The Woman She Wanted To Be

Above Image | Diane von Furstenberg in her Meatpacking District headquarters.

At a moment of professional transition, Diane von Furstenberg looks back—and ahead.


“Hello from Dubrovnik.” ¶ Three words of breezy intrigue from Diane von Furstenberg, their in-formative pith typical of her e-mail correspondence and schedule-keeping, which seldom goes through an intermediary. Assistants are valued, but not for the purpose of maintaining her calendar. “That to me,” von Furstenberg offers, “is an infringement on my freedom.” ¶ While one could interpret that declaration as on a spectrum between bohemian structure-aversion and full-on commitment-phobia, nothing could be less accurate. No one survives in fashion without voluntary enslavement to its grueling schedule. DVF, whose triptych initials resonate through fashion with presidential-level recognition, ascended long ago from mere survival to the industry’s pinnacle, one of global fashion’s most high-profile and proactive leaders.

Hers is a unique platform interwoven of her roles as the kinetic, big-thinking president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and, with Barry Diller, a New York power couple extraordinaire, their business prowess matched by their philanthropic largess through The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation. As an expression of her commitment to women’s empowerment, in 2010 von Furstenberg founded the DVF Awards to honor and support women of exceptional valor and leadership; she sits on the board of Vital Voices Global Partnership, an off-shoot of the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, founded in 1997 by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Soon, plans will be disclosed for DVF’s work in support of a single lady—the Statue of Liberty. “I’ve become the godmother of the Statue of Liberty,” DVF says. She engages, too, in endless non-official capacities, as when she gathered a group of fashion journalists to visit the 911 Memorial Museum, funded in large part by her friend Michael Bloomberg. And she’s always eager to offer a young person advice or facilitate a professional connection. “My first three e-mails of the day are for someone else,” von Furstenberg says. “It’s so easy.”

Then there’s the role that made it all happen for her in the first place, that of the businesswoman-designer who shaped a work ethic, carpe-diem savvy, major glamour, a “Princess” title and a little printed dress into the stuff of international fame. The cultural moment of Seventies jet-set disco chic proved perfect for the DVF persona that was, by American standards, Euro-exotic, and by any standard, a brilliant personification of classy, sassy glam audacity. In the 40-plus years since, she’s managed to retain both the glamour and the company, aging the former with grace but not too much propriety while keeping the company focused on ongoing generations of young women to whom that politely sexy wrap dress represents an aspirational lifestyle.

As for the dress (which DVF maintains never really flattered her body type), she has never presented it as evidence of creative genius of the Kawakubo sort, or of the McQueen-Galliano sort. But she did create something that, nearly a half-century later actually merits one of the most over-used and inappropriately conferred descriptives in fashion’s hyperbolic lexicon: iconic. The DVF printed wrap dress is iconic, as are only a very few clothing items, as identifiable as a Chanel tweed suit or Dior’s Bar jacket. (Mr. Strauss’ 501s remain in a class by themselves.)

“She’s brilliant,” says Anna Wintour, von Furstenberg’s friend and partner in the megamentorship program that is the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. “When she took over the CFDA, it had achieved lots of things in a small way, very much from an industry point of view. Diane, with Steven’s [Kolb] help, has understood that it could become a global entity. She’s embraced what it should be in terms of what the designers need, what the industry needs. She has pushed it further than any of us had imagined possible. She embraces what is new, what is different, and has understood when it’s time to change, and switch things up. She’s very receptive to ideas, she listens, she travels all the time, she knows the entire world. Everything feeds back into what she feels the CFDA should be, which is the voice of American fashion, and she’s certainly their biggest cheerleader.”

Beyond fashion, Wintour says, von Furstenberg “really helps so many people that no one knows about; she’s very giving and philanthropic. She and Barry have been a great force for good in this city and the world. I think we’re all so lucky to have them in our lives.”

DVF is relentless in her devotion to each of those roles. It all makes for a hectic kind of freedom, one with no time for wanton self-indulgence and grounded in a single basic premise. Notes DVF, “Everything requires discipline.”

Hence the aforementioned e-mail. During an interview a week or so previously at her Meatpacking District residence/headquarters, von Furstenberg had waxed both philosophical and pragmatic about this next phase of her life. In May, she hired Jonathan Saunders to take over as chief creative officer of her brand; he will present his inaugural DVF collection this weekend in a series of individual appointments. Saunders’ arrival both symbolizes and facilitates von Furstenberg’s stepping back from the day-to-day minutiae that occupy the time and psyche of a full-time creative director. Yet while hiking in Croatia with Diller, her husband since 2001 and her confidant since forever, it occurred to both that that point may have been misconstrued. So she e-mailed to request a follow-up phone call. The business, she clarifies, is her third child, the one who exists for her other two children, Alexander and Tatiana: “Sometimes I get carried away when I talk. I don’t want you to think I’m abandoning the company.” It’s just that circumstances allow for nonabandonment on her terms. “It’s our company; we own it. That gives us a lot of flexibility because we don’t have any partners. It’s a family business.”

A family business now in the throes of significant change. “I think that it’s time for me to step back from certain things. I don’t think I want to do another color palette,” von Furstenberg offers during our interview, noting that the move is part of a natural and essential fresh-up of the sort on which fashion depends. “We are in the business of fashion and therefore, every 15 years or whatever, you have to kind of, reboot and be fresh again. Otherwise, people already have what you offer in their closet.”

Though she brought in other senior designers in recent years—Nathan Jensen, Yvan Mispelaere, Michael Herz—DVF worked alongside them. Saunders is the first to ascend solo to the creative helm. “I want to let him have the clean palette,” she says. “I feel that that’s the right thing for me to do. It’s not an easy thing for me to do. But I think it’s nice and it’s right and I’m taking pride in doing it.”

With the installations of Saunders and chief executive officer Paolo Riva, hired in April of last year, von Furstenberg has in fact turned the company over to next-generation management, her strategic reboot involving not only a creative jolt but a deliberate downsizing. “We are definitely shrinking it,” von Furstenberg says. “I call it pruning. You think it’s so hard, and you think your tree is going to look so ugly, and you give it a great pruning and you get used to it right away, and then it can grow nicely. So yes, it’s definitely time to do that.”

To that end, von Furstenberg feels fortunate that she never took on outside investors or executed the initial public offering she was long rumored to covet. She argues that in today’s tumultuous climate, it’s advantageous to be private and “Small is in. You can cut down distribution so that you have more control. All these things you can do if you don’t have to show your quarters and things like that….Too many people have gone too big. That is for sure.”

If such talk oozes irony from the woman who has, as CFDA president, overseen explosive expansion of the American fashion landscape, it doesn’t end there. Von Furstenberg calls the current state of the industry a “tsunami” that has everyone anxiously trying to ride out the storm. Her blunt assessment: “Business is terrible. Because there’s product pollution, because there’s too much of everything in every color at every price. Therefore, if you think your brand can survive, then it’s the right thing to do, to kind of reboot yourself...if you are small, there is less confusion and better communication. The world is changing so rapidly. If you are elastic, you will be able to jump on certain bandwagons you don’t even know exist.”

As for the flood of young people who flocked to fashion, drawn by its ever-increasing profile fueled by social media and prizes such as the Fashion Fund, DVF argues that she and the CFDA never oversold the possibilities. “Studying fashion [applies to] so many different things. Fashion goes into furniture and objects. I think that design and fashion [remain valid paths], and to acclaim and to mentor talent is a healthy thing, definitely. But the expectation may be different. There are waves, and they open and at some point you say, wait a minute, how many more?”

Her pragmatism stopping short of falling-sky doom, she refuses to forecast severe attrition. “That’s not for me to say. I hope everybody stays. But things will look different, and nobody knows. Everybody’s surfing the tsunami. A lot of it is because of the digital revolution, which is what we’re so excited about. But everybody pays the price. In the end, I believe in substance.”

She believes as well that certain industry-wide issues require serious and immediate attention. First and foremost, the industry must arrive at a shipping schedule that “respects the calendar. We live in the world of immediacy, right? So you ship at the right time.” That, in turn, will “hopefully change the cadence of markdowns.” Then there’s the matter of the shows themselves. Though the collection Saunders will show for the brand is spring, von Furstenberg seems to favor the buy-now-wear-now alternative currently gaining momentum in New York and London. Noting that while retail partners must see collections early enough to write orders, “what you can change is what you allow to be published.” Told that therein lies an issue for some traditional press (at WWD, we’re journalists, not marketing cronies), she acknowledges that the whirl of changes in play requires deft negotiation of new turf. In balancing the needs of various constituencies—brands, retailers, new media, old media, consumers—one rule emerges sacred: “If you have to pick your horse, you have to pick your consumer. But you also need your partners…everybody is going through a very unsettling time.”

These cataclysmic industry changes come as DVF mulls her own future. Long ago, she famously coined a tag line that no Mad Man could have bested: “Be the woman you want to be.” It became both marketing jingle and life philosophy, the two linked in complete conviction. To that end, von Furstenberg believes absolutely in fashion as a tool of empowerment. While a pretty printed dress may not change your life, it can represent the life you want. Wear it and feel its power.

Von Furstenberg speaks with passion about helping women find their power. “I like to give advice,” she says simply. But offering counsel isn’t the same as trying to force her view on others, even those closest to her.

“I really appreciate how supportive she is, how genuinely curious she is,” says Tatiana von Furstenberg. “She was not at all interested in imposing on us the way a lot of mothers impose on their kids. My mother has such an open mind. She was genuinely curious about who Alex and I would become, and genuinely had faith in our independence. I don’t think she was overbearing at all. She didn’t impose any duties on us. We didn’t have to be dutiful.”

“I met Diane at age 15 when I came in for a casting for her spring show,” recalls Karlie Kloss. “Everyone was frantically running around preparing the collection and Diane walked in and projected this complete calm. Before every DVF runway show, she stands on a chair backstage and speaks from her heart about feeling beautiful out there on the runway and exuding confidence from the inside out, and most importantly being the woman you want to be. I was at the start of my career and she was this incredibly inspiring, strong, driven and savvy woman I was fortunate enough to look up to and learn from.”

These days, DVF is genuinely curious about her own next phase, and “the woman I want to be these next 10 years.” She spent much of the summer in conscious contemplation of how to develop and codify her interest in mentoring younger women. Though she came of age during the women’s movement of the Seventies, she never personally felt diminished by the oppressive glass ceiling, working only for herself. When she moved to New York, she dropped the “Princess” title acquired when she married Egon von Furstenberg in favor of Gloria Steinem’s “Ms.” Not that “Princess” ever meant much to her. “It’s the kind of thing you use in hotels and restaurants…And I came here to America and it meant nothing.”

Then as now, von Furstenberg followed a fierce inner yearning to experience life on her terms, and those terms weren’t timid. “You only regret the things you don’t do,” she says. “I’m so happy that my life started so quickly. I was of that generation that I wanted to have a man’s life in a woman’s body. I wanted to be able to say that I went to Los Angeles and I flirted with Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty on the same weekend.” Asked whether “flirted” is used as euphemism, her eyebrows dart up and she shrugs, “Take it for what it is.”

Von Furstenberg radiates confidence and composure, her comfort with herself almost Olympian, rooted less in ego than self-awareness. She is the woman she wants to be. Who wouldn’t?

So one line of conversation shocks: “I often feel like a loser.” Huh? If she feels that way, what’s left for the rest of us? The line triggers incredulity—until von Furstenberg takes on a subject outside of my experience with her. Only once in the years I’ve known her do I recall her expressing even vague discontent with her looks. Not that she typically boasts of her beauty; rather, she doesn’t discuss her looks. A while back we saw each other at some stop on the fashion train. I told her she looked fabulous. “No I don’t,” she answered. “But in 10 years I’ll think I did.” (She was wrong. She looked—and looks—fabulous indeed, still all megacheekbones, coltish legs and wild diva tresses.)

Yet during her summer of reflection she couldn’t avoid “the aging thing.” When you’re young and on top of the world, “so many things are easy,” she says. “People stop in the street and they look at you. They look at your legs and this and that. You are so used to all of that. Then [it happens] less and less. [Once] you’re always the youngest. Then you’re no longer the youngest and now, all of a sudden, you’re the oldest. Barry and I are always the oldest of anybody we see because we see a lot of young people. When you are old, people ask you for advice and aren’t threatened by you anymore. So I’m a little bit of a role model. Use that and share your experience. And then if you embrace that and take that role, all of a sudden, you’re cool again.”

One way von Furstenberg uses her experience—and her clout—is in her vocal support of Hillary Clinton for president. A huge Hillary supporter, she can’t fathom the alternative, calling Donald Trump “a con artist” and an “amazing salesman of himself.” They’ve met only under cursory circumstances: “‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ Nothing else.” She frets over the developing world of, say, a seven-year-old child who would grow up during a Trump presidency. “Is that what you want?” she poses hypothetically to his parents.

Conversely, von Furstenberg thinks Clinton would make a great president, and cannot understand why more Americans aren’t overtly grateful to her for running. “I put the TV on and she’s getting harassed in the worst way and she just doesn’t deserve that. I just find it appalling. She’s incredible. She’s helped so many people,” von Furstenberg says. As for the honesty issue that has followed Clinton, DVF notes, “I think she’s honest, I really do. I mean, she’s as honest as anybody.”

Honesty factors highly in DVF’s code of conduct. She attributes her long-term, largely positive relationship with the press to three elements: truthfulness, being nice and never harboring a grudge. Grudges breed toxicity, and why do that? Her life is too full, and the demands on her time, too great.

“I’m privileged. I’ve had an incredible life. I have an incredible family, my children, my grandchildren,” von Furstenberg says. “You know that every day can be your last day. That’s why you have to live fully and you have to do what you do. You have to be true to yourself.”

Which is not to say it’s easy. The conversation has come full circle back to the D-word. Finding and nurturing your best self “requires a lot of work and discipline,” DVF observes. “You have to constantly critique yourself and make sure you’re not delusional, and make sure you’re not angry. It’s a lot of work. Everything is an effort. Every single thing is an effort.”