The Brief

Diane von Fürstenberg: An Audience with the Queen of Fashion

Fifty years ago, a young Belgian fashion designer living in the United States presented her T72 model to the press. The piece – a modern revisit of the wrap dresses worn in the 1930s – became a symbol of female liberation and helped to build Diane von Fürstenberg’s reputation. Now 76, the queen of fashion is being celebrated in an exhibition at the Fashion & Lace Museum in Brussels, her native city, and in a coffee-table book just published by Rizzoli. A documentary about her life is also being filmed for Hulu.
Courtesy of Masterclass

France-Amérique: What inspired you to revisit the wrap dress?

Diane von Fürstenberg: It all started with the wrap tops worn by ballerinas like tiny cardigans. I made it into a full top matched with a skirt and pants, and they sold like hotcakes. I then wondered how I could turn it into a dress, which is when the wrap dress came to mind. In French, it is called a robe portefeuille, or a “wallet dress.” Well, I can tell you, this dress certainly helped my wallet!

How was it different from the wrap dresses designed by Charles James, Elsa Schiaparelli, and other couturiers in the 1930s?

My dress was in printed jersey, a material that didn’t really exist at the time. I realized that prints created an illusion of movement, just as they do in nature with leopards, fish, or leaves. Nature is constantly in motion. Now imagine a tight little dress with prints that move. It can be very flattering for a woman’s body, and that is my secret recipe.

You soon started producing 25,000 dresses per week and Newsweek nicknamed you “the most marketable female in fashion since Coco Chanel.” What was this American-style success story like for someone so young?

I was working in my dining room and presenting my clothes out of a small, rented hotel room when my business took off. It was like a dream; everything happened so fast. I was 27, with two children, and separated from my first husband, Prince Egon von Fürstenberg. I was a single mother with a company to run. I flew back and forth between New York City and our factory in Italy, and I traveled a lot to sell my dresses. I had no time to think.

Diane von Fürstenberg at work in her office, New York, 1973. © Diane von Fürstenberg Archives, courtesy of Rizzoli, Diane von Fürstenberg: Woman Before Fashion, 2023

What do you remember from your first trip to the United States in 1969?

My mother bought me a plane ticket for my birthday to go see Egon, my boyfriend at the time, who was doing an internship at a New York bank. I spent six weeks with him. He was aristocratic, very handsome, and we were invited everywhere. All the young American designers wanted to dress me. It was a very different fashion from Europe. When I returned to Italy near Lake Como, where I was working at a factory that produced womenswear in printed jersey, I realized the potential that these dresses could have in the United States. I seized the opportunity and started designing my own models, including a T-shirt dress, a shirtdress, a tented dress, and a tunic with pants. I was 20, working for free, and never thought I would ever use what I had learned in that factory!

And yet in 1970, you presented your creations to Diana Vreeland, the editor in chief of Vogue, and the rest is history! Are you tired of being constantly associated with the wrap dress, despite the fact that your brand now offers all sorts of clothing, accessories, and even footwear?

It bothered me for a long time, but it doesn’t anymore. I owe a lot to this little dress. I also used the pandemic to take stock of everything. Next year, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first wrap-dress runway show, which was held at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan in the fall of 1974. It will be like a new beginning for the DVF brand, a rebirth, and an opportunity to establish its credibility among a new generation.

What – if any – are the current differences between European and American fashion?

American fashion is slightly more practical thanks to the influence of sportswear, which was born in the United States. However, everything now looks very similar. That being said, I enjoy practical clothes and fabrics that don’t wrinkle. That’s the great advantage of jersey. If you go into any vintage store, you will find DVF dresses made 50 years ago that still hold up. And that’s great !

Diane von Fürstenberg (née Halfin) in New York with her husband, Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, 1970. © Susan Wood/Getty Images
Wrap dress in geometric print, ca. 2003-2006. © Diane von Fürstenberg Archives, courtesy of Rizzoli, Diane von Fürstenberg: Woman Before Fashion, 2023

You started out at a time when the fashion world was still dominated by men. As a female designer, did you feel like you were an exception?

I have led a man’s life in a woman’s body. However, I have never seen myself as a fashion designer, but rather as a woman who made clothes for women. I didn’t start using the term “designer” until I received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2005. My contribution to fashion is to design uniforms for women, flowing, flattering dresses in beautiful colors and prints that give women self-confidence.

What is your relationship with feminism?

I am and have always been a feminist. It’s my flag, if you will. I was deeply inspired by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. At 20, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be: responsible and independent. I achieved it thanks to the wrap dress. Success helped me gain self-confidence, and I now use it to encourage other women. In the later years of my life, it is my duty to share the lessons I have learned.

The director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is working on a documentary about you set to be released on Hulu in early 2024. Can you tell us more about the project?

The aim of this film is to show the impact that my career, my clothes and my philanthropy have had on several generations of women. I initially wanted to make a documentary series about the women I admire and support through my foundation, but no network was interested. Sharmeen managed to convince me that it was important to share my successes, failures, and difficult moments. She said: “Through your experience, we will be able to talk about women.” I really like her. She is Pakistani and has won two Oscars for her documentaries Saving Face (2012) and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (2016). She was also recently recruited to direct one of the next movies in the Star Wars saga! She will be the first woman and the first person of color to do so.

Diane von Fürstenberg in a tunic and a dress from her Liquid Assets collection, ca. 1982. © Diane von Fürstenberg Archives, courtesy of Rizzoli, Diane von Fürstenberg: Woman Before Fashion, 2023

You split your time between Manhattan and a farm in New Milford, Connecticut, and you became a U.S. citizen in 2002. Do you still feel Belgian?

I think I feel more European and Mediterranean – although I have spent my entire adult life in America. The expression “citizen of the world” is a little cliché, but that is exactly what I am!

Not many people are aware that you are also the “godmother” of the Statue of Liberty. Within this role, you helped to raise 100 million dollars for the construction of the Statue of Liberty Museum in 2019, and you brought Brigitte Macron there during her state visit. What does the monument represent for you?

Freedom. During the war, my mother was imprisoned in a concentration camp and miraculously survived. She weighed just 64 pounds when she returned to Belgium. Her mother fed her tiny portions until she was back to her normal weight. Her fiancé returned from Switzerland and they got married, but the doctor told them they couldn’t have children for several years. I was born nine months later. My mother always told me that God had saved her life so that she could give birth to me, that I was her torch of freedom. It was after reading this passage in my autobiography that the president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation approached me. My mother also taught me not to be afraid, and that is a huge gift.

Diane von Fürstenberg: Woman Before Fashion
, until January 7, 2024, at the Fashion & Lace Museum in Brussels.

Diane von Fürstenberg: Woman Before Fashion by Nicolas Lor, Rizzoli Electa, 2023.

Interview published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.