Diane von Furstenberg: The Woman I Wanted To Be
In her new memoir The Woman I Wanted To Be, Diane von Furstenberg details her extraordinary life – from her fairy tale marriage to a prince to the creation of the iconic wrap dress.
Yet despite the 67-year-old’s successful career, the memoir is not just about fashion, though it is ripe with business and life advice; rather it is an ode to New York, to love, to family. Most importantly, it is about living as the woman you want to be. For von Furstenberg, that means independent, resilient, perhaps a bit stubborn. Always looking to the future, and adapting to change, while embracing love and passion. “Love is life is love,” is, naturally, her motto.
And while von Furstenberg tells tales of her many great love affairs – with Prince Edward Egon von und zu Furstenberg, her late first husband; with Barry Diller, her long-time lover and now husband; and even with Richard Gere (it was short-lived) – the book is most moving as a tribute to her late mother, Lily, a Holocaust survivor, and all of the lessons Lily instilled in her daughter.
“ ‘God has saved my life so that I can give you life.’ Her words resonate with me every day of my life,” von Furstenberg writes in the chapter on her mother. “I feel it is my duty to make up for all the suffering she endured, to always celebrate freedom and live fully. My birth was her triumph. She was not supposed to survive; I was not supposed to be born. We proved them wrong. We both won the day I was born.”
And von Furstenberg hasn’t stopped winning since. Born in Belgium to a well-off family, von Furstenberg describes a childhood filled with exotic vacations and admittance in top boarding schools across Europe. It was at one of the glamorous parties she often attended with her school friends, this one in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she met Egon. The two teenagers quickly fell in love, though, with any story von Furstenberg tells throughout the memoir, it was a bit more complicated than that.
In 1969, she moved to New York City with Egon. The two were already married – DVF had her first child, Alexander at age 24, and her second, Tatiana, within 14 months – and, not content to simply sit around in her posh Fifth Avenue pad, von Furstenberg set about designing dresses and showing samples to editors and buyers around New York.
Although she and her husband split — amicably, it seems — in 1972, her career flourished. When Diana Vreeland, the infamous Vogueeditor, swooned over an early jersey design, von Furstenberg called up Angelo Ferretti, an Italian textile manufacturer with whom she had held an apprenticeship before she moved to the United States, eager for him to produce her designs.
In 1974 she created the iconic wrap dress, and the rest is, well…complicated.
Von Furstenberg was able to leverage the little wrap dress into a multimillion brand rather quickly. She lived an exciting life, jet setting around the world, clubbing at Studio 54, gracing the cover of Newsweek in 1976, buying her dream home, Cloudwalk, in Western Connecticut. At 28, she met Barry Diller, the then-Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures at a party in her New York apartment.
“I had read about Barry but I had no inkling of the passion that would overtake us both,” she writes. After a weekend spent at his Los Angeles home after their first encounter she continues, “Barry was in my life forever after. He was to love me unconditionally, guessing my desires and needs and always impressing me with his unquestioning trust.”
But eventually, poor business decisions and an eventual departure from the fashion world altogether for a few years tarnished her empire (her book notes time and again that she isn’t the best at planning ahead; rather, she prefers to jump-in head first and deal with the consequences later). Von Furstenberg left Barry, left the United States and left behind her passion.
But while many people may have considered her “Lost Period” a failure, von Furstenberg remained relentlessly optimistic; instead choosing to see each stage in her life as a stepping stone to becoming, ultimately, the woman she wanted to be.
“No one goes through life with one rigid personality,” she writes. “We are far more complex with various needs and desires that present themselves at different stages of our lives.”
A brand relaunch, a new studio in the Meatpacking District (in fact, von Furstenberg was one of the earliest supporters of the High Line park, which runs right by her studio) and a new management team — son Alexander led the restructuring of the company and remains a partner — propelled her company back to success. Forty years after the creation of the dress that started it all, and von Furstenberg is back on top.
Now, in addition to her memoir, she has a new coffee table book, Journey of a Dress, a “visual odyssey celebrating” the 40th birthday of the wrap dress and an E! reality television show, “House of DVF.”
Here, the designer discusses everything from the lessons her mother taught her to the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
What do you consider your mother’s most enduring influence on your life?
Her enduring optimism, her strength. My mother taught me that fear is not an option and that has served me well throughout my life. It has made me more willing to take risks and that is so important.
You mention many times that you had “a man’s life in a woman’s body.” Has that changed over the years at all as women have become more free and independent in the mainstream? Do you still think of your current life that way?
Well, gratefully, yes, that has changed and it becomes less about a man’s life and more about being a confident woman. I always knew that I wanted to be an independent woman, that I wanted to have my own career, that I wanted to pay my own bills.
In what way has the fashion industry most changed since you started? What does that mean for the industry as a whole?
I think it has become more democratic. Now it is much easier to share and to have dialogues When I first started, I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and fly to Texas to meet my customers there. Now I can post an instagram or tweet something and I immediately get feedback. As someone who has always been about dialogue, I think it is fantastic.
How is marriage with Barry different from your pre-wedding relationship?
Barry turned out to be the most consistent man in my life. He won!
What was the most important thing about yourself that you learned during the “Lost Period”?
I learned that fashion is a form of expression for me, that without it, I feel a little bit stuck and unable to communicate. It is part of who I am. And I always talk about confidence, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments of doubt and insecurity. Of course I do, and that’s what that time was for me. But I learned that it’s about how you respond to that, how you bounce back and find clarity and find a way to be true to yourself. Your failures are your best lessons.
What do you consider the legacy of the wrap dress? What do you hope is your legacy?
The wrap dress is all about the woman. It is about freedom and power and confidence. It is about being sexy and serious and effortless. It is really all about empowering women, and I hope that is my legacy. Through fashion and philanthropy and mentoring, I have always tried to empower women to be the woman they want to be.
What lessons have your children and grandchildren inherited from you?
When do you think you first became The Woman She Wanted to Be? Will you ever stop trying to achieve it?
Really, with the early success of the wrap dress, I started to feel that and I remember they were selling all over the country and they put me on the cover of Newsweek and that felt pretty good. It felt like I was living the American Dream.
But you know, then it wasn’t so good for a while, and then it was what I call the Comeback Kid phase when I re-launched the company and it has been great again. And yes, with the exhibition, I started to admit the power of that little dress, and I started to realize its role in helping me to become that woman.
Well, there’s the book and we also have a docu-series with E!, “House of DVF”, which premieres on Sunday, November 2. We just opened our first Wrap Shop in Glendale in Southern California and we have a few more shops opening in Santa Monica and The Grove…so it is a very exciting time!
The Woman I Wanted To Be is now available.