Anna Murphy talks to Diane von Furstenberg, designer of the iconic wrap dress, about power, money and getting what you want
Real talk with DvF
Diane von Furstenberg is remembering how her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, would shut her in a cupboard as a little girl. “She would say, ‘Fear is not an option.’ She would lock me in there so I wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.” For how long? “About 10 minutes,” she continues breezily. “And the truth is, I am glad she did it. First of all, it doesn’t stay dark. Second of all, what are you afraid of? It is just dark. It was the best gift she gave me.”
It is hard to imagine the 71-year-old Belgian-born American ever being afraid of anything or anyone. Her 2014 autobiography is called The Woman I Wanted to Be. When did she become her, I ask. “In my 20s.” Of course. “I knew I wanted to be a woman in charge.”
She’s stretched out before me on the sofa of her suite in Claridge’s in London like a big cat, wide-eyed and languid, occasionally pawing one-handed at a pomegranate. She is, notes Nathan Jenden — her label’s new chief design officer, who’s sitting neatly nearby — “very feline”. She certainly is. A kind of leopard lady. Her movements are so smoothly feral that one suspects she has ball bearings rather than joints.
At von Furstenberg’s neck and wrist are huge diamond-and-sapphire-speckled evil eyes. Why does she wear them? “For protection. Everybody needs some protection.” I’m not so sure.
She built her brand on a different kind of talisman — the wrap dress. “I quickly realised I was selling confidence,” is how she puts it. She launched the frock in 1974, the unlikely hybrid of a ballerina top and matching skirt, in what was, at the time, game-changing jersey. What she refers to by turns as “just a stupid little dress” and — more accurately — “an icon” landed her on the cover of Newsweek two years later. The magazine declared her “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel”. By that stage, she was shifting 15,000 a week.
Why all the fuss? “The big thing was the fabric, which moulded to the body at a time when everything else was stiff. And the prints had movement. It was an attitude, at a time of women’s liberation. People felt feline.”
They felt like her, in other words. Von Furstenberg is her dress; her dress is her. And this despite the fact “that even when I was 33 I, for some reason, thought that I should dissociate myself from the brand”.
Tant pis. (French is one of her five languages.) For DVF consumers, she is inextricably woven among the warp and the weft. Why? Because she became a highly visible, highly successful working woman when there weren’t many around. Because she was photographed in the press wielding power, both professional (perched on the edge of a desk) and sexual (arrayed across a bed).
She united sex with the city long before any TV series came along. And she still stands out, even when being an empowered woman is no longer such an anomaly.
For her customers, wearing her dress was — is — a way of being more DVF, more fearless. It’s also a way of working one’s femininity, one’s curves, to just the right degree for the office. “When you work you want to look good, you want to look strong,” she says. “You want to show off your body — why not? — but not in a way that will make men objectify you.” Her wrap dress is not only a one-stop solution to the problem of what to wear in the morning, it’s also the ultimate two-hander. “Someone once said something to me that I thought was so perfect: ‘With this dress you seduce the guy, and the mother doesn’t mind.’ ”
It could all have been very different for von Furstenberg. For starters, it was by no means inevitable that the alumna of a flashy Swiss boarding school should end up working for a fabric manufacturer in Italy, albeit one that supplied brands such as Gucci. “When you are young, you have all the doors in front of you, right? And this was certainly not the most glamorous door.”
It was even less inevitable that, when she became pregnant by Egon von Furstenberg (“He was the perfect catch: rich, a prince, all of that... He goes to America and all the girls want to marry him”), her first response was that she needed to have, to do something on her own. “The idea of getting pregnant with someone who was such a good catch made me look like I had done it on purpose,” she says. “I did not want to be that.”
So, yes, she said she would marry him, despite initial prevarication. “At first I said to my mother, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ She said, ‘He asked you to marry him, so the least you can do is let him be a part of the decision.’ So I sent him a telegram. He sent me one back. We arranged a wedding in Paris for mid-July.”