20th century / Arts / Contemporary

‘If I have any goal in fashion, it is to help women express their strength.’ – Diane von Fürstenberg

By Rosie Pigott

Perhaps one the most inspiring women in the history of fashion is Diane von Fürstenberg: creative designer, powerful entrepreneur and a firm believer in female independence. In 1976 she was described by Newsweek as the ‘new icon of female liberation and the most marketable designer since Coco Chanel’ following the release of her revolutionary wrap dress, which optimised the sexual revolution of the decade. Von Fürstenberg’s remarkable career has soared, plummeted and triumphantly re-emerged onto the world’s fashion scene. Her first-rate business credentials and dedication to women underlie her impeccable ability to continuously adapt to the needs of the market and her endless achievements.

Diane von Fürstenberg completed her education at the University of Geneva with a degree in economics and fluency in five languages, though no formal training in fashion design. It was here that, at the age of 18, she met Prince Egon of Fürstenberg, heir to the Fiat automobile fortune. The couple wed in Paris in 1969 when Diane was three months pregnant with her first child but the marriage was short-lived and, after three years of matrimony and the birth of two children, the pair divorced on good terms. Von Fürstenberg kept her name and later went on to marry her long-term on-off lover, media tycoon Barry Diller, as a ‘birthday gift’.

Having moved to New York with the prince in late 1969, Von Fürstenberg was adamant that she should become financially independent, remarking that ‘the minute I knew I was about to be Egon’s wife, I decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her desserts’. By early 1970, she had released her first clothing range, which debuted at the Gotham Hotel in New York City. Her greatest success to date is the invention of the iconic ‘wrap dress’, released in 1972 with the slogan ‘feel like a woman, wear a dress’. Diane once said that at the time of the wrap dress ‘there was a need for my things, for very simple dresses everyone could wear,’ and indeed within a few months sales had rocketed to over 5 million, until market saturation and mounting debts forced her to sell the company’s shares and return to Europe. This setback did not deter von Fürstenberg, however, who returned to the US with confidence in the early 1990’s after a stint running a profitable publishing house in Paris. The designer started again at the bottom of the ladder, selling over $1.2 million worth of clothes in the first two hours of her appearance on the home-shopping channel QVC, before re-launching her brand to the Saks department store on Fifth Avenue in 1997 after popular figures began wearing vintage DVF wrap dresses. Today, her brand lives on as she heads a company of 155 employees, 97 percent of which are women.

The secret to her success lies in her understanding of what modern women want and her ability to adapt to the diverse roles of the modern woman. ‘You don’t sit around in little white gloves and big hats and try to look fashionable. You have a job, a husband or lover and children,’ the designer recently remarked. On the subject of the wrap dress, von Fürstenberg reminisced that the garment ‘made women feel like they wanted to feel like… free and sexy. It also fitted in with the sexual revolution: a woman who chose to could be out of it in less than a minute!’ Following her break up with Prince Egon, von Fürstenberg famously embarked on a series of affairs including one with Richard Gere, a period in her life in which she described herself as ‘Diane the Huntress’. At the age of 62, she grows old gracefully, stating: ‘I don’t feel pressure to look young because I have had no Botox or surgery. I don’t want to erase who I am.’

In many ways Diane von Fürstenberg represents the voice of today’s female population. She has spoken out against the fashion industry’s obsession with size zero models, declaring that it ‘has a responsibility to represent a healthy image of women,’ as well as expressing the view that ethnic minorities have been under-represented on the catwalk. Her views on feminism were described as ‘more pragmatic than intellectual’ by the Independent newspaper and, as a high profile supporter of Vital Voices, a charity defending women’s causes across the globe, she remains an inspiring figure in the quest to ‘help women be stronger from every angle’. The designer’s fierce sense of independence can be at least partially attributed to her mother, a holocaust survivor who gave birth to her just 18 months after being released from Auschwitz at a weight of less than four stone. ‘I was her triumph,’ said Diane in an interview about her mother, continuing to describe herself as ‘the daughter of a woman who went to the camps smiling’.

After decades of achievement in both the fashion sector and in women’s causes, Diane was elected as President of the American Fashion council (CDFC) and received the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award for Fashion’ in 2005. Apart from her seat on the board of Vital Voices, she is also a committee member of the Housatonic Valley Association (HVA), a local environmental awareness organisation. She remains an inspirational figure to women of all generations; her career is a remarkable example of how any goal can be achieved with hard work and strong ambition.

‘Women inspire me. I believe in the strength of women and I do believe that women can save the world.’ – Diane von Fürstenberg.