Stores, which later became Macy’s, and planned to pen a book to support the private label launch. But the deal fell through.
“It was horrible. The brand was distributed all over the place and the product had lost its point of view. I tried to meet with the licensees and they would just look at me like ‘Who the hell is she?’ At that time Federated had bought a lot of stores which became Macy’s and I met its ceo, Allen Questrom, and said why don’t I do private label for you and he thought it sounded like a good idea.…I went to Simon & Schuster and did a book deal and got a carriage house [as a design studio] on West 12th Street. Then, someone called me and said they decided they didn’t want to do the deal, something about a focus group in New Jersey that wouldn’t pay more for products by Diane von Furstenberg. I was really upset, but thank God it was Friday and I had time to think. On Monday, I called Rose Marie Bravo at Saks and asked ‘Do you think I should do those wrap dresses again?’ She said yes and the book came out.”

ON STAYING POWER

Von Furstenberg reflected on the longevity of her brand, which remains as contemporary as it was in the Seventies. 

“Mrs. Obama chose to wear the same printed wrap dress I designed 37 years ago in a photo in the family’s first Christmas card from The White House. That’s staying power.” 

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