Designer Diane Von Furstenberg On The Power Of Vulnerability & Embracing Your Imperfections
"You can't talk to me for 10 minutes without me telling you how old I am," says designer Diane von Furstenberg, who, at 73, has lived such an extraordinary life that she "should be 140."
Much of this can be traced back to the founding of her eponymous fashion brand in 1972 and the release of its iconic silk jersey wrap dress two years later, but in the decades since, she’s also made it her life’s work to inspire and advocate for women around the world. Last year, she launched the InCharge movement as a central platform for this mission, articulating the kind of woman she has always strived to be.
“When people would say, ‘Who is your customer?’ I would always say, ‘The woman in charge.’ It was just part of my vocabulary and I never thought too much about it,” she says, recalling the early days she spent selling her line to boutiques and department stores before her signature dress became a cultural phenomenon.
These were the kind of women she says she had looked up to since she was a little girl: ones who were confident, driven, and paid their own bills. Then, as now, being in charge meant being independent, and that’s exactly what her company granted her. Born in Belgium to a mother who survived the Holocaust, she married into royalty at 22, wedding the German Prince Egon von Furstenberg. She never wanted her life to revolve merely around glamorous parties and her husband’s title, however, and when the couple separated in 1973, Diane — by then a mother of two — poured her energy into her brand, asserting herself as a designer rather than a princess.
By 1976, she was selling 25,000 dresses a week, landing the cover of Newsweek in March of that year and dressing a generation of newly autonomous women. (It’s no coincidence the wrap dress’s rise to ubiquity occurred while the women’s liberation movement was landing victories like Roe v. Wade, equal access to credit, and the right to sue for sexual harassment.)
“Diane was an early — and lonely — advocate for women long before anyone else,” says the model and philanthropist Iman, who was recently honored for her work as a global advocate for the humanitarian organization CARE at the 11th annual DVF Awards. “Her iconic wrap dress endures as fashion's number one garment, not only because it's a timeless hybrid of ingenious fit and style, but equally because it's an unofficial ceremonial vestment that signals women's strength and resolve.”
To hear von Furstenberg tell it, though, her success has always had just as much to do with her relationship with herself. "To be in charge is to be true to yourself," she says. "It's to accept who you are. Because if you own your imperfections, they become your assets. If you own your vulnerability, it becomes your strength."
This was a lesson the designer had to learn firsthand. Growing up in Belgium, she felt like an outsider among her blonde classmates. With her mop of dark curls, she says, "I looked so alien and so different than anyone else." When she arrived in New York, that very look — dramatic cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and all — made her a muse to artists like Andy Warhol.
As she’s gotten older, von Furstenberg has continued to see her own face in a new light. "It's interesting to see the aging you," she says. "It's like a beautiful rose... it's just so fresh and this and that, and then a week later it's still beautiful, but it's a little dry, it has a spot. The physical part, in terms of how you look, after your 70s, it's like, 'Oh, I see what they mean.' But to have age… means you have lived, so it’s a plus."
Despite the fairy-tale aspects of her life story, her career hasn’t just been a smooth ride from that first wrap dress. In her 2014 memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be, she describes the terror she felt the day the fashion press heralded the end of the trend for her signature style. After that, new orders from wholesale accounts stopped rolling in, and because her business was so focused on the dress, she was left with $4 million worth of unsold inventory. (This was before direct-to-consumer took off, when department stores were king.)
“I felt even then, and know now for sure, that we had done it to ourselves,” she writes. “We had behaved like amateurs on a runaway horse.” She was forced to sell the dress business to a licensee — and a few years later had to do the same with her cosmetics brand — and didn’t get back into apparel again until the early '90s, when she made her (wildly successful) comeback on QVC.
Looking back on her earliest successes, did she feel like she had it all figured out? “I still don't know what I'm doing,” she says, “but I am very much the same person.”
Her philosophy informs much of how she communicates today, whether on stage at the DVF Awards, where last month she honored Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a Lifetime Achievement Award, or on her personal Instagram, where she posts daily updates about her travels, inspirational quotes, and, ahead of her most recent birthday, a makeup-free selfie. The latter, captioned with a reflection on aging and wisdom, has garnered more than 42,000 likes, confirming what von Furstenberg already knew: People are inspired by vulnerability, not success alone.
Since March 12, she’s had another channel through which to share this wisdom: a Spotify podcast. Called InCharge with Diane von Furstenberg, the seven-episode series features the designer in conversation with friends like Karlie Kloss, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Kris Jenner. Each episode delves into guests’ relationships with themselves and how they’ve learned to own who they are.
In the premiere, Jenner talks about saving up her paychecks to buy a DVF dress as an airline stewardess in the '70s. “That dress represented so much more than something to wear because it represented power and strength and somebody who was accomplished,” she says. “You felt like you were able to take on the world if you had a Diane von Furstenberg dress.”
The show is von Furstenberg’s first podcast, though she’s recently become a voracious reader of audiobooks on Audible. “For me that was a major discovery,” she says. “I never thought I would use it, but it's amazing.” She stocks her virtual library with biographies and “difficult books,” plowing through four tomes on the life of Napoleon this summer alone.
She’s also a habitual writer, jotting notes in the diaries she keeps throughout her homes and her Meatpacking District studio. “I am very much the same person that I was as a little girl,” she says. “I still go from room to room with all of my … little books and diaries.”
She rarely goes back to read them — except when writing a book, as she did with the aforementioned The Woman I Wanted to Be and her previous autobiography, 1998’s Diane: A Signature Life — but says she finds the process soothing, a balm for her perennially hectic schedule.
These days, she acts as a “walking archive” — and, more formally, chairman of the board — for the company she founded, having handed the reins to CEO Sandra Campos and a design team led by brand director Sabrina Shahnazarian. The label has seen its share of upheaval in recent years, from the arrival and subsequent resignation of former Chief Creative Officer Jonathan Saunders to declining sales at department stores that were once a major revenue driver.
Now, though, the team is focused on reconnecting with its core customer and shoring up its direct-to-consumer sales, both online and through the brand’s 116 owned and partnered stores. Here, too, von Furstenberg’s history is an asset: She’s already done the work of rebuilding her business once — in the late '90s, when she relaunched her brand and signature dress for a new generation of customers and grew the line into the company we know today.
“It's funny, because when you've been around for so long, you go up, up, up, up, and then — mmm — not so relevant anymore,” she says. “And then something happens, and — boom! — you go back to being relevant.”
It helps, also, that her core designs are essentially timeless, selling just as well at vintage stores as they do at her Manhattan flagship. The company is also still family-owned, though von Furstenberg explored a partial sale in late 2017. Her children, Alex and Tatiana, are both on the board, as is her husband, media mogul Barry Diller. Her 20-year-old granddaughter Talita designs TVF, a sub-brand of DVF aimed at a younger customer, which launched last April.
Along with leading her own brand, von Furstenberg spent 13 years as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America before handing the torch to Tom Ford last year. In the role, she nurtured a generation of industry talent, cementing her status as the godmother of American fashion. As a jury member on the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2016, she connected with the emerging shoe designer Chloe Gosselin, who, like von Furstenberg decades prior, moved to New York from Belgium to pursue a career in fashion.
“Getting to know Diane von Furstenberg has been one of the biggest privileges of my short career in fashion,” says Gosselin, who last year took up shop in DVF’s New York City flagship as part of a summer-long pop-up. “Diane is the true definition of a feminist, unconditionally supporting women and inspiring the new generation. Her mantra, ‘Fear is not an option,’ follows me every day in my life when I feel weak or discouraged.”
For International Women’s Day this year, von Furstenberg drew from her entrepreneurial experience to champion women-owned small businesses through a partnership with Amazon. On March 8, the e-commerce giant launched an Amazon x #InCharge landing page featuring products from 20 such companies, including organic tampon maker Cora and natural hair and skincare brand OBIA Naturals, and is showcasing several of their founders in a series of Amazon Live interviews with von Furstenberg. Most uniquely, though, the designer lent her instantly recognizable voice to Alexa for the day — a sure upgrade for the virtual assistant.
While today it’s almost expected of fashion designers to integrate some level of activism into their brands (just look at Maria Grazia Chiuri’s most recent runway show for Dior, which featured giant neon signs with messages like "Patriarchy = Oppression" and "Consent"), von Furstenberg fashioned herself into an icon for working women long before "girlboss" entered the cultural lexicon.
"I am a feminist completely and will be always," she says. "A lot of people do it for marketing. I don't care why they do it [or what they do it for], as long as they do it. But for me, it’s very authentic. It’s very real."
She recognizes that her life has been one of immense privilege, and for that, she says, she’s enormously thankful. But even for women who will never sit on top of a fashion empire, marry a prince and later a billionaire, or count celebrities and politicians among their closest friends, von Furstenberg’s story somehow still resonates. Why?
“Maybe because I do talk about my insecurities,” she offers. Or maybe because, when people judge her and say, “Who the hell is she?,” she can tell the story of her mother, who came back from Auschwitz 18 months before von Furstenberg’s birth weighing just 49 pounds, she says, and always told her daughter that fear was not an option.
"I am a daughter of a real survivor," says the designer. "I came out of the ashes. My birth was already a victory. Maybe when I start by talking about that, then they don't think about Studio 54." Not that she'd let that stop her from reminiscing about Studio 54, of course.