Diane von Furstenberg: selling confidence, selling strength

Jack Whitehead 27 April 2016

There must be very few people who think of Diane von Furstenberg without thinking of the wrap dress. It’s iconic: a dress designed in the 1970s, and still popular today. The shape is everywhere: Michelle Obama wore it on the White House Christmas card; Kate Middleton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sarah Jessica Parker have all been snapped in iterations of the design; I have one myself. For Diane, it’s the dress that made her millions, made her famous, and made her one of the most celebrated fashion designers around.

“This is my job, and I do it, and I’m honoured and happy to see that people use it to express themselves.” Diane insists that she didn’t try to make a fashion statement: “I got into that just because I wanted to be independent. When I was growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I very much wanted to be an independent woman, but I didn’t quite know how to get there.”

Anyone who imagines a flash of inspiration behind the design has misjudged Diane. She talks about working with the father of a friend at his factory in Como, she set about making up samples, picking up scraps of unused fabric from the factory floor and trying to remain unnoticed. It was in these inauspicious surroundings that the dress came alive. Questioned about it’s success, Diane is equally honest: “Men like it, and their mother’s don’t mind it. I guess it’s because you can open it.” She matches her words with a gesture: this is a woman who says what she means.

And ultimately, that’s the thing about Diane. The more she talks, the more I realise that this isn’t about the dress, iconic as it may be – it’s about her. In the years that brought the wrap dress into the world, Diane also got married, and became the mother to two children. Today she’s mother and grandmother, a designer and a businesswoman, a philanthropist, a feminist, and above all a strong and fearless woman.

Where does this strength come from? For Diane, her role model is her mother: “I didn’t realise she was my role model while she was my mother, but now I look back…” A Holocaust surviver, Liliane Haflin spent over a year in a concentration camp. When she was finally released she weighed just 29 kilograms, and was told that she would never have a child. Diane remembers her mother’s words to her young daughter: “By giving you life, you gave me back my life. You are my flag of freedom.” In a sense, she sees the fabric of that flag as becoming a part of the dresses that made her famous.

Diane says that her designs sell confidence, drawing on the lessons that her mother taught her: fear is not an option; no matter what, you can’t be a victim; it’s a privilege and advantage to be a woman. Diane says that she wants every woman to be the woman that want to be, and as she talks, the word strength, comes up again and again: “I believe that there is strength in absolutely every woman, but I believe that sometimes it’s very hidden. The reason why I say that a lot is that I think by saying it you’re provocative, and then people wonder and they say ‘yeah, maybe I’m strong’. Maybe they’ll remember it. It has a purpose for me to say it because I feel like by saying it I make it happen.”

Clothes, self-expression, strength: these things clearly go together for Diane. I ask her about the flip-side, the constant scrutiny of women’s dress in the media. Here response is pragmatic and honest: “I would say don’t combat it, use it. Because that’s an advantage we actually have! You wake up in the morning, you think where you’re going, and you have the choice of allowing yourself to make the impact that you want to make. Do you know what I mean? Its a choice. […] It’s a choice that you make, and you make an impact, and it expresses who you are, or whatever you want to project.”

For Diane, fashion doesn’t mean not being taken seriously. Her feminism works on the same principles: “Being a feminist doesn’t mean you have to look like a truck-driver!” Feminism is more important to her now than ever: “I’m becoming more and more of a feminist as I grow old and and I think that it’s important. I think that sometimes young people, they don’t like the feminism word, or they think it’s not needed. But that doesn’t mean that you have to combat it in an aggressive way! You just have to first of all enjoy that you’re a woman, and realise that in many ways it’s a great advantage, certainly in the western world, and just go for the advantage and be the woman you want to be.” 

But Diane is the first to admit her own doubts: “There’s often that you get discouraged, and there are times that you have difficulty. But I have a tendency to bite into obstacles by saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to use this to my advantage.’ My mother taught me that, and that was a huge lesson.”

Diane’s message is simple, and her words are powerful. But walking away from the interview, I feel anything but strong, a million miles from this intelligent, warm, kind woman. Back at home, I look at my own wrap dress, hanging in my wardrobe. It’s only then that I remember the first time that I wore it: my first day at Cambridge. I spent days in advance choosing that dress, matching it with jewellery, and shoes, and make up. Because I wanted to express myself – and wearing that dress, I did. When Diane von Furstenberg says that she sells confidence, it’s no lie.