All That She WantsSHARE
The light isn’t exactly bright on the 16th floor suite overlooking the Opera House that Diane Von Furstenberg and her team have chosen to occupy during her visit to Sydney – on this trip they’ll show the spring/summer 13 collection only weeks after it hit the NY runway – but von Furstenberg wanders to the lounge wearing large sunglasses. She has a glowing Riviera tan, complements of her Greek/Romanian heritage and moves with a majestic grace. If there was to be a soundtrack for the moment, it would be Carly Simon’s “You walked into the party, like you were walking onto a yacht”. “The light here is so beautiful,” she says reflecting on her last visit to Australia when she came with the fantasy of the buying land and the view that it was “the last frontier, the frontier of hope”. “I like the openness. I like the open mind. It’s all about the light and nature, it’s all about hope and it’s all about fusion.”
Having arrived just the day before, von Furstenberg looking much younger than the 70 she is approaching exudes an earthy glamour that is rarely seen in women in this day and age: perhaps a sign of a life lived fearlessly and to the fullest. She’s a European girl who lived the American dream. Born in Belgium just 18 months after her mother had survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, she studied economics, her youth and beauty allowing her to travel (often with her close friend the model Marisa Berenson) until her fairytale began when she married Prince Egon von Furstenberg. The union was accompanied by the right amount of scandal, the von Furstenbergs being of German nobility were outraged their Egon could marry a Jewish girl. Still, the striking couple were the toast of the town. “In no time at all, I was in the middle of everything and met everyone,” she recalls of their life in New York at the end of the 60s in her autobiography Diane: A Signature Life. “Going at Egon’s speed – who in one night could take in three cocktail parties, one dinner, two balls, and a gay bar – we covered a lot of ground. In between stops, we fell in love all over again.”
But it was just the beginning for Diane whose accolades read as a rapid and exhausting display of overachievement; princess, mother of two, fashion designer, single working mum by 26, business tycoon on the cover of Newsweek at the age of 28 (the year was 1975 and her combined retail sales from her clothes, licenses and fragrance and cosmetics interests was $60 million). Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair under Graydon Carter in the 80s, current President of the CFDA, philanthropist, employer of over 200 women. Even her failures, it would seem, become triumphs: she lost control of her business in the 80s only to buy it back with success in the early 90s after she’d pioneered on the Home Shopping Network. When surprised by the tragedy of cancer, she battled it and won. Beyond all of this, she’s a woman who has known great pleasure – a woman accustomed to dinners at The White House, who enjoyed a friendship with Kissinger, has had Frank Sinatra sing her happy birthday, starred in Andy Warhol’s Polaroids – “he was a friend of sorts” – and who isn’t coy about having many lovers. She had a high-profile affair with Richard Gere until she “exorcised” him from her life one morning while on the beach in Bali when she wrote ‘Forget Richard’ in the sand. On the way home from the beach she met a man who became the next serious relationship in her life.
At the end of the 70s she was by her own admission running wild with creative and sexual energy. She dressed in Halston and went to Studio 54, which she calls the “best pickup place in the world”. “I often went to Studio 54. Around midnight, I would put on my cowboy boots, drive myself to midtown in my Mercedes, park it in a nearby garage, and join in. I loved the feeling of walking in alone, like a cowboy walking into a saloon, feeling that I was breaking a taboo. Downstairs was a famous basement where all kinds of drugs and questionable activities were going on, but I wasn’t there for that. I would walk around, say hello to people I knew, dance a little bit, meet new people, and then go home. Sometimes I didn’t go home alone.” Legends aside, perhaps in a bid to be fiercely financially independent, von Furstenberg went about establishing herself as a businesswoman early on. She took on an apprenticeship with Angelo Ferretti, who owned a knitting and printing plant in Como, and soon was a Princess making “simple go-everywhere dresses”. Two months after having her son Alexander, in January 1970, she secured an appointment with then Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, and so began her wrap dresses becoming the icon they are today, and a symbol of liberation for women in the 70s.
Her beauty business began with the same kind of ambition, and as she tells it, because Ryan O’Neal, a movie star from the recently released Love Story walked out her bathroom one evening and asked why she needed all the makeup he saw in there. Her answer was she didn’t and was simply thinking of buying the company. It wasn’t, of course, true but it was this tough front that was the impetuous for her to start a beauty business that she would sell ten years later for over 20 million dollars. “Everything was possible,” she says of her career during her 20s. “I lived this crazy adventure that went so fast that I could barely follow it. Then I sold everything and then about – 14 years ago – I started again. My comeback really was to show the world and myself that it wasn’t an accident at the time. “Now I am much older, my children are ageing, my grandchildren are growing, so now I feel that I have earned the experience, that I have earned the knowledge to actually give advice and to actually use all that body of life. You know, decades of life, of living this world of fashion, models changing, women changing, and so right now I’m working on a book called The Woman I Wanted To Be.” (It’s due out at the end of next year.)
Von Furstenberg’s contribution to fashion has always been led by the idea of empowering women and making things to enhance their lives. Her own liberated lifestyle providing much inspiration for women wanting it ‘all’, something she further encouraged when she was famously quoted as saying “I always wanted to live a man’s life in a woman’s body.” “When I said that, what I meant was that there’s a certain freedom that men have that women didn’t use to have. You know, the idea that you can pack up and go away as you wish, and pay the bills, and you know, if you have an affair not worry whether he’s gonna call,” she says. “I first empowered myself, and then I helped empower other women through fashion. You know, giving them the tools for them to be the women they wanted to be, then through mentoring, and now through philanthropy. But all of it, whether it’s philanthropy, mentoring or business, it all says the same thing. Be the woman you want to be – and that’s what I promote.” Interestingly, von Furstenberg feels women have regressed a little. When she looks at the younger generations of woman today she finds them a “little worried and concerned”. “That’s why I scream so hard, ‘Be true to yourself, be the woman you want to be’. I think it’s super important to have children but I think it’s equally important to have an identity outside home. “I think the most important thing for anyone is to have a great relationship with yourself. Because no matter what happens you always have yourself, you know? Just take yourself seriously and be close to yourself and be demanding on yourself. But also like yourself and design your life.”
Champion of women she may be, but she’s not the kind you can imagine wiping away tears. In fact there’s something about her that makes you think ‘Don’t mess with Diane’. She carried a switchblade around New York in her youth and, when looking back on a legal case she was in, recalls threatening something so dire that the suit was retracted. “Maybe I pretended I knew something that I didn’t, I don’t know. I can’t remember,” she recalled nonchalantly. There’s definitely something driving her, something big. “Well … Maybe as my mother was a prisoner of war ... I think freedom is super important. Freedom of everything. Freedom of health, freedom of breathing, freedom of speech. I mean, and it’s the kind of thing that you don’t even understand unless you don’t have it, do you know? I believe that you have to be serious at the base, and if you are serious at the base then you can be frivolous at the top. But you can’t be frivolous at the base.” This was apparent a couple of days later, as von Furstenberg showed her SS 13 collection to a star-struck audience in Sydney. Called Palazzo, the collection was like a nostalgic flip through her personal photo album, 70s rock ‘n’ roll all the way. Having recently separated from Yvan Mispelaere, it was a homage to the punk princess herself and while she walked out on the runway to give a wave, a vision of bohemianism, she was the perfect embodiment of her brand (the Sydney flagship store is their first in Australia). “Right now it’s about legacy. I realise that I’ve created a brand that has a history, has a point of view, has a vocabulary, and therefore will most probably last after me. And so right now my goal is really to carve into the DNA of the brand as much as possible.”