The princess and the dress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2005, 12:00am

Once upon a time, a girl from Belgium married a prince from Austria and they had two children, a boy and a girl. The prince took his bride to America and in her suitcase was the design for a dress that would one day symbolise the freedom-loving, independent American woman. In a few short years, the dress began selling in the millions, the princess became a tycoon, she sold the rights to her name and then ran away to Paris with a lover.

Years later, she returned to America to an uncertain future. Determined to secure a happy ending to her tale, the princess picked herself up along with a pair of tailoring scissors and rebuilt a successful international fashion brand off the back of her original dress. Recently, she married her soul mate, multi-billionaire Barry Diller, and now spends happy holidays with her grandchildren. The princess is Diane von Furstenberg and that dress is the legendary wrap dress.

It's a sunny Thursday afternoon in Manhattan's Meatpacking District and, although West 12th Street is as quiet as on a Sunday morning, von Furstenberg's boutique is bustling with a crowd of women shoppers. There are two changing rooms (cleverly borrowing their design from the wrap dress) in the centre of the shop, which is a prime location for star spotting; earlier in the month, actresses Julianne Moore and Sarah Michelle Gellar visited the store.

The shop is part of a 23,000-square-foot area in which von Furstenberg works, lives and plays. She surprised everyone when she purchased the property on the day she turned 50. 'I came to the West Village and turned an old carriage house into a design studio, an office, a theatre, a store. People thought I was crazy to have a store on 12th Street. 'Who comes here?' they asked. But suddenly, the whole neighbourhood came alive. I came here before it became hip.' Today, the neighbourhood is rich with design shops and galleries and von Furstenberg's property is worth about US$20 million, more than three times what she paid for it.

Arriving early to interview von Furstenberg, I am first greeted by an Andy Warhol triptych of her face, then by the legend herself. She is looking down at me from a wrought-iron spiral staircase. 'Oh, you must be looking for me. Come, follow me,' she says.

I follow her up the stairs and pass rows of cubicles. 'This is the office,' she tells me. 'That is the sales team and the PR department is over here.' We climb another set of stairs, carpeted in royal purple, and proceed to her personal office.

It is spacious and messy and looks more like a place in which to curl up and relax rather than work. The room is decorated with gifts and trinkets picked up on world travels. An antique desk, a gift from her father, sits in the middle of the room while an abstract painting of the designer by Italian artist Francesco Clemente serves as a backdrop.

Covering two walls is a collage of photographs of von Furstenberg, her children, grandchildren, friends, lovers and husbands. 'This is my life,' she says.

Casually dressed in a chiffon blouse and grey trousers, both bearing her label, von Furstenberg slips her feet out of her sandals and curls her long legs up onto the sofa. She is minimally made-up and, at 58, the flame-haired doyenne of New York fashion is still strikingly beautiful. 'I am so tired,' she laments, face in hands. 'We are getting ready for the show and it's just been non-stop.' The 'show' is the spring/summer 2006 preview for Fashion Week, held earlier this month. Von Furstenberg points to the mass of Christian Louboutin heels on the floor. 'These are for the models, a different shoe for each outfit and everyone needs to be fitted. There is so much to do,' she says with perhaps a hint of fatigue. Today, the designer is busier than she was 30 years ago, but this princess has had downs as well as ups. 'Because I was successful so fast, there were all kinds of issues to that success.'

Von Furstenberg was 22 when she married Prince Egon von Furstenberg, heir to the Fiat empire. Soon afterwards, she gave birth to a son, Alexandre, who is now 35 years old, and a daughter, Tatiana, now 33. She did not receive any formal training in fashion, but while she was pregnant and trying to find something comfortable to wear, she designed a dress that was both comfortable and flattering to the female form. In 1970, she moved to New York with her husband and with their aristocratic titles, good looks and money, they immediately became the darlings of high society. Von Furstenberg showed her designs to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who loved them and featured the dress in the magazine. The wrap dress was born and was on its way to becoming an icon of 1970s fashion.

Von Furstenberg found a way to incorporate power, femininity and comfort in a dress at a time when women were breaking out of their traditional stay-at-home, or low-salary roles. 'Women are and always have been very, very strong. My role in fashion is that I know how to make clothes for women that make them confident - and when you're confident, you look nice,' she says. It was the dress of choice for both the high-powered executive and the entry-level employee. It was easy to wear, it looked great and, as confirmed by the designer herself, men loved it. It was seen on celebrities such as Mary Tyler Moore, while Cybill Shepherd brought one to the silver screen in the 1976 classic Taxi Driver.

In a few short years, von Furstenberg had become front and centre in the fashion world. By 1975, more than five million wrap dresses had been sold and in March 1976, Newsweek plastered von Furstenberg, wearing her own design, on its front cover and hailed her as 'the most influential woman in fashion since Coco Chanel'.

Von Furstenberg and her then husband, who passed away last year, became the 'it' couple of New York and often entertained other legends such as Yves Saint Laurent, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Valentino and Loulou de la Falaise. Mother and businesswoman by day and party girl by night, von Furstenberg says she would put her children to bed then slip out to the infamous Studio 54, where the couple would party until the early hours.

'It was the decade that came between the Pill and Aids. Everything was allowed. It was a nice moment to be young,' she says. Although von Furstenberg separated from Egon in the early 70s, it was not until the 80s that they legally divorced. In the intervening years, von Furstenberg bought a spacious flat on Fifth Avenue and a country house in Connecticut, a place she still considers home.

By the time she was 30, von Furstenberg had 17 licences - her initials stamped on everything from scarves to make-up, from furs to wallpaper. But it was not to last. The demise of the DVF brand was blamed on over-exposure and the name lost its integrity. Afraid of financial ruin, von Furstenberg sold her businesses. In 1983, she fell in love with an Italian writer, Alain Elkann, and left for Europe, where they opened a small publishing company.

In 1989, she had had enough of Europe and returned to New York, bereft of any bargaining chips. 'I lost my identity,' she says. 'I felt very bad. I didn't know who I was, I didn't have a business anymore and they were really difficult years.'

Her salvation came in 1992 in the unlikely guise of a home-shopping television channel. Von Furstenberg-designed Silk Assets - loose-fitting, washable dresses - proved incredibly popular and, in just two hours, managed to generate US$1.2 million.

Two years later, von Furstenberg was presented with the most daunting challenge of her life: she was diagnosed with tongue cancer. She recovered completely following two months of treatment and started writing her autobiography Diane: a Signature Life.

Then, in the mid 90s, history repeated itself and the young, hip, trendsetters of New York began rediscovering 70s fashion. From her daughter and her daughter-in-law, Alexandra (who is now legally separated from Alexandre and, as the youngest daughter of duty-free billionaire Robert Miller, spent part of her childhood in Hong Kong), von Furstenberg learned her wrap dresses were being snapped up in vintage shops across the city. Urged on by her daughter, she re-introduced the iconic dress.

Now, von Furstenberg's label is carried in more than 50 countries and earlier this month, the sixth free-standing DVF boutique opened, in The Landmark. Von Furstenberg plans to visit Hong Kong next month for a launch party. An avid traveller, the designer first came here in the 70s and has returned several times since. 'Hong Kong is fascinating,' says von Furstenberg.

After getting that much-needed boost from the success of the wrap dress, von Furstenberg's line has evolved - branching out into sportswear, eveningwear, make-up and perfume. Known as having a keen eye for talent, von Furstenberg allowed designer Nathan Jenden to board the DVF Studios bandwagon four years ago, installing him as creative director. Jenden, who has been in and out of Hong Kong preparing The Landmark boutique, designs most of the collection, while von Furstenberg is the virtuoso on fabric and prints.

Von Furstenberg is not shy about her many lovers and once said she was not the marrying kind. 'The secret to seduction is not trying,' she smiles. 'The secret to life in general is paying attention. Learn how to see. Seduction is paying attention to somebody. Ageing physically is not fun. [But] inside, it gets better and better,' says von Furstenberg as she tosses back her mane.

Four years ago, however, she decided to marry again. Von Furstenberg first met media mogul Diller in 1975 (at the time, he was head of Paramount Pictures, but is now the chairman and chief executive of IAC/InterActiveCorp) and for her 29th birthday, he gave her 29 loose diamonds in a Band-Aid tin. 'I stayed with him for five years then I left, but he was always waiting around. He waited, he waited and in the end he got me. We have a wonderful relationship because we know each other so well and we respect each other. He is so kind to me, he is so kind to my children.'

Puzzling over what to get Diller for his birthday, von Furstenberg thought of a present that no amount of money could buy - herself. 'I called him up and said, 'Let's get married',' she says. Inviting only family to the ceremony, they wed and Diller gave her 26 diamond eternity rings, one for each year they had known each outside wedlock.

The New York Post claims that the von Furstenberg/Diller annual pre-Oscar party is the best of the bunch. 'I like to entertain and the secret to entertaining is to mix people and that is something I always do. The day before the Oscars, we give an outdoor lunch and people love it.'

Von Furstenberg is philosophical about her return to prosperity. 'My most important role is to be true to myself, because no matter what happens throughout your life, you have to answer to yourself.'

It has been a bumpy ride for the princess, but she has managed to piece together the puzzle - the children, the business, the lovelife - and create for herself a success story. 'There is no secret to success except hard work and perseverance ... You must believe and go for it all the way.'