NEW YORK — After more than 45 years in fashion, Diane von Furstenberg, 71, is looking for a graceful exit. She has designed a lot of frocks, but the classic wrap dress is the one that matters most. It’s a garment that has come with an empowering narrative: that women can have dominion over their own reality with a single sexy, authoritative dress.
The dress landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1976. It made von Furstenberg — who married and divorced a European prince and dazzled this city’s disco society — even richer and more famous and gave her independence.
Today, von Furstenberg is ready to be done with fashion. “I don’t want to do another color palette,” she says. “I’ve had three acts. The first was the American Dream, the young girl coming to New York, the wrap dress, blah, blah, blah. The second: I started over. Now, I’ve been thinking, now is the time for the third act. How do I turn this into a legacy, so the legacy will last after me?”
Known for her eponymous label, which is often shortened to DvF, von Furstenberg has a new goal. “I became an icon,” she says. “Now I want to be an oracle.”
She founded her business in 1972, and getting out is hard. She has considered selling it, and she may take on an investor. Her granddaughter, Talita von Furstenberg, will definitely go to work for the company.
“To let go is the easiest,” she says. Pause. No, delete that. “I’m not letting go. I’m transitioning into something else.”
Ultimately, she would like to focus even more on philanthropy. In 1999, she set up the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation with her media billionaire husband, Barry Diller. The organization has helped underwrite this city’s High Line park, the District of Columbia College Access Program and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. She also sponsors the DVF Awards to support female entrepreneurs and leaders from around the world.
“Diane is so much deeper and more global than people might assume based on the world of fashion,” says activist Gloria Steinem. “She’s someone I’d like to precede in the world and say, ‘Pay attention to this woman!’”
Von Furstenberg wants to declare older women valuable. While the culture has long glorified and romanticized the so-called council of wise men, she would like to be one of the culture’s wise women — a confidently mature woman who uses her experience and resources to guide younger leaders.
She has long considered her mortality. “When you get to my age, it’s serious,” she says. “When you get to be 70, then it hits.
You’re closer to the end.”
“I want to be able to enjoy [life],” she says. “The third act is about fulfillment.”
In 2016, von Furstenberg announced she had found an heir to her fashion empire — Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders, whom she hired as chief creative officer.
She put Saunders in charge of everything — from ready-to-wear to advertising. For his spring 2018 runway show, she stood in the audience with the guests, commenting on ensembles that she particularly favored, many of which she was seeing for the first time.
But then Saunders resigned in December 2017.
“I think he did some very good work,” von Furstenberg says. “He’s wonderful with prints and color.” But he was uncomfortable, she says, being a man overseeing a brand built on the philosophy of women being in charge.
In January, von Furstenberg turned to designer Nathan Jenden, 47, who originally came to work for her in 2001.
Jenden impressed her with a trial-run project called “rebel princess.” In their 10 years together, he helped the business grow from $2 million in annual revenue to $250 million, she says.
In 2011, he left to work on his own line, which von Furstenberg helped finance, and later worked for Bebe.
“He had to leave to appreciate me,” von Furstenberg says with a smile. She’s the godmother of his daughter, and they often confer in French, the Belgian-born von Furstenberg’s first language.
She’d have preferred to turn the creative reins over to a woman. But this is okay. “I have a woman CEO,” she says.
Some women may find it impossible to accept a compliment, but not von Furstenberg. If you tell her she looks terrific, she will accept the compliment with a nod. There’s pride in her sleek figure, the chiseled jawline, those toned legs, that tousle of hair, which she tends to run her hands through as she talks.
She is a perfect advertisement for her brand.
“Now everyone talks about authenticity and honesty. It’s easy for me. I’ve never lied — not about [my business] going up and down. I’ve always shared it,” she says. “In the beginning people said, ‘Who is this princess from Europe who makes inexpensive dresses? Who is this woman?’ My plan was always to be a bit provocative to get attention and be very, very honest.”
The daughter of a concentration-camp survivor, a mother of two and a feminist, she started calling herself Ms. instead of princess once she saw Steinem’s groundbreaking magazine.
“I’m of a generation where two things were certain: that you have your period and you get groped,” she says. “I had three bosses, and each tried to seduce me. One grossly. One okay. And one ended up being a mentor.” She wonders aloud whether the #MeToo movement has caused some women to make exaggerated claims. But she agrees there are a lot of wrongs to right.
Her company has shrunk significantly over the years. The goal now is to transform a legacy label into a nimble, 21st-century brand focused on e-commerce. For the first time, von Furstenberg wrote a business plan. At her desk, she proudly holds up a piece of cardboard that accordions out to reveal handwritten bullet points: “We have an iconic dress. . . . We have a vocabulary of 10,000 iconic prints.” What’s particularly valuable, she says, “is the emotional connection women have with the brand.”
At the ninth annual DVF Awards in April, history-making ballerina Misty Copeland wept onstage, overwhelmed by the accomplishments of her fellow honorees.
Von Furstenberg “is really showing people what fashion can do, and what she can effect, and the importance of being a strong woman,” Copeland said.
When the designer launched the awards, she hesitated to put her name on them. She didn’t think her name carried enough gravitas or prestige. She wasn’t giving away millions of dollars. But putting $50,000 in prize money in the hands of someone like Jaha Dukureh, whose NGO fights female genital mutilation, is transformative — for both the recipient and the donor.
“It brings us to a platform we wouldn’t ordinarily be on. A lot of people just don’t understand how big of an issue this is in Africa, Asia, the Middle East; 500,000 girls in the U.S. are at risk,” Dukureh says. “The impact [von Furstenberg] is making is not an afterthought.”
That night, von Furstenberg was wearing a black mesh dress embroidered with pink flowers and a pair of vertiginous black heels. The room was filled women wearing DVF. When she stepped to the lectern, the microphone was positioned too low — a gaffe she tut-tutted repeatedly through the night, for in her eyes it was no small thing. It was distracting and annoying; the stage manager should have known better.
Von Furstenberg isn’t rude; she’s persistent and unapologetic. She is a wise woman, and this is her third act. She wants to make sure it’s just right.