Who is Diane von Furstenberg, really?

The creator of the iconic wrap dress struggles to define herself.

The best part of the book explores Diane von Furstenberg’s business experiences. (photo credit: HANS DORSINVILLE)
The best part of the book explores Diane von Furstenberg’s business experiences.
(photo credit: HANS DORSINVILLE)
Fashion mogul Diane von Furstenberg is not intentionally lying in her new memoir, but many of her sentiments lack the gravity of sophisticated adult truths.
The 66-year-old’s carefully constructed sound bites in The Woman I Wanted To Be seem to be begging for respect and adoration, but she alienates us with her Oprahlike euphemisms that seem devoid of genuine content. Yet there is no denying the fact that this ferociously ambitious woman has done many great things.
She runs a multimillion-dollar fashion empire, and is the mother of two accomplished adult children and the grandmother of four. She has become increasingly involved in philanthropic work that focuses on the empowerment of women, and many other worthy causes.
But baring her soul is not her strong suit; in fact, it probably threatens the well-rehearsed mantras she has been repeating to herself for decades.
So we have to try to look beyond the banal nuggets of advice von Furstenberg offers up as wisdom. For example, she says things like this without any sense of irony: “Love is not just about people you had affairs with. Love is about moments of intimacy, paying attention to others, connecting. As you learn this, you learn that love is everywhere; you find it everywhere.”
She doesn’t stop there, adding, “I have always tried to stay in touch with the people who are important in my life and the people that I have loved. Once I love, I love forever, and there is nothing more cozy and meaningful than friends and lovers. I’m so fortunate to have so much love in my life. Without it, I would never be who I am.”
But who is she, really? The reader is not sure she knows.
Von Furstenberg became famous in the early 1970s with the creation of her famous wrap dress. Made from lusciously rich and boldly printed jersey fabric, it was a cleverly constructed combination of a dancer’s leotard and a flowing skirt.
But this dress was all one piece, and didn’t require any zippers or buttons. It flattered many women’s figures and allowed them to feel feminine and feminist at the same time.
Von Furstenberg always said it was the perfect dress for an evening of passion: It could slip off easily, and was just as simple to get back into. Millions of these sold until the appetite for them dried up.
Despite the tactile, vibrant quality of her most well-known product, there is a brittleness about the designer that is reminiscent of women like Helen Gurley Brown or Barbara Walters. It feels like an entrenched defiance, and an insistence upon succeeding at almost any cost.
SHE WAS born the daughter of Holocaust survivor Lily Nahmias, who came out of Auschwitz weighing 60 pounds. Her mother was told by doctors she would probably have trouble conceiving, but von Furstenberg was born 18 months later.
Her father, Russian businessman Leon Halfin, smothered her with affection.
But her mother was more severe, and wouldn’t allow her to express any fear.
When the young von Furstenberg showed an early fear of the dark, Nahmias locked her in a lightless closet for hours until her howling stopped.
We can see the lingering effects of this brutality in almost all of von Furstenberg’s important relationships – which seem, despite her protestations of closeness, to be marred by something difficult to define. Even when she summons the courage to express brief regrets about emotional omissions she now recognizes took place between her and her daughter, Tatiana, she forgives herself far too quickly, and doesn’t dwell on the emotional fallout her daughter is forced to live with.
It’s as if her good intentions are enough, even when they clearly aren’t.
At 19, she met Austrian prince Egon von Furstenberg, heir to the Fiat fortune, and became pregnant. They married almost immediately, and within two more years she gave birth to their second child; the couple divorced very soon after that.
Von Furstenberg then embarked on an enviable single life, which included liaisons with famous leading men like Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal and Richard Gere. By her late 20s, she was involved with mogul Barry Diller, then head of Paramount Studios, but their relationship fizzled and she began other affairs. She kept returning to Diller, finally marrying him in 2001.
The best part of her book explores her business experiences and her early understanding of the crucial role meaningful work plays in a woman’s life. Von Furstenberg describes for us the ups and downs of building her empire. She admits to being naïve about money and business planning, and is still upset about how she once allowed herself to be persuaded to overly license her name to countless products, which ultimately hurt her brand.
She then describes her incredulous comeback in the 1990s, with her wrap dress taking center stage once again. She was inspired to try this when she noticed some of her daughter’s friends wearing the original wrap dresses, which they had found in vintage clothing stores throughout Manhattan.
For her ’90s comeback, Von Furstenberg hired the best creative minds in fashion to assist her. She used her own photographs as inspiration for new and spirited prints for the dresses. She put together spectacular runway shows using exotic models and fabulous music in exquisite venues, which captured the attention and praise of the fashion critics who had almost forgotten her.
This fashion magnate is open to trying almost anything, and enjoys the challenge.
She has made inroads in China, a market of enormous potential, with her new merchandise. And she was a smash hit in the ’90s on the television home shopping channels, where she used her star persona to move millions of dollars worth of merchandise in record time.
At 66, Von Furstenberg is sexy and graceful, and walks seductively – aware that she still has great legs. Her appearance is somewhat disarming; she is half hippie chick, with her long, flowing, curly hair and minimal makeup, but still always seems safely encased inside a bubble of confident opulence.
She is eager to please; perhaps too eager – particularly in this disappointing book.