First lady of fashion, Diane von Furstenburg’s prodigious, albeit tumultuous, career spanning four decades is, despite a difficult economy, showing no signs of slowing down. An influential figure well beyond the limits of the fashion world, the 62 year-old industry icon (and non-feminist feminist) has cultivated a business not only in support of women, but operated by women. What a woman, writes Indigo Clarke.
Defined by her iconic wrap-dress and meteoric rise to fame in the 1970s, Diane von Furstenburg, fashion designer and effortlessly glamorous New York high society darling, is recognised as much by reputation as for her clothing label.
What is perhaps not as well known about von Furstenburg, is that the savvy businesswoman and grandmother is at the helm of a company almost entirely operated by women, is involved in numerous philanthropic ventures and is the president of the foremost industry trade organisation, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Von Furstenburg also played a pivotal role in the large-scale redevelopment of the Manhattan Highline – an innovative publicly accessible park that sits atop the west side of the city on a disused train line.
“I’m actually working harder today than I have ever worked in my life,” drawls von Furstenburg, in a French accent made none the less distinct by her thirty years in New York. “I’m always very excited by the projects and organisations I am involved in because everything I do works together seamlessly. I am very inspired by my work, I’ve always liked to stay active. I am doing a lot of philanthropic projects right now. One that is very important to me is Vital Voices,” von Furstenburg says, referring to the non-governmental organisation that identifies, trains, and essentially enables emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the globe.
A feminist, without necessarily subscribing to the movement per se, von Furstenburg is an empowered and enigmatic force who not only believes in the ability of women to perform at all levels of business, but has championed women in the workplace first-hand. 97% of von Furstenburg’s staff are women, including the company’s president – men, it has been reported, have been relegated to the lower rung positions of ‘drivers and waiters’. “We are so lucky,” von Furstenburg enthuses, “to work every day in such an amazing work environment. Working with, and among, women is incredible – everyone cares about each other and cares about what they are creating. I find women to be so effective in the workplace,” she continues, “my business has always been about making women’s lives easier, and creating clothing they can wear confidently throughout the day and night.”
Describing her workplace as being like a “village”, the seemingly utopian environment is the product of four decades of dedicated work. Coming to prominence in the 1970s with her wrap dress – an item emblematic of the independent spirit of the era that went on to become one of the most sought-after and reproduced products of the decade (and exists as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Institution), von Furstenburg has made a definitive mark on fashion. Discovered by the influential then editor of American Vogue, the revered Diane Vreeland, von Furstenberg was famously offered the support of the unparalleled fashion publication resulting in her dress featuring on the magazine’s cover, catapulting the designer to instant cult status. Unable to maintain the boom, von Furstenburg hit a low point in the 80s and her label crashed, only to be resurrected in the 1990’s following a new generation of women discovering her now legendary wrap dress.
“In difficult economies you have to stay relevant,” von Furstenberg states, referring to her fortunate position amid the current global economic downturn. “One of the ways I maintained relevance is by staying in touch with women. I am working with young women all day long, listening to them and understanding what, in terms of clothing, would make their life easier. You stay relevant as long as you care about what you are doing, and who you are doing it for.”
Over the decades, von Furstenberg has remained true to the bold, print heavy and dynamic aesthetic she won early renown for. “My woman has evolved over time but the spirit is unchanged,” the designer says unequivocally. “She is the woman of the day, elegant and engaged in her life. She wants it all and she gets it all, comfortably and with a sense of ease.” Listening to von Furstenburg describe her fictitious muse, one can’t help but feel she is recounting her own attributes. And in a way she is. “I always knew the kind of woman I wanted to be,” says von Furstenburg, “And then I became that woman through work, and running my own business. My work is fashion. What I have done over the decades is work for myself and work for women, creating clothing that helps them become the woman they want to be.”
After experiencing dramatic crashes and upswings over the decades, von Furstenberg naturally developed a keen understanding of what makes the fashion world go round. Wanting to “give something back” von Furstenberg joined the board of the CFDA – a position that would ultimately lead to her current role as president. “When I started to work with the CFDA ten years ago I felt like something of an industry outsider,” remembers von Furstenburg. “Once I joined the board, though, it made me feel I really belonged. I suddenly felt I was part of a big family – that is what the fashion industry is – a community,” she considers, “and we are stronger together than we are apart.”
Today a paragon of success in terms of her own business and role in numerable philanthropic and influential organisations, von Furstenburg’s indelible footprint has exceeded the realm of fashion – not that von Furstenburg is one for self-congratulation. “I have become very efficient and good at what I do,” she says simply, considering her impact on fashion and beyond, “and I enjoy it thoroughly. My grand daughter is very interested in fashion and my company, and my children are very proud. I see that as an amazing legacy.”