Special thanks to Linda for sending this article in, and for reminding me about it!
Riding the retro rage, Diane von Furstenberg relauches the dress that made her famous
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG is talking a mile a minute as she zips along in her 1997 green Jaguar XJR heading out of Manhattan: about her two grown children, her past loves, her 100-acre farm in Connecticut. One can hardly blame her for failing to notice the speedometer inching upward-until a patrolman pulls her over.
"How fast was I going?" she asks the trooper.
"Seventy-nine miles an hour," he says, taking out a pad and pen.
"Oh c'mon," she pleads. "I don't have any tickets." She does now. As Von Furstenberg heads back onto the highway, she plugs in a radar detector-bought precisely to avoid such situations-and shrugs. "I should have had this in," she says. "I guess it's too late now."
It's a rare case of bad timing for the toned, tanned 50-year-old entrepreneur. In the early '70s she had sold more than 5 million of her wrap dresses-clingy $89 cotton jersey numbers that simply tied around the waist and became a virtual uniform for fans from suburban housewives to socialites and celebs like Betty Ford and Aretha Franklin.
Sensible yet sexy-its secret, Von Furstenberg once said, was that "you can wear it with serious heels, serious pearls and walk into a serious restaurant and still show your bottom"-the dress made its designer a multimillionaire and landed her on the cover of Newsweek.
Since then much has changed for Von Furstenberg: In 1983 she and Austria's Prince Eduard Egon von und zu Furstenberg were divorced after a 14-year marriage, and she moved to Bali, then to Paris, falling in and out of love many times along the way. As for the dress, the end of the line came in the mid-80s, after she licensed it to another manufacturer. "The clothes lost their identity," she says. "The stores didn't want anymore."
After heading up several successful business ventures-including a cosmetics company, a publishing house and a few lines of clothing sold on TV and through Avon catalogs-Von Furstenberg found herself at the 1996 Paris collections, where retro styles-including wrap dresses-reigned. And she got that old feeling.
"Karl Lagerfeld was the first to tell me to do the dresses again," she says. "And over the years, women always said bring them back. Who better to do them than me?" Who indeed? This month, a slightly shorter, shapelier and-at $200 a pop-costlier version of the '70s hit went on sale exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue under Von Furstenberg's new "Diane" label.
"It's doing great," says Saks president Rose Marie Bravo. "Customers have been calling the stores asking when they can get it. There's a lot of excitement. It's such an easy way to dress. You have one outfit to put on. It looks chic, it looks sexy."
Still, it took another trip to Paris to convince Von Furstenberg that the dress's time had come again. "I realized how excited everyone is," she says. "All the young hip girls think it's the hottest thing around."
Including one of the youngest, hippest of them all, her daughter- in-law Alexandra Miller von Furstenberg, 24-the Hong Kong-born daughter of duty-free czar Robert Miller-who grew up with sisters Pia and Marie-Chantal at the Carlyle Hotel two floors above Von Furstenberg's apartment and is a regular on the international society circuit. Two years ago, to the delight of Von Furstenberg, her son Alexandre, now 27 and an investment fund manager in Manhattan, married Miller in a three-day wedding extravaganza that culminated in a black-tie ball for 900 (reported cost: $4 million).
"They found their soulmate in each other," says Von Furstenberg. And she found a business mate.
With a little bit of training (she studied for a semester at Manhattan's Parson's School of Design) and a lot of innate style, Alexandra now works on Von Furstenberg's design team. "I couldn't ask for a better teacher," she says of her mother-in-law.
"It's great," agrees Alexandre. "My wife gives her a younger perception of what's hip and what's not."
Not that she needs a lot of help. A master of direct marketing (in April her first appearance on the Home Shopping Network, whose parent company, HSN, inc., is run by her former lover and still- best-friend, Barry Diller, generated more than $1 million in sales in three hours), Von Furstenberg has a knack of connecting with customers, whether they be average Janes or household names like Dolly Parton, now also a pal.
"I felt a little intimidated by her at first because I have no style and no class," says Parton. But I found her to be very warm-and a hoot. We talk girl talk, about men, women, makeup clothes. She has a sweet twist on life."
And a life that has seen a lot of twists. The daughter of Jewish parents form Brussels (her mother, Lily, now 74, is a survivor of Auschwitz), in the '70s Von Furstenberg partied at Studio 54 with her husband, as well as the likes of then-rumored-beau Richard Gere. A decade later, fun meant renting a Winnebago and going camping with her children and Diller in Colorado.
"She took us everywhere," says her daughter Tatiana, 26, an aspiring novelist in Los Angeles. "No nanny. We'd go on business trips to Japan and to galleries in New York. She'd pick us up from school in Fridays, and we'd go out to lunch. If there were no tables to sit at, we'd make a picnic in the parking lot. She saw the fun in everything, (but) she was also strict with homework."
"Her first priority was (us)," says Alexandre.
These days, Von Furstenberg is happy to enjoy her children's company-and leave the parenting to others.
"Alexandra can deal with the parking tickets of her husband," she says with a laugh.
Nor are there plans for marriage. "There are many men in my life," she says. "I like every day being a choice."
"What a strange life I've had," says Von Furstenberg. "The end of the story hasn't been written." As she relaxes in her private office in the 19-century carriage house in Manhattan's West Village that she recently turned into her corporate headquarters, Von Furstenberg adds, "What I'm trying to do here with the rebirth of the business is a renaissance. I'm reinventing myself and my lifestyle. The seeds are planted," she says. "It's time for the harvest."