Wonder Woman: Diane von Furstenberg
For almost half a century, Diane von Furstenberg has designed clothing based on freedom and power. Today, her devotion to fashion is balanced by a commitment to philanthropy honoring women everywhere—including Lady Liberty
Diane von Furstenberg starts each day with a task that just might change someone’s life. “My first two emails every morning are meant to do something that doesn’t benefit me,” von Furstenberg explains. “Once you become well-known, you understand the power that comes with your voice and your relationships. So with these two emails, I make introductions between people who might never have met, but I believe there could be a benefit for them. I explain why I think this might be a great connection, and I let them take it from there. I love doing this; it’s like having a magic wand on my desk.”
The legendary designer is sitting in her fifth-floor office in the headquarters of her eponymous company, located in New York’s Meatpacking District. Of course, von Furstenberg’s presence is among the reasons this neighborhood on the city’s West Side has developed its enviable hip quotient. She’s lived and worked here for more than 20 years, first in a cozy carriage house that served as both her home and studio before she decided to buy three buildings at the corner of West 14th and Washington streets, combining them into a seamless statement of retail space, showroom and offices. (A stylish bedroom also has been designed in a glass-enclosed aerie on the roof level; von Furstenberg splits her time between this Manhattan penthouse and the homes in Connecticut and Beverly Hills that she shares with husband Barry Diller, whom she married in 2001.) Her office doubles as a living area, and here von Furstenberg has surrounded herself with artwork and objects that highlight a life supremely well-lived. She sits on a mustard-hued sofa beneath her portrait by Chinese artist Zhang Huan. Across the room is a vintage pink and white Lips sofa by Salvador Dalí that inspired a similar motif in her prints and jewelry designs, while a gold-accented mandala hangs nearby, a gift from the King and Queen of Bhutan during a trip von Furstenberg took to the Himalayan country with fellow designer Christian Louboutin.
Moving in such circles helped to inspire her morning email idea, though von Furstenberg has been thinking about how success can be paid forward for many years. “As you fight and create an identity for yourself, what happens when you get successful? One, you can pay your bills; but two, you have a voice,” she says. “And it’s your duty to use that voice for people who have no voice.” That was one of the thoughts behind the DVF Awards, which will present its 10th annual ceremony on April 11. Von Furstenberg’s son, Alexander, suggested the event as a way for The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation to recognize and support women around the world. “He said, ‘Perhaps you should do an award in which the foundation could give them money, and you could give them exposure,’ ” she remembers. “I was initially a little shy about it, but then I started thinking about how it could be done. It’s been amazing. Many of the women are unknown, but they’ve become known after this—and they also become part of our family.”
Last year’s event honored a wide range of women, from high-profile names such as ballet dancer Misty Copeland and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to those who don’t always garner headlines, even as they create crucial programs to assist women and families around the globe. Von Furstenberg sits on the board of Vital Voices, the Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit organization that helps to identify women like Ariela Suster, who left a career in New York’s magazine industry to return to her native El Salvador. There, she founded Sequence, a jewelry and accessories collection handcrafted by local artisans, with additional programs intended to encourage careers and discourage gang culture. Each DVF Award winner receives a $50,000 grant from The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation to assist with her chosen programs and philanthropic efforts.
“Philanthropy is not just about giving a lot of money. It’s about paying attention to people, and paying attention to details,” von Furstenberg says. “These women are remarkable; whenever I meet any of them, I feel so humble.” There’s another inspiration behind the awards: her own mother, Liliane Nahmias, born in Greece and a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Belgium, where she met and married Leon Halfin, von Furstenberg’s father. “These women all share the same qualities my mother had: the strength to fight, the courage to survive, and the leadership to inspire. That’s the mission, every year.”
Photo by Roger Prigent 1972, Courtesy of Mrs Yvonne Prigent Lacks
"I think your clothes are absolutely smashing.” Diana Vreeland wrote those words to von Furstenberg in 1970. It’s one of fashion’s most famous anecdotes, how the wife of Swissborn Prince Egon von Furstenberg arrived in New York with a suitcase filled with her own designs, crafted from silk jersey in bold colors and graphic prints, an aesthetic she honed prior to her marriage while apprenticing in an Italian textile factory. (Diane and Egon divorced in 1983; in addition to Alexander, they also had a daughter, Tatiana, and today Diane is a grandmother of four.)
Vreeland, then the editor-in-chief of Vogue and the most influential woman in fashion, flipped over von Furstenberg’s designs, adding in that 1970 note, “Also, do you need any help with stores?” Today the Diane von Furstenberg label is sold in more than 70 countries through more than 875 points of distribution, including 111 DVF stores across four continents. While she founded her label in 1972, it wasn’t until 1974 that von Furstenberg introduced her most iconic design: the wrap dress.
It was initially inspired by the little wrap sweaters she saw ballet dancers wearing over their leotards on the New York streets, but she also saw in her design a newfound sense of freedom, an idea that a woman could look professional, polished and feminine in the workplace at a time when “suitable office attire” often translated to wardrobes that were either dowdy or heavily inspired by menswear. The design was almost instantly celebrated: Cybill Shepherd wore a wrap dress in 1976’s Taxi Driver; more recently, Amy Adams wore the style in a vintage green and white DVF print in the 1970s-set American Hustle, released in 2013. And Michelle Obama wore a wrap dress in DVF’s signature chain-link print for the 2009 White House Christmas card.
As the wrap dress celebrates its 45th year in 2019 as a staple in the closets of fashionable women, a question arises: Does she ever tire of talking about her most famous design? “I used to, because I would think about how I’ve done so many things, but not anymore. I’ve decided to own it and enjoy it,” she says.
“DVF has always been a brand that’s about giving you confidence. It’s your friend in your closet.”
Her Spring 2019 collection likewise reflects this philosophy. The clothes are inspired by “a pioneer spirit,” and while some fabrications, like a cotton floral print or a breezy eyelet in black or white, evoke thoughts of American plains and amber waves of grain, pioneers in this instance are defined as strong, fearless women, not unlike von Furstenberg herself. It was Nathan Jenden, the house’s chief design officer and vice president of creative, who pointed out how von Furstenberg suited such a timeless idea. Sandra Campos, who joined the company as CEO in April 2018, agrees.
“I expected to meet someone who was a little more stuffy, a little more removed from the real world I had been living in,” Campos recalls of her early conversations with von Furstenberg about the position. “Instead I met someone who not only is extraordinarily on top of her business, but also knows pop culture, modern technology, what’s new in retail, so many things. The more we talked—and we spoke for several months—the more it became clear to me that she is very innovative. She wants to make her company a success, but doesn’t want to do things the same old way.”
Lately von Furstenberg says she’s been thinking about her legacy, and is determined to refocus the brand so it appeals to women of all ages and sizes. In April DVF will launch two designs on 11 Honoré, the e-commerce site that offers high-end styles for women in sizes 10 to 20. DVF will join a roster that includes Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung and Brandon Maxwell; additional projects are expected to debut this summer. “This is our first foray into a more size-inclusive customer, but it’s really just the beginning,” Campos says.
Another iconic woman is also drawing von Furstenberg’s focus. In 2016 she was named chair of the fund-raising campaign for the new Statue of Liberty Museum, a 26,000-square-foot space that will open its doors on Liberty Island on May 16, largely thanks to the $100 million generated through von Furstenberg’s efforts. “I didn’t want to do it at first, take on another project,” she says. “But the person who convinced me had read my book [The Woman I Wanted to Be, published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster]. In it, I quoted my mother, who once wrote to me, ‘God saved me so I could give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom.’ He read that and said, ‘You cannot refuse this.’ ”
The museum’s opening will coincide with the release of both an app and a planned HBO documentary, in which von Furstenberg interviews Statue of Liberty historians. The project also inspired her Pre-Fall 2019 collection— and by sheer coincidence, Lady Liberty was a reference point in the Pre-Fall collections of Versace and Chanel. “I couldn’t believe it,” von Furstenberg says of the shows produced by those labels, which bowed in December just prior to her own. “But it doesn’t matter—when it comes to Liberty, I am her godmother.”
As von Furstenberg considers the future, she knows the duality of work and philanthropy will continue to play an integral role. “Life is an exchange—I give, you give,” she says. “That’s the one thing you learn when you get older. I’m 72, you know.”
Von Furstenberg contradicts this age in so many ways, in not only her demanding schedule and boundless energy, but also her physical presence, exuding confidence as she strides into her office in a graphic-print tunic dress of her own design, paired with flat boots in black suede and a lioness-like mane of chestnut hair. Though her appearance may sound a bit imposing, she’s spent her life learning how to put people at ease, a talent that has served her well, whether she’s sending introductory emails or raising $100 million to honor an American landmark.
That’s a vast range, but it suits her style. As Diane von Furstenberg puts it, “One thing is certain: Life doesn’t have to be boring.”