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Diane Von Furstenberg: Behind the Signature

Fashion icon and wrap dress designer "D.V.F," discusses her Auschwitz Legacy, her battle with cancer, the challenge of staying on fashion's hot list and her new autobiography.

By Serena Kappes

Inside the Diane Von Furstenberg Studio in Greenwich Village's industrial enclave are hints of the complex psyche of the woman whose signature name has influenced the fashion industry for over 30 years. All over the cavernous ground floor of the 19th-century carriage house are signs of Diane the designer, the author, thse mother and the cultural icon whose wrap dresses liberated and fascinated a generation of women in the 1970s and which continue to do so today as part of her current line, DIANE.

Near the reception area are plush sectional couches with Von Furstenberg's home furnishing books scattered across low coffee tables. A small decorative pool is lined with Moroccan tiles, and a tree snakes up the spiral staircase that leads to the second floor design studio. One wall boasts the famous Andy Warhol portrait of a glamorous 70s-era Diane. At the end of the room are racks of her fall, pre-spring and spring clothing lines, which her 25-member staff helps create. Another wall displays black and white family portraits of Diane, her ex-husband, Egon, her children, Tatiana, 27, and Alexandre, 28, and her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, who's also the creative director of the studio. It makes sense that the woman who claims she's a study in contradictions would have a decidedly multidimensional entree to her business and personal haven.

"Everything is a contradiction," Diane admits as she reclines on a cushioned lounge chair in the opulent living room of her third floor apartment above the studio. The 51-year-old designer is breathtakingly pretty, with high cheekbones and streamlined dark features. Her figure is trim and elegant in a leopard print DIANE wrap dress, still the perfect model for her clothes. "The fact that I love home so much and love to be on the road. The fact that I love my family so much and am so attached and yet I love to fly off. It's the way I like life -- you know when you eat too much sweet, you need a little piece of cheese.

"But the one thing that has been throughout my life and that I see more and more is, for me, the exhilarating feeling of freedom."

Freedom and the innate need to take risks. In speaking with Von Furstenberg at length, this motif repeats itself over and over. It's what she thrives on. She took a risk in writing her memoir Diane: A Signature Life (Simon & Schuster), a scary experience for a woman who's very private about her innermost thoughts, as she admits. But when it was done, and she looked at the book that contained her existence, she knew that overcoming her fear was worth it. It was an opportunity for people to get to know her, skeletons and all.

Her return to retail in 1997 after a several year absence was more well-received than she had hoped. The DIANE fall line received raves from The New York Times, which declared that "the fall collection has taken her signature wrap dresses to the next stage." From Man Ray and Dali-inspired designs to Romantic pastels and flowers and free- flowing Moroccan and Turkish prints, DIANE has once again made Diane Von Furstenberg a fashion tour de force.

It is her destiny to be a survivor, Diane says. As she writes in her memoir, her birth on New Year's Eve, 1947 in Brussels, Belgium, was nothing short of miraculous. "The Holocaust has shaped my character from inception. My birth was a miracle. Had my mother not been pregnant with me, she might not have recovered from her ordeal as determinedly as she did or even survived at all."

Lily Nahmias, Diane's mother, had spent 14 months being shipped to concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbruck and finallyNeustadt-Glewe, where she was ultimately freed in 1945 by Russian liberators. At the time, she weighed a skeletal 45 pounds. Six months later, she married Leon Halfin, a major electronics distributor, who had spent the war in Switzerland. Within a year and a half, against her doctor's advice due to her weakened physical state, she became pregnant and gave birth to Diane.

Growing up in cosmopolitan Brussels, Diane says she never felt like a kid. "I didn't like the condition of being a child," she recalls in her lilting Belgian accent. "I didn't like dolls, I didn't like children's stories. I wanted to be a grown-up always." Though she acknowledged her Jewish heritage, it didn't play a very big part in the Halfin household, which Diane attributes to the fresh scars of her mother's Holocaust ordeal. "The families of my parents, they would practice, but we just didn't," she explains. "I think it may be a little bit because I was born after the war." The vestiges of her Jewish faith are the Kaddish prayer and fasting on Yom Kippur.

But her mother's experience in the Holocaust strongly influenced her identity. A powerful passage in A Signature Life tells the harrowing story of her mother's arrival at her first concentration camp. She had bonded with an older woman on the train heading for the sinister destination and when they reached the camp and stood on line for the guards to decide their fate, Lily quickly rushed over to the line to which her older companion was sent. When a guard spotted the 21-year-old girl, he hit her with a baton and threw her into a formation to the right. What she didn't realize through her tears was that the left line was being sent to the gas chamber: her life had been spared.

Commenting on the story, Diane explains, "I don't think there is a bigger lesson than that: that you never know. What you think is bad may be the best. And that has been absolutely the way I am. Whatever happens, somehow I always rearrange it and maybe I don't even remember whether I did it by design or by coincidence." Even in her bleakest moments, she's been able to transcend her situation and reinvent herself.

Her mother encouraged Diane's independence by sending her to boarding school in Switzerland at the age of 13. There she was transformed from a self-conscious bookworm into a beautiful, confident young woman who wanted to explore the world. She went on to study in England and Madrid and then at the University of Geneva, where she majored in economics. There she hung out with the jet-set crowd, where she met and began dating her future husband Eduard Egon von und zu Furstenberg, a blond, cherub-faced Austro-Italian prince and scion of the Agnelli family of Fiat fame.

When Egon moved to New York to work in the Chase Manhattan Bank training program, Diane went with him, opening up a world of possibilities.

"It was circumstance, really. I had this friend in Italy; he had this factory. I wanted to do something in America and at the time fashion was either very hippie or drip-dry polyester. There was nothing in between," Diane explains. "He taught me everything about printing. He bought a T-shirt factory and from a T-shirt I made a T-shirt dress." Diane and Egon were soon engaged, but neither one was in a rush to get married.

Diane headed back to Europe to apprentice at her friend Angelo Ferretti's knitting and printing plant while Egon set off for a journey around the world. When she realized she was pregnant, Diane sent Egon a telegram in Hong Kong to let him know of her status. They got married in a hurry despite the disapproval of certain members of Egon's family who were shocked by his union to an untitled Jewish girl.

After their honeymoon Diane started her business in earnest. With $30,000 in capital from her father and several dress samples in tow, she began networking with every fashion buyer and editor she could. Her big break came when Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue, granted her an audience and immediately saw the potential in an early version of her knit wrap dress.

Diane's vision of a washable, wrinkle-proof dress that was both sexy and practical would be the most successful concept in fashion for an entire decade. It was a far cry from the couture collections on Fifth Avenue, but it had universal appeal. A woman from Middle America could slip it on as easily as a high-powered advertising executive in midtown Manhattan. As Diane says, "To some, the wrap became a manifesto for the liberated woman of the 1970s."

By 1973, at the age of 26, Diane had two children and an astoundingly successful enterprise. She had also separated from her husband. Her wholesale profits in 1972 totaled $1.2 million; she cleared more than seven times that amount the following year. Like no other designer before her, Diane's image became closely linked with her clothes. She traveled to stores across the country and personally fitted women in the dressing rooms, showing them that, regardless of their body type, the wrap dress could flatter them. It was a groundbreaking marketing tactic. You learn as much from them as they learn from you," Diane enthused. "They come to see you and they want a piece of you, but I end up having a piece of them as well."

The mid-70s made Von Furstenberg a fashion magnate. She licensed her name for scarves, luggage, eye wear, cosmetics and more. In 1975 she had her signature on 17 products and was worth $40 million in sales. On March 22, 1976, Diane graced the cover of Newsweek, in part due to the sales of over five million wrap dresses. She was hailed "the most marketable female in fashion since Coco Chanel."

But in 1978, with the market oversaturated with wrap dresses, Diane's company neared bankruptcy. She sold her dress license and focused on her cosmetics and fragrance business. She also entered the home furnishings world. Diane had overcome another major hurdle. Yet it was far from her last.

A life-changing event occurred in 1980 when her mom suffered a mental breakdown--akin to a delayed post-traumatic stress disorder episode from the Holocaust--during a trip to Germany. It affected Diane immensely. She had never really discussed her mother's horrific experience, but a year later, when she was awarded a Woman of Achievement award by the Anti- Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, Diane shocked even herself when she announced on the dais, "Most of you wear my dresses, but what you don't know is that 18 months before I was born, my mother was in Auschwitz." Remembering that moment, Diane says, "I became very emotional, and I don't like to be sentimental, but that day I realized that it was important for me to say it." Today, Diane is an ardent fund raiser and supporter of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It's a cause to which she's deeply committed.

Things changed drastically for Diane during a lunch meeting with designer Ralph Lauren in 1994. When the subject of his brain tumor came up, Diane listened intently to the story of his struggle. The symptoms he described sounded eerily similar to some she had been experiencing. After a visit to the doctor and a subsequent biopsy of a swollen gland, she learned that she had cancerous cells at the base of her tongue and soft palate. Diane began radiation therapy, holistic treatments and meditation. "Somethings you have to accept," she says, "but what I try not to do is surrender."

Daughter Tatiana, 27, who's a writer and a graduate student in psychology at New York University, knows that surrendering is not in her mother's vocabulary. "One thing that I repeat to myself all the time is my mom's constant phrase, 'Go for it. Just do it.' She taught me how big the world is and all the many possibilities that are out there, the whole idea of taking charge of your life and designing it in whatever way fits."

With renewed strength and passion for her craft, Diane ventured back into the world of retail with the launch of DIANE. As newspapers around the country announced, the wrap was back--revamped and reinvented. The collars are smaller and rounded, the length is shorter and the fabric is silk knit, not cotton jersey. But the essence of her creation is still there. As she always has, Diane is now juggling several projects at once including plans to develop a new line of beauty and health products. She's also collecting names on her Web site ( to establish the kind of dialogue she's always thrived on with her loyal customers. Now, instead of meeting them in the fitting rooms, she's rocketing into cyberspace to find out what makes them tick.

Recently, Diane had a serious car accident that brought her once again face-to-face with something graver than any professional hurdle: death. Before the accident, she had been plagued with the foreboding feeling that finishing her memoirs had meant the end of her life. But with this brush with fate came an epiphany. "I was liberated," she says. "I said, 'Okay, this is it. That's the catch. I did not die.' Now I can go into the future.

Serena Kappes is Associate Editor of Tiger Beat magazine and the proud owner of a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap.

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