During this pandemic I don’t know what you’ve been doing — but Diane von Furstenberg has executed a fundamental overhaul of her life at the age of 73.
She has written a book, is launching an interiors collaboration with Swedish fashion company H&M and, oh yes, she has dragged her fashion company DVF back from the brink by her fingernails.
Yes, that’s right: all at 73 years old; 74 on New Year’s Eve. She’s not prone to self-pity — and bats away the suggestion that it might have been tough to close 18 out of 19 shops in America, laying off 60 per cent of staff in the UK, U.S. and France.
Diane von Furstenberg (pictured) has executed a fundamental overhaul of her life at the age of 73 during lockdown
‘You just have to own it,’ she says in her Belgian-American rasp. Own It: The Secret To Life is, by the way, the title of her new book and she repeats it a lot, as well as The Woman I Wanted To Be, the title of her last book. Diane is not someone to let an opportunity to promote pass, even in a crisis, which is probably why she has sold 15 million of the wrap dresses synonymous with her name since she created it in 1974.
It was in April, in the room where she sits now — a white, cavernous converted tobacco barn in Connecticut, north of New York, full of light, book-lined and hung with pop art (specifically her by Andy Warhol) — that she faced the death of her company.
‘From day to night I didn’t know how I was going to address things,’ she tells me. ‘I was stuck in this huge room, talking and finding solutions.’ She walked in her 100-acre grounds. She talked to herself (in French, pep talks are ‘always’ in French).
DVF has been in trouble for a while, still dependent on expensive flagship stores over agile e-commerce. Covid accelerated its collapse. ‘Corona hits someone a lot worse if they have a pre-condition,’ she has observed. Unpaid bills ran into tens of millions. Staff wanted severance. In the UK alone, there was a deficit of nearly half a million pounds when it went into administration in May.
Diane (right, alongside Anna Wintour) has recently written a book and is launching an interiors collaboration with Swedish fashion company H&M
Among her options: liquidation, bankruptcy, or selling her name for ‘huge money’ to a company that would re-apply it to mass market products. She was tempted — ‘and then I realised that it wasn’t just my name but my archives, the library of prints; everything.’
To keep it would require a massive injection of cash — thought to be many millions of dollars. ‘And obviously I had to put that money in.’ So she bit the bullet. ‘And once you have done it, it’s done.’ She sighs. ‘Wow.’
I should say here that she was worth around $300 million (£222 million) — the latest figure from Forbes in 2017 — and that in 2001 she married long-term partner Barry Diller of Expedia, worth $4.1 billion (£3 billion). Not that she’s the sort of person to rely on a husband.
Her first was Prince Egon von Furstenberg, heir to the Fiat fortune, but that never stopped her working (‘No, no. There was no way I was going to do nothing,’ she gasps when I ask why she didn’t kick back drinking vintage champagne. ‘I always wanted to be in charge.’)
Big fan: Duchess of Cambridge in one of Diane’s dresses
Her mantras are rooted in self-reliance: ‘The most important relationship is with yourself,’ she counsels. Others are ‘a plus, not a must’. There’s also: don’t lie to yourself, be demanding, don’t be delusional. Oh yes, and: ‘Being in charge is not arrogant, or aggressive. It’s a commitment to yourself.’
Her succession plan was to pass DVF to her granddaughter, Talita von Furstenberg, 21, with whom she has previously collaborated, with TVF for DVF. Despite there being no question of who is in charge, the family ‘do make decisions together’.
She has been working on her re-launch since. ‘By March, I will have repositioned and restarted everything. I’m excited about how I have taken it on, turned it into a positive.’ The brand will be sold ‘direct to the consumer,’ focusing on what she calls ‘core’ — dresses and print. Downstairs, she has an archive going back ‘20, 30, 40 years. ‘The fashion I do is relevant for the time. They are collectables.’
Today, she is wearing a knitted jersey that appears not quite fresh on, exercise leggings and her shock-hair is untamed. She had started the interview with camera off; I could hear the snap of a compact, a clatter of pencils. Her pronunciation suggested she might be elongating her mouth for lipstick.
A word about Diane’s extraordinary life. She was born in 1946 in Brussels to Leon and Liliane Halfin — a Holocaust survivor who left Auschwitz weighing just over 4st. ‘She wasn’t supposed to have a child,’ Diane says. Liliane taught her that fear was never an option. ‘If I was afraid of the dark, she put me in a closet,’ she says. ‘So I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t allowed to blame anything or anyone. It’s the best present she gave me.’
Optimism was critical. ‘I would ask her, “Well, how did you survive [the Holocaust]?” And she said, “Well, it’s like it was raining. And I was going in between the drops.” Which doesn’t make any sense. It’s just positive. “No matter what, you’re never a victim.” ’
Diane (pictured with Barry Diller in 1993) has also dragged her fashion company DVF back from the brink by her fingernails
Diane went to Stroud Court boarding school in Oxfordshire at the age of 15 then met Prince Egon while studying economics at Geneva University, married him aged 22 in 1969 and went on to have a son and daughter, Alexander, now 50, and Tatiana, 49. Her shorthand of this story: ‘So I came out of dust. I married a German prince. I became a princess, then I went to America.’ The longer version is that she worked for a man who printed silk scarves in Italy. ‘And he invented this jersey fabric so we printed on the jersey fabric. I started to make samples of dresses. Before I knew it, I got pregnant, I married, I moved to America and I started my business.’
Even 40 years later, she didn’t fully grasp the significance of the wrap dress — whose fans include Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge. ‘And it still exists! I’ve sold millions of them. It’s ridiculous.’
But 2020 was not the first time the company stumbled. In the mid-1980s, saddled by debt, she sold. In 1992, she produced a sell-out collection for shopping channel QVC, so relaunched in 1997.
Actually, 2020 started on a high. In Paris in February she stood proud as Christine Lagarde, wearing a scarlet Diane von Fürstenberg pantsuit, pinned the Légion d’Honneur to the strap of Diane’s dress. As Lagarde compared her to Coco Chanel, friends including Anna Wintour, Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, and chatshow host Seth Myers looked on.
Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, told them: ‘The woman clothed by Diane von Fürstenberg is free in her movement and free to take her life in her own hands.’
Diane had just returned from Sweden, where H&M asked her to design a home collection, which launches next year, and had also started on an idea for her book, out in March. Initially, she had envisaged a ‘fun’ book of advice, ‘on the verge of frivolous’; a little book of aphorisms of the sort empowered millennials chuck about on Instagram.
But with business on a knife-edge, it took on a serious tone. ‘What I realised is “own it” is the secret to life. It works with a child, an older person, in business, in love. No matter what happens, the most important part is to own it. There’s no point being delusional or in denial.
‘[If] you own your imperfections, they become your assets; you own your vulnerability, it becomes your strength. There’s no shame. The minute you own, you are in charge.’ She uses ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ when dispensing advice in the book because ‘I didn’t want to sound condescending. You know, “Who am I to give advice?” ’ Although I’m not sure that’s ever stopped her before. ‘I’m an old woman, so I have a lot of advice to give to everybody, which my mother used to do and I used to hate it and now I’m worse than she is.’
The trials of Covid meant every word took on new significance. Using a dictionary format, she picked 250 words ‘that were meaningful to me’ and worked on definitions. ‘I’m very happy with it,’ she says. ‘Pick a letter.’ C? She looks over her specs and reads a list of words from the manuscript. ‘Right: Character, clarity, core, children. Choose one.’
Children? ‘I have seven children counting my five grandchildren. As all mothers do, I want more for them than I want for myself. As a young mother, I was worried about being too strong, to have an overpowering voice. So I made sure to give them plenty of space to express theirs. I certainly succeeded in that, as I am not often lovingly belittled by them.’
Lockdown has also meant staying full-time at her 100-acre farm Cloudwalk — where she is spending Christmas with a diminished group because her family ‘will be spread around because of Covid’. She bought it aged 26 in the first flurry of success.
‘My children grew up here, my grandchildren. But I’d never really stayed for months at a time. This house is everything about me: all my diaries, books, everything. I have built a cemetery for myself, so it’s very important.’ An actual cemetery? ‘I love being here!’
Her study is in an anteroom, a desk pushed up against a pinboard of family photos, press cuttings and drawings by her grandchildren. This is where she got to work every morning. ‘By writing this book I realised that, because I’ve never lied to myself,’ she says.
Not lying includes embracing age. ‘I can’t understand people who lie about it,’ she says. ‘Age is proof that you’ve been alive. I’ve had such a full one, I should be 140. When you get to the sunset of your life, it’s a time for reflection, but also to share your experience, your knowledge, to help others. I was lucky. I was very privileged.’
She and husband Barry have a number of other homes: her apartment in New York, her Paris flat and his vast Beverly Hills estate — plus his 305 ft yacht.
‘But the most inspiring thing for me to talk about is not, “Oh yes, at age 28, I was on the cover of Newsweek”, but the challenges: how sometimes everyone thinks you’re at the very top, but you know you’re going through difficulties. Or when people think you’re finished, and that isn’t true, because you already have taken steps to come back.’
Not all challenges are work-related. Diane, who partied with Warhol at Studio 54, defines herself as bohemian and, according to her biography, neither she nor her first husband were faithful.
Egon was bisexual, and among her flings were Omar Sharif, Richard Gere and — in the same weekend — Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty. ‘Life was fun if you were young, pretty and successful in the 1970s.’ Both husbands were supportive. ‘All the men I was with, really — other than one. But also there was no choice, they just had to be supportive.’
Has she ever had her heart broken? She pauses. ‘I’ve suffered. I’ve been stupid. But I really did not want to be the person waiting for the call. I wanted a man’s life in a woman’s body. Of course, I had my heart…’ She stalls. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever used that word’ — she means broken. ‘I wouldn’t give them that much credit. I would say that I’ve been very much in love many, many times and I’ve lost it. But I’ve never lost myself.’
The most important issue to her now is inequality, abuse and violence towards women: ‘I am certainly going to make it my life cause.’ She has been a phenomenal campaigner and urges everyone to do the same. ‘It’s not the year to focus on wrapping presents,’ she says. ‘It is the year for each of us to pledge to fight inequality, abuse and violence. As a family, we will be taking this pledge seriously.’
Big fan: Duchess of Cambridge in one of Diane’s dresses