Long before Diane von Furstenberg was the queen of her own empire, she was someone else’s princess—in her early twenties, she became royalty after marrying Prince Egon von Furstenberg of Germany.
Wanting something strictly her own in those early years of marriage, von Furstenberg launched her eponymous fashion company, and then her voice.
“When I started to be successful, I would travel across the country. I was very young and European and a princess, so all of these fashion editors at magazines and newspapers had a very preconceived idea of who I was—this Park Avenue Princess,” von Furstenberg told Vanity Fair earlier this week inside her Coldwater Canyon home. “When I read the first article that was written about me, I said, ‘Who is that?’ So I came to be much more outspoken—sometimes even provocative. Even then, at least those words were my words.”
The fashion designer rocked back in her chair, kicking her legs up. At 71, she wore a leopard-print skirt, black boots, and stacks of gold jewelry on both wrists. The words “In Charge” were emblazoned across the chest of her black T-shirt, lest it was unclear who was boss.
As we talked, a team of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staff members could be seen through the glass doors of her living room, scouting von Furstenberg’s lawn ahead of a luncheon the designer was hosting the following day for the year’s female Oscar nominees. It is a tradition she started four years ago after realizing that awards season’s marathon of celebrations did not have a single event devoted to the women nominated. She quickly fixed the problem—inviting every single female nominee to her home for a picnic, with Persian rugs, pillows, and blankets stretched out across her lawn.
Barry Diller, von Furstenberg’s media-mogul second husband, appeared at the landing overhead to inquire about the event’s head count—which had risen this year because of the growing number of female nominees. The designer assured her husband, “These are women. Everyone’s polite. Everyone’s well-behaved.”
The next day, von Furstenberg was in full hosting mode—again wearing a black “In Charge” shirt with a blue skirt, ensuring that each of her guests was comfortable. Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig introduced herself to A Wrinkle in Time filmmaker Ava DuVernay, recalling an empowering speech that DuVernay gave a few years ago at the Athena Film Festival about directing. “I remember thinking that I wanted to be you,” Gerwig told her. Elsewhere, nominees like The Big Sick screenwriter Emily V. Gordon; Mudbound filmmaker Dee Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison; Dunkirk producer Emma Thomas; and I, Tonya editor Tatiana S. Riegel mingled with guests like Donna Langley, and Rita Wilson; and luncheon co-hosts Dawn Hudson,Kathleen Kennedy,Cheryl Saban,Kimberly Steward, and Salma Hayek.
After lunch, Hayek gave an impromptu toast. “When I first arrived in Hollywood, I was so alone. There were no other Mexican actresses and very few women in the industry. And look at us today,” Hayek said, speaking to guests like Rashida Jones and Laura Dern, who sat cross-legged on the floor. “We could not even bring our friends or spouses today because there are just too many of us for this mansion. Everybody in here is extraordinary and exciting and a survivor of the impossible and an example. With all of the things we have accomplished in this room, how exciting is it that the best is yet to come?”
Last year, when von Furstenberg turned 70, she took a step back from her brand and devoted her “third act” to championing women—encouraging them to find and use their own voices. The luncheon is just one small piece in her third-act puzzle. In honor of International Women’s Day this month, the designer is opening up her DVF headquarters in New York’s Meatpacking District for a four-day activation of events and panel discussions to promote women in charge. In April, she will host her ninth DVF Awards, which annually bestows $50,000 grants to women who have displayed leadership, strength, and courage in their commitment to their causes.
The past two years have been a period of cultural upheaval—not just with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and the avalanche of sexual harassment revelations in the Hollywood and fashion industries, but in the world at large. And von Furstenberg is eager to see women’s voices continue to crescendo.
“To have the president we have is just a shame for humanity, not just for women,” von Furstenberg said about Donald Trump. “It’s just unbelievable. . . . [But] there’s a lot of hope for women right now. Women are speaking and it’s not going unnoticed.”
As von Furstenberg talked, she rubbed her back—which had been giving her pain in recent weeks. She said she hoped the pain was just stress.
“You know, I’m strong but the truth is that you have no choice. Sometimes you want to not be strong. But it’s not attractive to be weak . . . it’s not nice to be needy. When I feel a little weak, I remember that when you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.”
Von Furstenberg’s fearlessness can be traced to her mother, a Holocaust survivor who gave birth to von Furstenberg 18 months after she was released from Auschwitz. She grew up with her mother telling her, “God saved me so I can give you life. You are my torch of freedom.”
Von Furstenberg is now trying to pass that torch in her third act. And her 18-year-old granddaughter Talita, the face of her brand’s current campaign, proves that the next generation of women may be the fiercest yet. “Nobody stops them. My generation, we fought so much for being feminists. My children’s generation, they took it for granted and weren’t activists, and now this generation is. My granddaughters are real feminists.”
Forty years after creating the wrap dress, von Furstenberg is still heartened to see people in the world wearing her creations—armor for the working woman she is now hoping to empower on the inside.
“It’s always nice to see that people like what you do,” she said. “I’ve had so much of that satisfaction. So many people have been so good to me. That’s why I give back. You get what you give. And I give what I get.”
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