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January 21, 1998

Wrap Dress Reviver Who's a Jet Set Star

by Elisabeth Bumiller

ALEXANDRA VON FURSTENBERG is the American billionaire's daughter who married nobly, expensively and well, then went to work helping her mother-in-law, Diane Von Furstenberg, revive the 1970's wrap dress. Her riches-to-the-rag trade story is of course not unknown, at least by people who pay attention to money and clothes. The same people compare Ms. Von Furstenberg to the heroines of Edith Wharton and Henry James. What is new is that in recent months Ms. Von Furstenberg, 25, has emerged as the star of New York's junior jet set. If this is hardly surprising, it is still instructive about the way rich 20-somethings are spending their parents' money and shaping a layer of New York.

Ms. Von Furstenberg is the youngest of the three "Miller girls," as people still call the daughters of the duty-free tycoon Robert W. Miller, and the only sister to hold a job. She easily straddles the worlds of fashion, finance and royalty -- a classic permutation of the cross-fertilization in late 1990's society. People want her to pose for magazine covers, run benefits, eat at their tables. Her cellular phone rings all the time.

"No, it doesn't make me nervous," Ms. Von Furstenberg said last week in an interview at her mother-in-law's studio on a sleek edge of the meat-packing district. Ms. Von Furstenberg holds the title of creative director at Diane Von Furstenberg Studio, and fashion hands say her role is in part the gorgeous young thing who attracts press and looks good in the window. But she does more than that. Even in a skeptical industry, few doubt that the 1997 revival of the wrap dress would have happened without her.

"She wanted to work and my son thought it would be a good idea if she worked for me," Diane Von Furstenberg said. "That had never occurred to me. So for the first few months she was just here sorting out prints. I didn't even think it was going to be something. Then she said, 'Why don't you do these dresses again?' And then I realized this was a whole new generation. She's turned out to be very important, a vital part of the company."

The wrap revival -- a shorter dress, without the big 1970's cuffs and collar -- was an instant hit with Ms. Von Furstenberg's set and also the 50-somethings who wore the original. Still, fashion writers complained that the November show introducing it was repetitive and boring.

The test now is whether the company can expand beyond the flattering and hugely popular creation that put Diane Von Furstenberg on the cover of Newsweek in 1976. Toward that end, the company on Jan. 5 hired Susan Falk, the former president of Henri Bendel, as chief executive officer. "The intent is to develop a full-fledged collection," Ms. Falk said. Ms. Von Furstenberg, meanwhile, promises new separates for fall 1998. "We're back now," she said. "The foot's in the door."

THE shy, blond and creamy-skinned Ms. Von Furstenberg is a reverse image to her chatty mother-in-law's exotic dark looks. But just as the elder Ms. Von Furstenberg did, Alexandra Von Furstenberg wears her wrap dress like a second skin -- in this case a cerulean-blue leopard print set off by navy Dolce & Gabbana platform sandals. "That's my weakness, shoes," Ms. Von Furstenberg said, sitting with excellent posture at her desk in a studio corner. "My father calls me Imelda Marcos. I have a special shoe closet. A carpenter made it for me."

Ms. Von Furstenberg was raised in the isolated worlds of the intensely rich in Hong Kong, Paris and New York. She spent winters in Gstaad, summers in Bali, and was an indifferent student at 11 schools. She rebelled, gently, against her mother, the Ecuadorean-born Chantal. "I partied a lot when I was growing up," Ms. Von Furstenberg said. "But I didn't get tattoos or anything, or pierce my nose." Friends describe her as a fantastically indulged daughter who turned out nicer than might be expected.

She met her future husband, Alexandre Von Furstenberg, in an elevator at the Hotel Carlyle. She was 14, he was 17. His father was Prince Egon Von Furstenberg of Austria, whose title dates to the 12th century and whose money, more recent, came from his mother, an Agnelli of Fiat. The heiress was instantly smitten. "I thought, 'That's the man I'm going to marry,' " Ms. Von Furstenberg said.

Eight years later, in the fall of 1995, she got her wish. She was 22 and had dropped out of Brown University without regrets. "I got married," Ms. Von Furstenberg said. "It's a better piece of paper."

Her siblings' matches were equally notable, if not more so. Pia Miller, the eldest sister, married Christopher Getty, a grandson of J. Paul Getty, in 1992; Marie-Chantal Miller married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, the eldest son of the exiled King Constantine II, in the summer of 1995.

These days Ms. Von Furstenberg's life revolves around work, travel, exercise and parties. She gives weekly dinners, either at her Madison Avenue apartment or at her parents' 71st Street town house, said to be decorated with old master paintings and a Louis XIV desk whose twin is at Versailles. She and her husband, the manager of a hedge fund, frequent downtown haunts like Restaurant 147, Nobu and Raoul's, then repair to Spy Bar and Wax. Among her friends are offspring of other self-made billionaires, like Samantha Kluge.

Ms. Von Furstenberg says the worst thing that ever happened to her was when her childhood home was torn down in Hong Kong. "That was quite sad," she said. They did, however, put up an Italian palazzo in its place.

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