Anna Mur­phy talks to Diane von Furstenberg, de­signer of the iconic wrap dress, about power, money and get­ting what you want

Fashion Quarterly - - Contents -

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.”

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