At 68 years of age, Belgium-born fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg has possibly achieved more than what most women could hope to accomplish in a lifetime. She created the wrap dress (now a wardrobe staple favoured by celebrities to royals alike), built a successful multimillion-dollar fashion business, and currently serves as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
Interestingly enough, von Furstenberg didn’t even realise the extent of her own achievements, until recently. “For years, I made clothes and I was successful but I was almost always afraid of calling myself a designer,” she admits as we chat over tea. “But last year, when I saw my exhibition in Los Angeles [Journey of A Dress], it was very much a defining moment for me,” she muses. “It made me realise the impact of that one dress over 40 years. That was big.”
The designer’s ascent to fashion’s highest echelons is one of the industry’s favourite fairy tales. Shortly after her marriage in the late 1960s to Egon von Furstenberg, heir to a noble German family, the feisty young woman decided to carve out a career of her own and launched her own fashion line (and with it, the now iconic wrap dress). She soon relocated from Como, Italy to New York City where she became the toast of society circles, and was often spotted at the now legendary Studio 54. “The Seventies was a very fun decade to be young,” recalls von Furstenberg. “We thought we invented freedom!”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The eponymous brand that von Furstenberg had painstakingly built started to lose its direction by the 1980s, prompting its leading lady to take a hiatus from it all. A divorce and a remarriage later, she revitalised the label in 1997. Today, Diane von Furstenberg has a presence in over 55 countries, with 116 owned and partnered stores throughout North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
“I empowered myself,” says von Furstenberg of her entire journey thus far, from a young 20-something with a suitcase of jersey dresses to the empire she has today. “And now, I want to empower women. I want every woman to be the woman they want to be. And that’s what I do in my work; I want to give women things that can make their lives better.”
She gestures at a bag sitting on the glass coffee table in front of us. “Like this bag, it is the metaphor of the whole [Autumn/Winter 2015] collection,” she says. With a flourish, she demonstrates how the bag’s front pocket detaches to become a clutch. “It’s very practical and you can wear it in so many ways,” she explains. “Everything is ready at anytime.” Titled Seduction, the collection channels the idea of a woman who is commanding in the workplace, and yet feminine, says von Furstenberg. A predominantly red, pink, black and blue colour palette is used, with pinstriped patterns, lace and soft fabrics giving it a sexy and confident vibe.
Now, 41 years into her career, the message of female empowerment is pervasive in everything that she does. She imparts these ideals to the next generation, both through her reality show House Of DVF — which she reckons is a “way to pass some good messages on to young girls and tell them that you don’t have to be a bitch to be successful” — and through her role at the CFDA where she mentors young designers.
“I think there are so many good designers now,” she says like a proud parent. “The CFDA/Vogue [Fashion] Fund has launched so many designers: Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Derek Lam…” she recites, ticking the names off her fingers. Asked for her personal favourites, she laughs and notes that as the “mother of them all”, she shouldn’t comment, but with a grin throws in a few names for good measure anyway: Joseph Altuzarra, Thakoon and Victoria Beckham. “They have their own identity,” she explains.
More than just a fashion icon, von Furstenberg is an inspiration. But does she credit her success to how clear in thought her younger self was, I ask. “Oh no, no,” she dismisses with a laugh. “When you are young, you don’t know where your journey will take you. You don’t know which door is going to be your door and then suddenly, one of them is, you know?”
She does add that although she did not know what exactly what road to take, she always knew the kind of woman she wanted to be. “I wanted to be independent,” she states. After a pause, she adds: “You should read my book.” Her memoir, The Woman I Wanted To Be, was launched in October 2014. “It’s all in there. I spoke with my heart and it’s very personal. You will like it.”
With that, she hands me a copy inscribed with the words: “Be the woman you want to be” — a message addressed to me, yet so easily a universal message for every woman.