Diane von Furstenberg
This savvy designer embarked on her fairy-tale journey after she divorced her prince. Alex Kuczynski discovers how fashion’s queen bee still mixes business with pleasure.
She is known by her first name only, Diane (pronounced Dee-yon), in the most flamboyantly European, Latinate manner imaginable—and there is also DVF the brand, DVF the CEO, DVF the business titan with the slashing cheekbones.
At 65, Diane von Furstenberg still embodies sultry beauty and feminine power. She is womanly, sensual, and utterly bien dans sa peau as she lounges on a sofa in her office on West 14th Street in Manhattan, portraits and murals and photographs of her in all her feline splendor staring down from the walls. Her hair floats in a corona of unbrushed curls around her head. She wears a giant gold bracelet, and her legs peep out from underneath a floaty green silk dress, gamine as an adolescent’s.
She was a princess, through her first marriage, in 1969 to Prince Egon von Furstenberg, and yet she was also a populist, introducing in 1974 her iconic, affordable wrap dress—the very symbol of women’s liberation and sexual freedom. Her wrap could be worn to the office, tied tight and high, loosened after work to show off one’s poitrine at a discotheque, and—should the need arise—be removed with one quick tug shortly thereafter. It was the dress that did everything, for the woman who aspired to do everything. “I loved the seventies,” von Furstenberg says, her voice crisp and quiet. “It was between the pill and AIDS, and everyone enjoyed an amazing amount of freedom and exploration in so many ways—artistically, emotionally.”
Born on New Year’s Eve, 1946, in Brussels, Diane Halfin was the only daughter of a Romanian businessman and a Greek mother who was a Holocaust survivor, having been freed from Auschwitz just 18 months before Diane’s birth. “She made me so strong,” von Furstenberg says. “She never allowed me to be afraid. If I was afraid of the dark, she would put me in a dark closet to teach me to be unafraid.” After Diane and Egon von Furstenberg got married, they set up camp in a Park Avenue apartment and flitted with breezy glamour from galas to exotic islands—a young, wealthy couple who averaged four parties a night, mingling with Salvador Dalí, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Cecil Beaton.
Then, in 1973, New York magazine ran a cover story about the von Furstenbergs titled “The Couple That Has Everything. Is Everything Enough?” detailing their nocturnal habits, the seeming superficiality of their jetset lives, and her husband’s admitted infidelities. “As awful as that story was, it made me realize that I did not want to be a socialite,” she says. “That was so far from the woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be independent.” The three-and-half-year marriage was soon over. Diane, with two children under the age of 4, never asked the prince for alimony. Instead, she introduced her wrap dress. “And I exploded,” she says. “The cover of Newsweek, the cover of The Wall Street Journal, Interview.” She was selling 25,000 dresses a week. One day on an airplane, she was reading The Wall Street Journal—the one with her pointillist portrait on the front page. “And a man leaned over to me and said, ‘What’s a pretty little girl like you doing reading The Wall Street Journal?’ ” She ignored him.
“Usually the fairy tale ends with the girl marrying the prince,” von Furstenberg says. “But mine started as soon as the marriage was over.” She began to frequent Studio 54, which she describes in her 1998 memoir, Diane: A Signature Life, as “the best pickup place in the world.” She was there when her friend Bianca Jagger rode in on a white horse to celebrate her birthday. Von Furstenberg was an unmarried mother in her 30s hanging out with Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Halston, Patti Hansen, and David Geffen, referring to herself as Diane the Huntress. “Around midnight, I would put on my cowboy boots, drive myself to midtown in my Mercedes, and join in. I loved the feeling of walking in alone, like a cowboy in a saloon, feeling I was breaking a taboo,” she wrote. “Sometimes I didn’t go home alone.”
Her boundless exuberance—the idea that her empire could be limitless—led to some business setbacks. In 1983, her name perilously overexposed and her product lines over-licensed, she sold the business. Her career may not have been flourishing, but her romantic life was. After a volcanic love affair with a Brazilian whom she met in Bali, von Furstenberg went on to date Richard Gere, Ryan O’Neal, Alain Elkann, and Barry Diller, who famously gave her a Band-Aid box filled with 29 diamonds for her 29th birthday, and whom she would marry in 2001.
In 1994, she was diagnosed with tongue cancer. “I believe that had something to do with the fact that I wasn’t able to express myself for so long,” she says, referring to her retreat from fashion for several years. By the end of the nineties, she had resurrected her wrap dress. “The first time I did it to be independent. The second time around was to show myself and the world that my success hadn’t been an accident.”
If von Furstenberg’s first act was the American Dream, then her second was the Comeback Kid. “And now I am in the third phase, which is I Mean Business. This is a new starting line for me,” she says as her driver pilots us in a green Bentley to a dentist appointment. Von Furstenberg’s got a loose crown—she’s not perfect. “Insecurity is a waste of time,” adds the designer, who is serving her fourth term as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, where she’s more den mother to much of the young talent than formal mentor.
We’re almost at the dentist. Quick, Diane, before you get out of the car, give me some advice: How can I do what you did? Be a mother, and work full time, and manage to squeeze in some relationships or even a good marriage?
“Women are strong,” von Furstenberg says. “We can do it all. But not always at the same time.”