Authors: Gioia Diliberto
and for Joe
he first time I saw Diane von Furstenberg, in the mid-1980s, she was alone, walking up the rue de Seine in Paris dressed like a Left Bank intellectual in a black sweater, black pants, and flat shoes. For a woman who was known for wearing sexy dresses, Cleopatra makeup, stilettoes, and luxuriant falls of fake hair, she looked startlingly unadorned—more Susan Sontag than DVF—with her face scrubbed clean and a frizz of natural curls foaming around her head. Her curvy body, though, had a sinuous grace hinting at lost glamour, and the moment she pushed in the tall doors at number 12 and disappeared into the courtyard beyond, I realized who she was.
When I saw her again, five years later, this time on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, she’d been returned to full glamour mode—heels, fishnets, slinky dress, and fur coat. It was at the height of antifur chic in New York, when the only people who dared wear fur on the street were pimps and pushers. Diane, though, didn’t seem concerned that someone might throw a can of paint on her. She looked invincible. But her businesswoman-on-top-of-her-game appearance was just an act, like her
bluestocking pose in Paris. The relationship with the European writer for whom she’d forsaken Fashion had ended. She was struggling to restart her business and regain her confidence.
These glimpses of Diane in Paris and New York pointed to the roller coaster quality of her life and her talent for reinventing herself with every rise and fall of fortune. They also offered clues to her enduring success in Fashion, a world defined by ephemerality. Diane knows from her own experience how seductive it can be to don a more intriguing identity, to live your dreams by becoming someone else.
In 1973, at the dawn of the disco era when she was just twenty-seven, she created the wrap dress and became rich and famous. Within three years, more than a million wraps were sold. During a time of deep feminist stirring, the dress thrived as a cult object, symbolizing a woman’s right to be liberated
alluring. Diane had come up with the idea following the breakup of her marriage to the hard-partying Austrian prince Egon von Furstenberg. He’d left her with two children and a princess title, conferring on her a whiff of otherworldly romance that fueled her fame.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles portrayed her as the epitome of a new kind of woman, the alpha female who made her own millions, dressed flamboyantly, and took lovers whenever she wanted. Diane didn’t follow the seventies paradigm of what a woman needed to do to get ahead. She didn’t tamp down her allure in order to be taken seriously. Nor was she superior, as it was thought a woman had to be, to the men who dominated her métier. She befriended such male stars of American fashion as Halston and Oscar de la Renta, but she never tried to compete with their finely crafted clothes. Instead, she forged her own path in step with the cultural zeitgeist. From the seventies through the nineties—decades when women would travel further toward financial independence, sexual freedom, and professional success than they ever had before—Diane dressed them for the rocky journey.
Over the years, I’d seen pictures of Diane, panther-eyed and sleekly coiffed, looking out from glossy photos, including the cover of
in 1976, and in advertisements urging women to “feel like a woman, wear a dress.” I’d heard her on the radio preaching a gospel of independence, advising women how to lead a man’s life and still be a woman, how to find love and happiness and professional success, and look hot while doing it. I’d read about her late nights at Studio 54 and her many affairs, including one with actor Richard Gere and another with a South American artist she met on the beach in Bali. And I’d been wearing her clothes for years. Few fashion-conscious young women in the seventies were indifferent to the charms of the wrap dress, and I owned my share. Only after I began work on this book, however, did I learn from Diane the proper way to wear one.
We were standing in the fifth-floor kitchen of the downtown building where she lives and works, clearing the dishes from a light supper of salads her cook had prepared. Diane looked intently at my dress, at its black top and flared skirt in a black and white abstract print, and though the meal had been excellent, her face took on the expression of someone who’d just eaten something unpleasant. “You’ve got it all wrong,” she said, furrowing her brow.
She untied the narrow sash of my dress and pulled the silk jersey top as tight as she could across my waist, then retied it, looping the sash just once. “If you do it right, it stays,” she said.
Diane had performed this ritual on scores of women through the years—tying and untying wrap dresses for customers of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. She loves to hear from women how they fell in love or asked for a promotion in a DVF dress, how her clothes gave them confidence and pleasure, lifted their spirits, and, for a few moments, let them forget their troubles. What is fashion, after all, if not a release from reality, a way to fool yourself for a while that the world is a better place than it is?
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT
the remarkable life of a unique personality who built a fashion empire around a vision that has as much to do with
womanhood and its complexities as it does with clothes. Diane created a style that was bold without being hard-edged, sexy without being vulgar, and cheerful without being unsophisticated. Its appeal derived from the insight it reflected into what women
wanted. Diane understood the tensions in women’s lives—between work and family, love and independence, femininity and ambition—because she’d struggled with them herself. Her ultimate triumph came after a series of humiliating failures. She tested the principles on which she built her life and her business but in the end returned to them with more purpose than ever. “I have clarity again. But I went through some horrible times,” says the multilingual Diane, adding in one of her quirky misuses of an English word, “I lost security [that is, confidence] in my own company.”
As a CEO, Diane broke every rule about how a businesswoman should behave, vamping into meetings in fishnets and clingy jersey and sidling up to male colleagues while purring, “What is your sign?”
Her life brims with such contradictions. A fierce feminist, Diane has nonetheless repeatedly upended her life for lovers, moving households, neglecting her business, and even once selling an apartment to be with a man. She’s made a great deal of money, and spent a great deal, too. She seems to have spent much of her career in financial denial, and unable to keep track of her fortune, she’s almost gone bankrupt twice.
In a fashion world defined by exclusion and cruel hierarchies, she is known for her generosity and kindness. There is nothing she wouldn’t do for her family and friends—extravagant presents, infusions of cash when needed, sympathy and encouragement. She’s become a kind of Queen Mother of Fashion, beloved by her fellow designers, her employees, and the rank and file of the industry—seamstresses, stylists, salespeople, photographers, and publicists.
Her second act has been aided by the ascendance of fashion in the new millennium as a potent pop-culture force. Diane works hard to keep her name in the daily conversation by blogging, tweeting, Instagramming, and talking endlessly to the press, often about her favorite causes for
“empowering” women—“my mission in life,” she says. In 2010 she created the DVF Awards, which each year honor several women activists. She’s also become deeply involved with Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit foundation that promotes women’s economic progress, and she’s spoken out against some of the most controversial issues in fashion: the prevalence of anorectic and underage models and the underrepresentation on the catwalk of minority women.
Diane wants her company to last long after she’s gone, but paradoxically, some of the qualities that have made DVF the woman an icon—including her openness, curiosity, and eagerness to try just about anything—have hurt her brand. “She’s a terrible, terrible manager,” says her son, Alex von Furstenberg, who runs a private investment office for the von Furstenberg family and sits on the board of his mother’s company. “My mom says yes to this person and yes to that person. She has a good meeting with someone and says, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ be it a children’s line or housewares.”
From time to time she still gets involved in “crap” licensing deals, as Alex puts it, such as a fragrance she did in 2011 “that went nowhere and we had to buy it back for more than we put up” to get it off the market.
, as her intimates call her, using the French pronunciation of her name, would never brood on such mistakes. She is militantly upbeat. “I never get in fights, and I have no memory of pain,” she wrote in her first autobiography. She doesn’t hold grudges; she’s not interested in staying angry. She has an uncynical belief in the inherent goodness of people and has remained friends with almost all of her old beaus. When she’s upset, she doesn’t scream. But those who know her well—and some of her staff have been with her for forty years—know when she’s displeased. “The vibrations are so intense, the walls are shaking,” says Olivier Gelbsman, her lifelong friend and director of DVF Home Design.
In 2001 Diane married for the second time, to media mogul Barry Diller, with whom she had been close for decades. Their marriage is different from yours and mine. They have more money. Also, they don’t live
together. In New York, Diane stays in the loftlike apartment high above the DVF boutique in the Meatpacking District that is also the site of her company’s headquarters. On entering the building, visitors see one full set of the silkscreen portraits Andy Warhol made of Diane in 1982, and half of the set the artist made in 1974. (The other half hangs in Diane’s Paris apartment.) She sleeps alone under a bamboo pavilion draped in beige linen that looks like it could be the home of a Bedouin fashionista in the Moroccan desert. While in Manhattan, Diller stays at the Carlyle Hotel. The couple travel together, however, including excursions on
Diller’s immense yacht, and they spend time together at Cloudwalk, Diane’s estate in Connecticut, and at Diller’s house in Los Angeles.
In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the wrap, Diane collected wrap-dress stories from women around the world—women could post their stories through a link on her website, dvf.com, in Chinese, Flemish, French, Portuguese, Russian, or Thai. Like thousands of others, I, too, have a wrap-dress tale: One night in 1977 while wearing a green and white geometric-print wrap to an interview for a job as a newspaper reporter, I noticed a good-looking young man with sandy hair and kind blue eyes sitting at the rewrite desk. He noticed me, too. After I got the job, we began dating, and we were married a couple of years later. It was the start of a new life for me, and though I had no way of knowing it at the time, almost the end for Diane. That year, her business nearly went bankrupt.
Once you’ve left your seat in the front row of Fashion, it’s almost impossible to reclaim it. Fashion is a world that worships the new and reviles the old, where one moment you’re in and the next you’re out. That is its glory and its curse. Diane is the rare designer who has defied the odds, and today she is once again on top. Her comeback turned out to be a bigger success than she dreamed, with her clothes, accessories, and home-design products in stores across the nation and DVF boutiques in seventeen nations beyond the United States (forty-seven stores in Asia alone), as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Museum exhibits have honored
her life and work, and since 2006 she has reigned as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the influential nonprofit association that promotes American fashion through awards to designers and collaborative programs with retailers.
Her sixty-eight-year-old face appears unaltered by plastic surgery. Her reddish brown hair, several shades lighter than it was in her youth, tumbles in curls to her shoulders. She often wears one of her colorful, above-the-knee sheaths, high heels, and an oversized gold-link bracelet, each link engraved with one of her meditation sutras.
In her traveling for store appearances and chatting up customers, Diane’s life today is similar to when she first started out, hurrying through airports, a garment bag slung over her shoulder, on her way to catch an early flight to Cleveland or Dallas or Miami. Now, however, she has access to a private plane, and there’s no problem staying late. She doesn’t leave until she’s signed autographs and posed for pictures with every last fan who wants one. No one knows better than Diane how completely women identify her clothes with images of the flesh-and-blood woman herself.