02.18.11

Diane von Furstenberg Honors Women at New York Fashion Week

At a breakfast Friday morning, the fashion designer opened up about empowering women, the future of the fashion industry—and the controversy over Michelle Obama’s state dinner dress.

New York Fashion Week is officially over. Lincoln Center is quiet, red-carpet dresses are being sent to Hollywood, and editors have shipped off to London.

But Diane von Furstenberg isn’t taking a break. On Friday morning she sat down with Tina Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, to talk about empowering women, the future of the fashion industry—and, of course, Michelle Obama’s now famous Alexander McQueen dress.

“My goal in fashion is to make women feel confident,” she told the crowd. “I’ve never met a woman who is not strong. They don’t exist.”

After the first lady chose a gown by the late British designer for the state dinner last month, the fashion industry was up in arms that she hadn’t worn a dress by an American. Oscar de la Renta issued a statement condemning the decision, and von Furstenberg told WWD that the Council of Fashion Designers of America was “disappointed” that she hadn’t worn American. On Friday, von Furstenberg elaborated: “I said that Mrs. Obama has been extremely supportive of American designers, but clearly we were disappointed that she chose to wear a British designer for the state dinner…From there, I was so embarrassed that I am definitely going to write to her. She has been super supportive to American designers.”

Asked Brown: “Why did she decide to wear it?” “I don’t know,” von Furstenberg replied. “Maybe she liked the color! I’m sure she had options like all of us. Or she asked [President Obama], ‘Which one do you like?’”

Von Furstenberg, who is president of the CFDA and wife of Barry Diller— chairman of IAC, an owner of The Newsweek/ Daily Beast Company—also told the crowd of women at Credit Suisse about how she got her start in the fashion business and hit the goldmine with her iconic wrap dress in the 1970s.

“This dress happened, and it was a phenomenon. Before I knew it we were making 25,000 a week, and it was madness,” she said. “Then, of course, it became the third word out of people’s mouths after saying my name. And for a while, I kind of resented it.”

Now, von Furstenberg explained, after more than a decade of developing her brand—and selling and then buying back her company—she has embraced the wrap dress and all that it stands for. “The thing I find so amazing—I really have created one dress that has had so many lives and touched so many women at the beginning of their lives,” she said. “The wonderful thing is that the older I get, the younger consumers seem to be. And that is such a nice feeling. That is better than any Botox.” ( Journey of a Dress, an exhibition dedicated to the dress, opens in Beijing in April.)

Also in the crowd was This Week anchor Christiane Amanpour, who asked von Furstenberg about the luxury business in the Muslim world in the wake of the political upheaval there. “I think we need ideas, and I think we need a new movement,” von Furstenberg said. “And women will have a big impact on that.” Top Chef host and new mother Padma Lakshmi also asked the designer how she managed to start a global business while her children were still young. "I've always been asked, 'How do you have a career, children, and a husband?' " von Furstenberg said. "And I say, 'The career and the children are easy. The hard part is the husband!' "

As president of the CFDA, von Furstenberg is responsible, too, for supporting new American talent. She named four young designers, in particular, that she thought were especially talented: Thakoon Panichgul, Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and Prabal Gurung.

On March 11, von Furstenberg will host the second annual DVF Awards, in which she bestows a prize to women from around the world who have made a difference in the lives of other women. This, she explained, is integral to who she is as a designer. “My goal in fashion is to make women feel confident,” she told the crowd. “I’ve never met a woman who is not strong. They don’t exist.”

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Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.