Big thanks to Linda for sending in this article.
In her breathless new memoir, DIANE VON FURSTENBERG finally reveals the truth about her life as a fashion tycoon, Hollywood habitue, and party princess. Just who is the woman behind the glittering facade? From a pink and zebra carriage house in the heart of the Village, Amy Synnott investigates.
"I need daylight," says Diane Von Furstenberg, raising a limp hand to her forehead. She gestures to her assistant to move a tray containing two glasses and a bottle of Evian as she slinks out of her fourth floor office into a more pleasing, light-dappled room filled with Balinese furniture, wooden sculptures, and zebra-lined chairs.
She curls up like a cat on a soft, leather couch. "I had a very bad accident a few weeks ago," she explains, in a rolling European purr. "I basically ran into a truck." The designer, who looks remarkably good for a woman who has just broken all her ribs and punctured a lung, was on her way to Alaska to meet her good friend Barry Diller when the accident occurred. The Hollywood heavyweight had organized a power weekend for several dozen VIPs and, as usual, Diane was the only woman invited-not that she seemed to notice. "Oh, it was just a weekend party," she says, a blase droop to her brow.
Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful is nothing new for the jet-setting princess who, at age 22, married a German prince whose title dates back to the 12th century and whose money comes from the Fiat family fortune of his mother, Clara Agnelli Nuvoletti. Over the last two decades, Diane Von Furstenberg has established herself as one of America's most dynamic female tycoons, parlaying her initial success with the wrap dress into a sprawling empire that came to include everything from cosmetics to home furnishings. She has raised two children, created her own publishing company, lived in Bali, and seduced-and befriended-some of the world's most dashing bachelors. And, with the re-introduction of her celebrated wrap dress last year, she is currently enjoying one of the most successful fashion revivals of the decade.
Through all this, she has remained an enigmatic icon, her triumphs and tragedies shrouded in the elusive bubble wrap of glamour and celebrity. But this month, with the publication of her memoir, Diane:
A Signature Life (Simon & Schuster), she will finally offer the public a glimpse of the woman behind the mystique. The book is packed with titillating bits and pieces: a girlhood affair with a female friend, flings with Richard Gere and Ryan O'Neal, and many late night pick-ups at Studio 54. Interspersed with tales of fabulous parties and high-profile lovers, the author also offers an unflinching account of the more painful episodes of her life: the dissolution of her marriage to Prince Egon, the rocky years of her business, the emotional breakdown of her mother (an Auschwitz survivor), her struggle with cancer.
"I've always had adventures," says the 51-year- old fashion doyenne, raising her eyebrows with a twinkle half-smile. "But you realize in reading my book is that even when things appear very glamorous, there is always a part of the story that is not glamorous at all."
So, who is the real Diane Von Furstenberg? Staring slack-jawed from the cover of Newsweek in 1976, she looked as bored and haughty as a Parisian runway model. But she is much softer and prettier in person- the distinctive cheekbones seem less severe, the dark eyes less forbidding. There is a coziness to her that is at once surprising and disarming. "The first time I met her," Barry Diller recalls, "I thought she was far too sophisticated for anything I'd ever seen in my life. I also thought she was somewhat Euro-arrogant. But the second time-my God, what a contrast! It's like this magnetic positive force field she creates, this extraordinary honesty-of purpose, of instinct, of originality, of clarity." The actress Marisa Berenson, her longtime friend, agrees. "Diane is a free spirit," she says. "She makes her own style, has her own way of living, and she has always had the guts to stand on her own truth."
"I have always wanted to have my own life," the designer says," because freedom is really the dominant thing for me." Which is why, in the early '70s, she decided to create a little jersey dress known as the wrap. "I wanted to be free," she says. "And in order to be free, I had to be financially independent." One time, in the fledgling stages of her business, she even hawked a ring Egon had given her in order to make her payments for the dresses, so reluctant was she to rely on others for help. She maintained her independence after divorcing Egon by refusing to accept alimony. And, despite many subsequent love affairs-she has never been willing to compromise her freedom by remarrying after Egon. "I've never wanted to make the full commitment of saying, 'I'm endorsing another person as myself.' The only people I could really say I feel that way towards are my children.'"
Reclining on a jewel-rimmed divan in her downtown studio, Diane tries to recall her first impression of the one person she did try to endorse as herself-the fun-loving and handsome Prince Egon Von Furstenberg, whom she met in a Geneva nightclub in the mid-'60s. "He had a cherub face," she says, twirling her fingers around the petals of a nearby orchid." He was very sweet but childish." The telephone rings and she picks it up. Hearing a familiar voice, her eyes, which had been drooping ever so slightly, perk up. "Tu m'aime?" she inquires, a coy little smile dancing across her lips. As she prattles on in French, slices of afternoon sun filter down from the glass atrium overhead, highlighting the auburn streaks in her shiny dark hair. Watching her flirt on the phone, it's easy to imagine how she seduced so many men over the years.
The first time he met her, Egon found her "beautiful and witty" but infuriatingly aloof. "She was not turned on by me at the beginning," he says. "I hated that. I thought, Why doesn't she like me? Everyone else does!" Of course, ultimately, she did end up falling for the handsome prince. "We were on a ski trip and the car broke down and he didn't know what to do," she says. "His helplessness evoked a lot of tenderness for me. But then, that's usually what seduces me in people- their vulnerable side. I mean, I'm not attracted by a very loud, cheerful, golf player."
If not a golf player, Egon was, in fact, a wildly outgoing man who loved to be at the center of the social whirl. When the couple married two years later in France, tout Paris attended the lavish event. Egon's father, Prince Tassilo, was among the guests at the wedding, though he refused to attend the reception. "This is the first time in nine centuries that we have Jewish blood," he told New York magazine in 1973. "But Jews are clever and shrewd and the little boy will need that." The little boy in question was her first born child, Alexandre, with whom she was three months pregnant when she walked down the aisle. "I wasn't that eager to get married so quickly," recalls Diane. "And I was certainly not eager to get married pregnant. But it happened."
Once ensconced in New York, the couple quickly ascended the ranks of high society. Diane's dress business had taken off, and between her success and his title, they were a power couple to be reckoned with: young, good-looking, stylish. They had two beautiful children, Alexandre and Tatiana. They were out every night, palling around town with celebutantes like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. They were, in the words of a controversial 1973 cover story in New York magazine," The Couple Who Had Everything." Or so it seemed.
In the article, Egon is quoted as saying, "You just live once. And I'm going to get the most of it. After a while, passion-you know-cools. So a little here, a little there, at three in the afternoon." Diane was hurt by his candid acknowledgment of his affairs and by "the pictures of superficiality" that emerged from the article. "We were seen as this, this...couple, and it just didn't fit anymore." Egon say he too was hurt, if not surprised. "They wanted to shock. And some of the sex stuff was taken out of context, exaggerated... at that time, I really was quite faithful."
The marriage dissolved shortly after the article came out, allowing Diane to concentrate on her three "children": Alexandre, Tatiana, and her business. By this time, her signature was firmly planted on everything from sunglasses and cosmetics to handbags and furs, prompting a 1976 cover story in Newsweek in which the designer was deemed "the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel." Barry Diller, who had met Diane a year earlier at a party in New York, commissioned a photographer to shoot all the newsstands around the city when the cover story appeared. "I'm so spoiled," Diane says, chuckling quietly, "that my answer to that was, 'Oh, well, what about (the rest of the magazines around) the world?"
But if the princess was a little spoiled, she tried not to infect her children with it. "Her attitude was, 'I'll go to work, and you go to school.'" Tatiana explains. "She treated us like little adults." Little adults with very exotic lifestyles, that is. When Tatiana and her brother, Alexandre, were 9-and 10-years-old, respectively, she carted them off to Bali, where they lived in a mud hut with her current flame, a South American art dealer named Paolo. "I was very worried for my children," Egon recalls. "It was a big shock to go from Park Avenue to a hut in Bali with some Brazilian surfer." But the children didn't mind. "I know it may seem like she was a hippie mother," says Tatiana. "But she was always very reliable. She just put a lot of trust in us." When they went on trips overseas, they were allowed to roam the beaches and the mountains with little guidebooks-and no adult supervision. "I remember one time we spent five days in Japan, and my brother and I went down to the casino by ourselves and I won a shitload of money. Bags full of change."
The independence she fostered in her children has obviously served them well. Tatiana, now 27, lives between New York and L.A. and is writing a novel and working with foster children while completing a graduate degree in psychology and parenthood. After successfully launching his own company after college, Alexandre, 28, now works for a hedge fund called Interpacific. His wife, Alexandra, the youngest daughter of duty-free billionaire tycoon Robert Miller, is the creative director of Diane's company. It was, in fact, her idea to bring back the celebrated wrap dress. "When I first went to Diane for career advice," says the 24-year-old blonde beauty, "there was so much homage to the '70s. Everyone was into bell-bottoms and this whole disco craze. And I said to her, 'I'm sure if you don't bring back the wrap dress, someone else will.'"
The new wrap dresses, which have been eagerly embraced by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to MTV news anchor Serena Altschul, are almost as popular today as they were 20 years ago. But they've been adjusted for modern tastes: the collars are smaller and rounder, the dress has been shortened from mid-calf to the knee, and the new fabric is a silk knit rather than a jersey. Emboldened with her wild signature and animal print designs, the new wraps are funky, spirited, and modern-much like the new headquarters of the Diane Von Furstenberg studio.
"When I turned 30, I wanted to have a Fifth Avenue apartment and I liked to act old," Diane explains. "When I turned 50, I bought myself a bohemian downtown carriage house." Her flamboyantly-appointed studio (undoubtedly one the only pink and black buildings nestled away in the meat packing district) could easily pass for a stage set from some wildly over-the-top James Cameron epic. Walking inside, visitors pass a tangle of branches and a stone imprinted with the word "Create." Then it's on to a huge, loft-like space with pink walls, purple carpeting, and a plethora of animal prints. A spiral staircase winds up through four stories, bottoming out into a small, mosaic-tiled indoor pool. Behind the pool, three, enormous Andy Warhol prints of the designer hang on the wall, a few feet away from two director's chairs: one for the designer, and one for Alexandra. "It all reflects who I am, "says the designer, waving her wrist around the room in a graceful swoop. "The objects around you, the food you eat, the books you read. You set yourself up in a stage."
And yet, nothing in this eclectic studio seems fixed-one has the sense that it could all be re-invented tomorrow. "I like to think that every day is a choice, "says Diane. "You know, there are two kinds of people: the people who live in a zoo, and the people who live in the jungle. And I prefer the jungle."