Charging into her own office a fashionable minute late, Diane von Furstenberg plops down on the couch. "So much is going on, so much is going on. And it's the end of the year. But today, I'm good." She exhales. The former princess (once removed), genius behind the wrap dress, holy high-fashion priestess, legend, icon, mogul, has a headache. But she's good.
Within seconds, it was clear any and all interview questions that had been shared with the designer beforehand were not looked at, nor were they to be answered. Instead, von Furstenberg was winging her umpteenth interview. "Bring a big bottle of water," she says in French to her office keeper. "Just in case I drink a lot." For the entirety of our conversation, she wouldn't take a sip.
At this point, anyone who's ever heard the von Furstenberg name knows the history of the wrap dress. Ideated in 1972, the piece started out as a wrap top and a skirt. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the dress version would go on to make von Furstenberg a household name, sending her across the country helping women tie their own wrap dresses and empowering them through fashion — something she'd always set out to do. It's easy to wear, versatile, and timeless — ticking all of the boxes of a best-selling garment. It’s so timeless, in fact, that it's still as iconic as it was some 40 years ago, with its own place in the Items: Is Fashion Modern? show at the MoMa.
But, did she ever get tired of talking about the wrap dress? "God, so much. For years, I resented it. My name was always attached to the wrap dress," she replies, exasperated. "I used to say, But I do so many other things! But when I had my big exhibition, I just accepted it. Because I, personally, did not wear it very much. It’s very rare to find pictures of me in one because I don’t really have a waist. But it’s not like I was in a wrap dress all of my life.” It's this attitude, that her fashion is more than just a dress, that made her want to design for the lives of women — not just models. "This brand is about the relationship I have with women."
After selling five million wrap dresses, von Furstenberg became a face of women's liberation, appearing on the cover of Newsweek. She no doubt fêted the achievement at Studio 54 alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and co. before getting back to the drawing board once more. By the '80s, von Furstenberg was in regular discussions with those who wanted to buy her businesses — so, to save it, she sold it. In the early '90s, she got back into the game by selling silk scarves on QVC, $1.3 million (£1 million)-worth in one hour. After a couple decades more of expanding her lifestyle business, in 2005, she was given a lifetime achievement award by the CFDA, an institution she's now the President of.
But just last year, after attempts at expanding her creative visions with Yvan Mispelaere (2010 to 2012) and Michael Herzvon Furstenberg (2014 to 2016), she turned to Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders. When asked whether her relationship with him has taught her anything about herself, she hesitated to answer, then pivoted. "I learn something about myself every single day; even listening to myself I learn something. But I learn things from talking to people, too. It’s about paying attention," she says. After a deep sigh, she runs her fingers through her hair and continues: "You just have to ride your car. And the landscape changes, and then it’s raining, and then you run out of gas, and then you have passages, and then you’re alone, and then you’re afraid, and then it’s beautiful — and that’s life. It’s the same with a business."
This hint of tension between the two wasn't exactly surprising, seeing as rumours of their butting heads have circulated throughout the industry after Saunders requested von Furstenberg not attend his first collection for her brand (for reasons that the focus was on the clothes, not her celebrity). During his tenure at DVF, he revamped everything — from the shop, to the runway, to the logo — in a streamlined, stealth manner. And for good measure. But just three days after this interview, Saunders announced his resignation, 18 months after assuming the company's first-ever role of chief creative officer, in a press release sent out to the industry.
"I am grateful for Diane’s support and for the opportunity of guiding this iconic brand. I am so proud of everything we have accomplished in the past 18 months. I thank the incredible team for their dedication and support, and will continue to be a friend and admirer of the brand," he wrote. And, in similar form to how she publicly supported her artistic partners of past, she echoed his statement: "I am so thankful for Jonathan’s beautiful work and the effort and dedication he has put into DVF in the last 18 months. He will leave an important and lasting heritage to the brand." His last collection was pre-fall 2018, presented earlier this month.
At the time of publishing, a replacement has yet to be announced. But if there's anything to expect from von Furstenberg, it's that the show will go on. For today, though, von Furstenberg is cruising, fitting this interview in just before a board meeting that's got her mind elsewhere. But she's been through this before. And whether it's a divorce from a prince or the severing of business ties, she's proven that, wrap dress or not, her sights will always be set on helping women.
Of course, things have more or less always been that way, but since transferring creative control of her empire, a bout of philanthropic work now holds most of her attention. "I pulled away from my company because I wanted to focus on my work with and commitment to women," she starts. A week prior, von Furstenberg spoke to 12,000 of them at the Massachusetts Women's Conference in Boston. "I love to do that. To age is to be able to use your voice for people who have no voice. And that’s what I want to do." (Aging is not a topic von Furstenberg shies away from, though asking her about it has become a bit of a cliché. When probed on how her relationship with women has changed over the years, she replied simply: "I was a young woman, and now I'm an old woman.”)
In addition to her recharged feminist battery, she's embarking on yet another adventure: a MasterClass. The designer was approached by the online course to talk everything from fashion to business, and how to harness your own staying power in an industry that's constantly disrupting itself. "I got nervous. People are paying $90 (£67) for this! That’s a lot," she says, her signature gold link bracelets clinking together. "Because if you think about it: If you go online or YouTube, you can get a lot of me for free. But there’s no recipe. My class is certainly not a fashion course."
Even though her e-course is more of a lesson in how to sell clothes rather than design them, von Furstenberg could open up her own university. For 40-odd years, she hasn't taken a break; no tropical hiatus to re-energise her creative flow, no familial leave to raise children and chickens — nothing. In that time, the Belgian-American designer has managed to create a global luxury lifestyle brand that's available in over 70 countries, all while maintaining just as adventurous a home life. Telling The New York Times in 1977: "The minute I knew I was about to be Egon's wife, I decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own, and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her desserts."
What the class is about, then, could feel just as existential as von Furstenberg herself. And all of the von Furstenberg-isms that seem to spill out of her when prompted feel priceless. Take this one, for example: "It’s about life and honesty, how you are with yourself. I teach to design your life. And, by the way, part of being a designer is to design for life," she says, with a disclaimer that this is something new that she's never said at any of her speaking engagements. Or another, on the key to pushing through: "We don’t know. But the only thing that you can do is be true to yourself and stand for something." She digresses.
Before debarking from the chaise lounge that's tucked neatly under a colourful set of self-portraits (not selfies, actual paintings of her visage), she leaves with some final thoughts that range from signing over a copy of her favorite book, A Journey of A Dress, to realising that the most exciting part of her life may be over but that doesn't mean work has to feel like a job, the fact that she should be in her 140s due to how fully she's lived, and advice on how to surf the tsunami of life — all of the above being endless streams of her grand words, paraphrased.
"I always say to be true to yourself. In the end, that’s the most important thing," she says, echoing a sentiment that most attribute to the designer via Instagram or other personal vision boards. "Because if you make mistakes because you listened to someone else, you’ll never forgive yourself. But if you make mistakes because you made the decision, that’s okay. You will forgive yourself."
And after 15 minutes, she was gone. On to the next one.