NEW YORK — After more than 45 years in fashion, Diane von Furstenberg has been looking for a graceful exit. She is 71, and she has designed a lot of frocks. But the one that matters most is the classic wrap dress, a few yards of slinky jersey that manage to flatter not all but most figures. It’s not cheap, but it isn’t terribly expensive. It has a knack for being appropriate in a multitude of situations. And it comes with its own empowering narrative: that women can have dominion over their own reality with a single sexy, authoritative dress.
That’s a heck of a lot more than most fashion brands have done for women.
The dress landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1976. It made von Furstenberg — who married and divorced a European prince and dazzled this city’s disco society — even richer and more famous. It gave her independence.
But now, von Furstenberg is ready to be done with fashion. “I don’t want to do another color palette,” she says. “I’ve had three acts. The first was the American Dream, the young girl coming to New York, the wrap dress, blah, blah, blah. The second: I started over. Now, I’ve been thinking, now is the time for the third act. How do I turn this into a legacy, so the legacy will last after me?”
The cultural powerhouse known as DVF has a new goal. “I became an icon,” von Furstenberg says. “Now I want to be an oracle.”
Getting out is hard. It’s not just a matter of deciding what will become of a business that she founded in 1972 and resurrected from the dustbins in the late 1990s. She has considered selling it. She may yet take on an investor. Her granddaughter, Talita von Furstenberg, will definitely go to work for the company.
The hard part is emotional, existential. It’s extricating DVF the woman from DVF the brand.
“To let go is the easiest,” she says. Pause. No, delete that. “I’m not letting go. I’m transitioning into something else.”
Ultimately, she would like to focus even more on philanthropy. The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, which she set up in 1999 with her media billionaire husband, Barry Diller, has helped underwrite this city’s High Line park, the District of Columbia College Access Program and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. She also sponsors the DVF Awards, which support female entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world. On Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which she has chaired since 2006, will honor her with the Swarovski Award for Positive Change at its annual gala at the Brooklyn Museum. Parkland student and gun-control activist Delaney Tarr will present it to her.
“Diane is so much deeper and more global than people might assume based on the world of fashion,” says activist Gloria Steinem, a guest at this year’s DVF Awards. “She’s someone I’d like to precede in the world and say, ‘Pay attention to this woman!’ ”
Von Furstenberg wants to declare older women valuable. Enviable. The culture has long glorified and romanticized the so-called council of wise men. She would like to be one of the culture’s wise women — a confidently mature woman who uses her experience and resources to guide younger leaders.
She’s not interested in making peace with her age or defying it. Frankly, she’s confident she looks pretty good. Von Furstenberg wants to get at something deeper: Age as power.
This is hard. Even for her.
“Aging is a big deal. I pretend that I think aging is wonderful. And it is. [Yet] I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’ve changed.’ I’ve lived so fully. I should be 140.”
Von Furstenberg has long considered her mortality. Even as a young mother, she worried about a premature death. “When you get to my age, it’s serious,” she says. “When you get to be 70, then it hits. You’re closer to the end.”
“I want to be able to enjoy [life],” she says. “The third act is about fulfillment.”
In 2016, von Furstenberg announced she had found an heir — Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, whom she hired as chief creative officer. Saunders had an impeccable fashion pedigree — a degree from a prestigious London design school, several years' experience developing prints at Alexander McQueen, and a line of his own — far more so than von Furstenberg, who had always operated on gut instinct and an intoxicating sense of female bravado.
She put him in charge of everything — from ready-to-wear to advertising. She seemed to have stepped back. For his debut presentation, an informal tableau vivant, she made a point of not arriving until the final minutes. For his spring 2018 runway show, she stood in the audience with the guests, commenting on ensembles that she particularly favored, many of which she was seeing for the first time.
But then Saunders resigned in December 2017. The brand, she recalls him telling her, “is so much about you.”
“I think he did some very good work,” von Furstenberg says. “He’s wonderful with prints and color.” But he was uncomfortable, she says, being a man overseeing a brand built on the philosophy of women being in charge.
Saunders says that “the brand was evolving, and it felt right, in my eyes, for Diane to lead the brand at that moment.”
So in January, von Furstenberg turned to designer Nathan Jenden — or more specifically, returned to him.
Jenden, now 47, originally came to work for her in 2001, not long out of fashion school, when she tapped him to reinvigorate the brand. Her once white-hot label had cooled considerably after she’d sold off the beauty arm in the mid-1980s, moved to Paris and left others to run day-to-day operations. She had returned to find a new generation enamored with vintage wrap dresses but not much of a company to be proud of. She dabbled in mass-market sportswear, collaborated with Avon and hawked her wares on QVC, becoming its star saleswoman.
Jenden impressed her with a trial-run project called “rebel princess.” More important to their burgeoning friendship, she says, “he noticed I had books, and I was impressed that he noticed I had books.” In their 10 years together, she says, he helped the business grow from $2 million in annual revenue to $250 million. And after each runway show, when von Furstenberg would take her curtain call, moving down the catwalk in a slow, confident stroll, Jenden would follow just a few paces behind. Applauding her. Everyone should have a Jenden.
He left in 2011 to work on his own line, which von Furstenberg helped finance, and later worked for Bebe, the mall brand that is akin to post-adolescent sex stitched up in polyester and spandex.
“He had to leave to appreciate me,” von Furstenberg says with a smile. She’s the godmother of his daughter, and they often confer in French, the Belgian-born von Furstenberg’s first language. While she deliberately stayed in the background during Saunders’s tenure, she is once again the star, or at least the co-star.
She’d have preferred to turn the creative reins over to a woman. But this is okay. “I have a woman CEO,” she says.
Jenden’s first big splash for the brand came the night of the Met Gala early last month. The theme for the evening — an annual fundraiser for the museum’s Costume Institute — was Catholicism, and guests turned up in everything from bedazzled pope hats to modified cassocks. For his boss, Jenden made a celestial blue dress with a matching kimono, hand-painted with clouds. It was more of an ode to spirituality and magical thinking; von Furstenberg does not “do religion.” Her granddaughter Antonia Steinberg would wear a Scarlett O’Hara-style dress in cardinal red. But for granddaughter Talita von Furstenberg, the brand’s ambassador, Jenden had created the grandest dress of them all.
With less than four hours before the start of the red carpet promenade, 19-year-old Talita was standing in the middle of the atelier with damp hair, surrounded by three seamstresses and two iPhone-wielding assistants, and grappling with the realization that she would not be able to go to the bathroom for the duration of the dinner. Her gown was 350 yards of pale-blue meringue studded with 48,000 Swarovski crystals, attached to a wisp of a bodice that wrapped around her teeny-tiny waist like the brand’s signature frock.
Jenden was fussing with the hem and reeling off instructions to one of the seamstresses in Chinese, which he admitted was more about showing off his language skills than bridging a communication gap. A member of his team gently reminded him to tend to his own grooming before walking the red carpet.
“I can’t do makeup,” Jenden said. “I have to finish with Talita. She’s my muse; she’s the future. I will go with circles under my eyes. It shows I’ve been working.”
Von Furstenberg eyed the fragile bodice skeptically, raising questions about its ability to carry that voluminous skirt.
“It’s a lot of weight. It’s a lot of weight that hangs on this tiny little thing,” she said. “It’s. A. Lot. Of. Weight.” Jenden swiftly engineered an infrastructure of additional support.
That night, both von Furstenberg and Talita were beautifully photographed and showcased in multiple online galleries commemorating the event. It was hard, however, to find a picture of Jenden.
Many women find it impossible to accept a compliment. They deflect or respond with self-deprecating humor. If you tell von Furstenberg that she looks terrific, she will accept the compliment with a nod. There's pride in her sleek figure, the chiseled jawline, those toned legs, that tousle of hair, which she tends to run her hands through as she talks. She is a perfect advertisement for her brand.
“Now everyone talks about authenticity and honesty. It’s easy for me. I’ve never lied — not about [my business] going up and down. I’ve always shared it,” she says. “In the beginning people said, ‘Who is this princess from Europe who makes inexpensive dresses? Who is this woman?’ My plan was always to be a bit provocative to get attention and be very, very honest.”
She’s the daughter of a concentration-camp survivor, a mother of two and a feminist who started calling herself Ms. instead of princess once she saw Steinem’s groundbreaking magazine.
“I’m of a generation where two things were certain: that you have your period and you get groped,” she says. “I had three bosses, and each tried to seduce me. One grossly. One okay. And one ended up being a mentor.” She wonders aloud whether the #MeToo movement has caused some women to make exaggerated claims. But she agrees there are a lot of wrongs to right.
Her headquarters in the Meatpacking District is a scrapbook of her life, a place where the ’70s still simmer. Warhol’d images of her decorate the walls. A pink neon sign reads “in charge.” On the top floor, von Furstenberg keeps an apartment.
The company has shrunk significantly since its heyday. The goal now is to transform a legacy label into a nimble, 21st-century brand focused on e-commerce. For the first time, von Furstenberg wrote a business plan. At her desk, she proudly holds up a piece of cardboard that accordions out to reveal handwritten bullet points: “We have an iconic dress. . . . We have a vocabulary of 10,000 iconic prints.” What’s particularly valuable, she says, “is the emotional connection women have with the brand.”
At the ninth annual DVF Awards in April, Misty Copeland wept onstage — chest-heaving sobs. The history-making ballerina was overwhelmed by the accomplishments of her fellow honorees: advocating for refugee children, providing creative industry jobs to keep young Salvadoran men out of gangs. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor was sitting right there in front of her, about to receive a lifetime achievement award.
Von Furstenberg “is really showing people what fashion can do, and what she can effect, and the importance of being a strong woman,” Copeland said earlier.
When the designer launched the awards, she hesitated to put her name on them. She didn’t think her name carried enough gravitas or prestige. She wasn’t giving away millions of dollars. But putting $50,000 in prize money in the hands of someone like Jaha Dukureh, whose NGO fights female genital mutilation, is transformative — for both the recipient and the donor.
“It brings us to a platform we wouldn’t ordinarily be on. A lot of people just don’t understand how big of an issue this is in Africa, Asia, the Middle East; 500,000 girls in the U.S. are at risk,” Dukureh says. “The impact [von Furstenberg] is making is not an afterthought.”
That night, von Furstenberg was wearing a black mesh dress embroidered with pink flowers and a pair of vertiginous black heels. It was a room filled with women wearing DVF. A room that fashion helped make possible. When she stepped to the lectern, she had to lean forward to reach the microphone because it was positioned too low — a gaffe she tut-tutted repeatedly through the night, for in her eyes it was no small thing. It was distracting and annoying; the stage manager should have known better.
Von Furstenberg isn’t rude. She’s persistent and unapologetic. She is a wise woman, and this is her third act. And she wants to make sure it’s just right.