Diane Von Furstenberg's designs have made her a fashion icon around the world and, she says, have helped her become the woman she's always wanted to be. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 report.
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While the images most associated with designer Diane Von Furstenberg are of the glamour of the fashion industry, beautiful and functional clothes, and a jet-setting lifestyle, she says the forces that formed her long ago were born in a place with an altogether different image -- Auschwitz.
"My mother's experiences and the fact that she was in the camps during the war, I think it's very much a part of who I am and the need that I had for independence," said Von Furstenberg. "She always believed that she survived in order to give me life, that's what she constantly said to me. She thought that God saved her in order for her to make me."
At 61, Von Furstenberg is still making clothes for women, as she puts it, with "freedom and independence in every stitch, "just as she did when she broke on the scene almost 40 years ago.
"You have more experience, so in a sense, you enjoy it more," she said. "You become more authentic, because you become more who you are."
At her office and apartment in the Meatpacking District, Von Furstenberg is surrounded, not surprisingly, by plenty of clothes and young, creative designers. But Von Furstenberg is also a lover of books, and the shelves in her office include works on subjects as diverse as Hunter S. Thompson and Joseph Stalin.
"My life is always full of contrast, you know travel I love traveling and I could travel in a very, very, very luxurious way and I could travel in a bus with chickens," she said. "You know, I've done both and I do like the contrast."
In her career she has ventured into the worlds of cosmetics and publishing, but she is best known for making women's clothing.
The dress that put her on the map to stay in the early 1970s was small in title, huge in popularity. It was the wrap.
"The wrap is most fundamental traditional form of dressing," said Von Furstenberg. "It's like a bathrobe, kimono, toga, what made it different was that it was in jersey, and therefore molded the body, and was printed. The first prints were leopard prints, so it made the woman feel like a leopard."
About ten years ago, she noticed her daughter's generation wearing vintage wrap dresses.
"Then I realized they were right again, but not for women my age," she said. "They are right again for those women much younger, so all of a sudden I have this other, different role, and being embraced by whole new generation and starting all over again, kind of, you know, promote of that feeling of that sprit of freedom."
Von Furstenberg repeatedly comes back to the themes of freedom and independence in her work with the non-profit group Vital Voices, which promotes female leaders in developing countries, and as president of the Council of Fashion Designers Association.
"I think my drive came from the fact that I wanted to be independent and I did not want to depend on another person in order to survive and in order to do what I wanted to do," she said. "I think my biggest drive comes out of freedom."
Diane Von Furstenberg was born about a year and a half after the end of World War II. She says growing up in Brussels, she learned self reliance from her mother, and got her energy from her father.
Even though she married a German prince at a young age, Von Furstenberg said she knew she wanted a career of her own. Her husband was already living in New York, and Von Furstenberg followed -- by boat.
"I wanted to come slowly in order to think about my future life and have time to visualize and project it, and of course, I was pregnant and seasick," she said. "I don't know how much I projected."
Her royal status helped open some doors for her fledgling dress business, including an entrŽe to then Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.
A New York Magazine cover story about the socialite couple caused Von Furstenberg to reexamine her marriage. She and her husband, Egon, separated shortly thereafter.
She was 25, with two kids.
But her business was blossoming with the popularity of the wrap dress. She landed on the cover of Newsweek.
On the day she appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, she was flying for business, sitting next to a passenger who was clueless.
"The guy next to me, he's looking and looking and he's trying to make conversation with me and he sees I have a Wall Street Journal with me and he said 'why does a girl like you read Wall Street Journal?'" she recalled. "And I kind of looked at him and I thought, jerk."
At the time, Von Furstenberg was living with her mother and two children, going to work during the day, home for dinner, and then, a couple of times a week, she headed out to a place she once called "the best pickup joint in the world."
"Somewhere around 12 at night I would put on my cowboy boots, I would go to Studio 54 for two hours, and that was it," she said. "It was a just great night club."
But in the 80s, the party stopped for Von Furstenberg. The market was saturated with her goods, and, on the brink of bankruptcy, she sold her company.
"You know, you have a big knot in your stomach," she said. "And, oh my God you, know what am I going to do? I can lose everything, and you just go on to the next day."
With her two children in boarding school, she returned to Europe with a new beau and opened a publishing house. But she missed the states and came back in the early 90s, to a not-so-friendly welcome.
"And the people who I was involved in my business and licenses, they really didn't want to have to do anything with me, and I felt pretty bad," said Von Furstenberg. "That was the lowest I've ever felt, the lowest self esteem I've ever had, and it was not fun."
She started selling her clothing on QVC, and reconnected with longtime friend, former lover, and soon-to-be second husband Barry Diller. She re-launched her fashion house and the wrap dress again became fashionable.
A decade later, Von Furstenberg's fashions are as vibrant as ever.
In her Meatpacking District store, she is once again surrounded by youth, her designs, and memories which left an indelible imprint long ago.
"I knew the woman I wanted to be," she said. "I knew I wanted to be a woman who was independent and who was like that, and I became the woman I wanted to be through fashion, and through fashion, I was giving the other women little tools, which were the dresses, to also become the women that they wanted to be."
- Budd Mishkin
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