Tycooness

Diane von Furstenberg: How I Learned to Love My Wrap Dress

Diane von Furstenberg, creator of the legendary wrap dress, reveals a dramatic career in fashion—and why she signed up to do a reality TV show.

10.27.14 9:53 AM ET

It’s less than a minute into our chat and Diane von Furstenberg is already commanding the conversation, firing questions at me. So did I read her memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be, chronicling her life as a fashion “tycooness,” as she frequently refers to herself in the book? (She’s skeptical, but I did, and I tell her how much I enjoyed it.) What did I like about it? Did I understand this part? Did I think that part was boring?

These few weeks have seen a deluge of von Furstenberg projects: the memoir, also the publication of a substantial coffee table book, Journey of a Dress, celebrating the 40th birthday of the designer’s iconic wrap dress, which was also feted in an exhibition earlier this year in Los Angeles, and an E! reality television show, “House of DVF,” in which eight young women compete to be the first-ever DVF global brand ambassador.

When we speak von Furstenberg is exhausted. The night before we were scheduled to meet, she arrived late in New York from Texas, where she had just spoken at an event for Tina Brown’s Women in the World Foundation.

“I’m very, very tired,” von Furstenberg tells me on the phone the next morning, her voice ragged. The 67-year-old is in a reflective mood, having effortlessly passed from fashion to fashion icon.

Despite her worries, there was nothing boring about her memoir, and the broad themes in The Woman I Wanted to Be are easily understood. Because this isn’t just a book about fashion.

Von Furstenberg has produced both a memoir and manifesto about the importance of being a strong, independent woman; a tribute to her mother, a holocaust survivor; a romp through the glamorous, jet-set enclaves of New York City in the ‘70s; a candid recapitulation of her romantic life—of the many men she loved and lusted after—and a tribute to an enduring relationship with one man who loved her unconditionally.

“If you’re going to [write a book] you have to be honest, otherwise there’s no point,” she says. “I realize that is actually my religion. I practice truth. It’s not easy but then it becomes a habit, like any practice. And being honest in the book was the only way to make it useful to others and, really, to myself!”

What began as a series of essays about von Furstenberg’s mother turned into four years of writing The Woman I Wanted to Be. And she credits her mother for helping to establish who that woman was early on: independent, free, self-reliant. “Those were the values she was drumming into me, and she did it with such naturalness that I never questioned or resisted her,” she writes. A friend’s mother— “glamorous, confident, engaged…a leading businesswoman in Brussels” —was another inspiration to a 10-year-old Diane.

If confidence and strength were instilled in her at a young age, glamour was something she pursued. In her book, von Furstenberg writes that a friend from boarding school “changed the course of my life” when she invited her to a party in Gstaad, Switzerland, where, as a teenager, she “made my official entry into the Jet Set world.”

It was at another fancy party in Lausanne where she met her future husband, Prince Edward Egon von und zu Furstenberg, who introduced her to “everyone that was anyone anywhere—aristocrats, courtesans, businesspeople, actors, painters, and all of the Café Society entourage.”

It was through Egon that she met Angelo Ferretti, an Italian scarf manufacturer who would later produce von Furstenberg’s jersey dresses and ship them to New York, where she and Egon moved shortly after marrying in 1969. They had their first child together less than a year later, when von Furstenberg was just 24, and their second a year after that.

Von Furstenberg says she was intimidated when presenting a suitcase of jersey dresses to legendary American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. It’s a story that produces a bit of skepticism from me: it was 1970 and she was a European princess, after all; a striking, impeccably stylish 24-year-old who was a regular fixture at Studio 54 and in New York’s society pages.

If von Furstenberg was nervous (she assures me she was), she managed to appear poised in front of Vreeland, who declared the slinky dresses “absolutely smashing,” catapulting von Furstenberg’s fledgling career to fashion stardom and laying the groundwork for the official launch of the iconic wrap dress in 1974 (famous wearers have included Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Girls star Allison Williams).

“Looking back now, she really is the one who said, ‘This is genius,’” von Furstenberg recalls. “The truth is that she was a genius to see them for what they were.” Forty years later, the wrap dress is still relevant—a classic that is both sexy and sophisticated—as is the woman behind it, a fashion legend who parlayed her runaway success into a global brand, with 85 stores worldwide.

But it was that period in her life, when her career was just taking shape, that produces her most contemplative answers. “What I’m fascinated by is the beginning of your adult life, somewhere between 19 and 25,” she tells me. “You have all of these doors in front of you, and you don’t know which door is going to be the important one. How would I have known that Angelo Ferretti was going to be such an important person in my life? And that’s life—that’s just it!”

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Von Furstenberg generally refuses to meditate on the meaning of life. Nor does she brood or talk expansively about her feelings. She is laconic, matter of fact, and frequently speaks in “life is a journey”-type metaphors and aphorisms—all part of her charm.

“People come in and out of your life. The landscape changes. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, you still feel like a loser sometimes. You still feel inadequate. But you just process it.”

It’s hard to imagine that von Furstenberg has ever felt like a loser. She’s embodied confidence since she was in her early 20s, selling it in the form of the wrap dress and building a brand that’s all about empowering women. But she has also struggled with her identity over the years. After losing control of her business in the ‘80s, she flirted with the role of being a kept woman, later regaining control of her label in the late ‘90s.

“Often times things happen beyond your control or because of you, but you just have to accept it and make the best of it, and very often something good comes out of something negative,” she says, again crediting her mother for her positive attitude. “She really forced me from day one to be responsible for my own actions and to have a good relationship with myself. If you have that, any other relationship is a plus and not a must. And that is key to everything!”

Not long after splitting with Egon in 1973, von Furstenberg took up with Barry Diller, who was chairman of Paramount Pictures at the time. (Editor’s note: Diller is now owner of IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast.)

“Sometimes I flirted with other men or boys. It was that time in New York; we were very free,” she writes in The Woman I Wanted to Be. “Barry did not ask questions, nor did I for that matter. Our relationship was above that. We loved being together and we loved being apart.”

By 1980, von Furstenberg had “become the woman I wanted to be… I had two, beautiful, healthy children; a wildly successful fashion business; a lot of fun and a wonderful man with whom I shared so much.” But after her mother fell ill, she felt restless in New York and fled to Bali with her children, only to fall in love with one of the locals. (She brought him back to New York, but the relationship fell apart after four years.)

Von Furstenberg had two other serious relationships before she and Diller reunited, finally marrying in 1999.

“He deserves 80 percent of the credit [for us being together],” says von Furstenberg. “He let me be the woman I wanted to be, but it wasn’t easy for him, believe me. I took him for granted. But he has shown me what love is, unconditional. And we have an amazing complicity, an amazing respect for each other. It’s true love. It’s crazy. We look at each other and say, ‘How lucky are we to have found each other?’”

Now, forty years after the launch of the wrap dress, the DVF brand is more successful than ever, with von Furstenberg back at the helm and having reemerged as the face—and embodiment—of the brand.

“Right now it’s important to me to carve into the DNA of the DVF brand what I’ve done or what I have to say, whether it’s about staying on brand or putting it all together in a new package,” she tells me. “Yes I’m looking for a new CEO, yes I’m training a creative director, yes at some point I would like to dedicate more time to the cause of women. Vital Voices is very important to me [she is on the board of the organization, which is dedicated to empowering female leaders around the world]. I clearly don’t do enough but I do the best I can.”

Finding someone to carry on the legacy of the DVF brand was part of the impetus behind her forthcoming E! show, “House of DVF,” —which begins November 2—though she has previously turned down numerous reality television opportunities.

“All of the ideas were so awful and tacky so I said no,” she says. “I am not a big fan of those types of shows because I always thought they objectified women and make them feel like the bitch wins and plastic surgery makes you happy, and that is not at all what I believe.”

It was only recently, after concluding in a marketing meeting that DVF needed brand ambassadors to travel the world, that “someone suggested that should be the show.”

“The only way I would do it was if it was real, and as a result, it’s informative, fun, and glamorous, and I managed to pass some empowering messages onto young women, which is what matters to me.”

After speaking at the Women in the World Texas Forum in San Antonio, von Furstenberg stopped into Neiman Marcus in Dallas to celebrate the wrap dress as its 40th year anniversary comes to a close.

Three years ago, at the Women in the World Summit in New York, I remember von Furstenberg being dismissive when asked about the iconic dress. She resented that the woman she’d worked hard to become was still remembered mostly for something she’d created lifetimes ago.

“I took it for granted, even though that dress paid every bill—it paid for my houses, paid for my fame, paid for my independence, paid for my children’s education, paid for everything.”

It wasn’t until the Los Angeles exhibition that she felt proud of it again. “I realized not only what that dress had done for me, but what it had meant to generations of women! And here I am in Texas, 40 years later, wrapping dresses on another generation of women. That’s pretty amazing.”