Diane von Furstenberg: "Fashion can be this mysterious thing that you can't explain."
Published 06/04/2011 | 10:01
The groundbreaking wrap dress made her fortune, but Diane von Furstenberg is still seeking new challenges.
Asked by a French journalist back in the Eighties how she came up with her iconic wrap dress, Diane von Furstenberg replied: "Well, if you're trying to slip out without waking a sleeping man, zips are a nightmare." Remind her of this now, and the 64-year-old gives a languid smile. "Haven't you ever tried to creep out of the room unnoticed the following morning? I've done that many times."
Recumbent on a sofa in her New York office, the Belgian-born designer has arranged her slim limbs in the manner of a life model - this is a woman who is used to being photographed. The room has a sensual, salon-like feel: a chaise longue in the shape of a woman's mouth is echoed by a painting of a pair of plump lips above it; the walls are painted fuchsia; and a red, velvet-lined Sixties pod chair hangs from the ceiling. "I can honestly say that I understand women very well," she tells me. "If you understand yourself, you understand women, because, in the end, all women are the same."
That belief may be the key to von Furstenberg's multi-billion pound empire, which began when she arrived in New York in 1972, newly married to the German Prince Egon von Furstenberg, with a new baby and suitcase full of her jersey wrap dresses in tow. "I'm not someone who calculates things," she says, tossing to one side the tawny curls she's refused to chop into an efficient "older woman crop". "Fashion can be this mysterious thing that you can't explain."
For all its libertarian connotations, the success of the garment that made her is something she still can't fathom. "That dress has had this amazing life, one I don't seem to have had any control over."
No matter, as "that dress" will be celebrated in her Diane Vintage collection which will be launched this spring to showcase her most famous prints and styles. She wanders over to her desk, her blue shrug falling to expose a brown shoulder, and retrieves a photograph of herself, aged 22, in a black-and-white wrap dress of her own creation. Then she shows me a Christmas card from the Obamas 35 years later in which Michelle is wearing the same dress. "You see this? That wasn't the result of some marketing ploy. And I never like to think that I design for a particular person. I design for the woman I wanted to be, the woman I used to be, and - to some degree - the woman I'm still a little piece of."
Which goes some way to explain the appeal of the brand, worn by both my mother and a friend of mine in her early twenties, who confessed that buying her first DVF dress made her feel as if she had arrived. Despite a certain cooling in the Nineties, when minimalism turned us into monochrome drones, and thus away from the von Furstenberg aesthetic of print and colour, the brand bounced back 12 years ago when it was relaunched to worldwide acclaim. Nowadays, celebrities such as Uma Thurman, Eva Mendes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley are all fans. "When someone like Madonna wants to try to show her brain, rather than the rest, at a conference in Israel or a book launch," says von Fursternberg, "it's interesting that she chooses to wear one of my dresses."
A more powerful endorsement comes in the shape of Kate Middleton, who was recently spotted wearing a beige-and-black printed dress to lunch with the Duchess of Cornwall. "She's always worn my clothes," says von Furstenberg. Does she feel, like Vivienne Westwood - who recently said that Prince William's bride-to-be should "catch up a bit somewhere with style" - that Middleton should be edgier? "She's going to be Queen of England, but she's not from an aristocratic background, so she needs to play the game. Still, I like the fact that she seems to be very independent."
Not that she's as excited as the rest of New York about the wedding. "I've always found weddings sad for some reason, but of course I'll watch it on television. I think she should go for Alexander McQueen. But you know what? She reminds me more and more of Diana. Everything about her. I think she's there to avenge Diana's memory - that's clearly what William wants. Giving Kate his mother's ring was a great gesture, and I think that theirs will be a happy version of his parents' marriage. But he absolutely chose a woman who was like his mother - that was deliberate."
We're here to discuss von Furstenberg's new project in China. Last week, to launch a major retrospective, Journey of a Wrap Dress, at the Pace gallery in Beijing, she threw a "red ball" in Shanghai. Her husband of 10 years, the entertainment mogul Barry Diller, flew VIP guests such as Jessica Alba and Natalia Vodianova out in his jet. "I've always been a strong believer in saying what you want to accomplish out loud. But when you go into a meeting and say 'I want to dress every Chinese woman', people give you odd looks."
From the beginning of her career, von Furstenberg has thought big: at 28, she was worth £40 million, and a year later, she was on the cover of Newsweek. Her obsession with China goes back 50 years. "I was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and even though we didn't understand about Mao or know what the Little Red Book meant, it all seemed terribly romantic."
It's the women of China that von Furstenberg admires most. "All women are strong," she says. "My mother survived Auschwitz, and fear wasn't an option when we were growing up. If we were afraid of the dark, we were put into the closet until we weren't. But Chinese women are so strong." When von Furstenberg was diagnosed with cancer in 1994, it was Jung Chang's Wild Swans - a biography of three generations of Chinese women - that helped her get through it. "Every day for eight weeks, I took that book along to radiation therapy with me. I decided I would only read it there, so it gave me a reason to go. By the end of my treatment, I had finished the book.
"Of course, Chinese women are beautiful, too, but what's wonderful is that even though they were objectified for the longest time, they're not objects."
Did she ever use her sexuality to get ahead? She makes an impatient gesture. "I had good legs and I loved showing them off. Yes, I used the aspects of being a woman to my advantage, but I worked for myself, not a big corporation, so I was lucky to have the freedom to behave however I liked."
For all her championing of Chinese women, von Furstenberg is less enthusiastic about the psychology of today's Western female. "Sometimes I think that we've regressed," she says. "All these women with fake breasts and cosmetic surgery - all that just objectifies us again."
The fact that the designer has decided not to go under the knife must confound her industry. "Six weeks ago, I had a terrible accident," she says, producing a photograph of herself with two black eyes and a swollen face, "and do you know what everybody said? 'This is a great opportunity for you to have a facelift.'" She shakes her head. "Any doubts I had about not having anything done evaporated, because all I wanted was to get my old face back. I don't want to be anyone else."
This modern fixation with perfection is "ridiculous and dangerous", she says. "But I think the pendulum will swing back the other way. The whole point about beauty is its imperfection."
And yet to many women - particularly in Britain and the States - growing old is a tragedy. "Which it will be, if they forget who they are, try to modify themselves and end up looking like mummies," she says.
So what's the best thing about getting older? "That you have lived so much," she says. "And the worst thing is that you have less time ahead. It's very simple."
The Diane Vintage collection is available now; dvf.com