For von Furstenberg, that reply has been a touchstone, with its message, ‘If you believe you are strong, then you are strong’. She has lived that lesson, and in recent years has committed much of her time to passing it along. In June this year, von Furstenberg was the recipient of the Swarovski Award for Positive Change, presented at the 2018 CFDA Awards in New York. The honor acknowledged von Furstenberg’s wide-ranging philanthropic endeavors – work for which she has become as nearly well-known as she has for her DVF fashion label’s iconic wrap dress.
“DVF, the brand, is for the woman who is in charge of her life,” says von Furstenberg. “We give her the tools to help her be the woman she wants to be. Is helping women through philanthropy so different? I don’t think so, really.”
Indeed, much of von Furstenberg’s philanthropic work has centered on improving the lives of women. As President of the CFDA (the Council of Fashion Designers of America), von Furstenberg has spearheaded a program to tackle the epidemic of eating disorders among young models. And as the head of her eponymous global brand, she has launched campaigns such as DVF Voices, an online platform for professional women. In her spare time, von Furstenberg has hosted Hollywood lunches for female Oscar nominees (this was long before Time’s Up, the campaign to protect women in the workplace), and has advocated for causes such as Bornfree and its mission to eradicate the spread of HIV from mother to child. In a recent spurt of activity, she has turned her attention to the Statue of Liberty, leading a drive to establish a museum in the shadow of this emblem of freedom and opportunity. “They have started calling me the godmother of liberty,” von Furstenberg says, her familiar, husky soft-voweled voice breaking into a laugh.
But if there is one venture of von Furstenberg’s that epitomizes her desire to transmit the lessons she gleaned from her unconquerable mother, it is the DVF Awards, an annual gala that celebrates strong, inspirational women. “We honor women with the courage to fight, the power to survive and the leadership to inspire,” von Furstenberg explains of the awards, which she created through The Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation (set up with her husband Barry Diller) in 2010. “For instance, one of our honorees this year is Ariela Suster. She’s a beautiful girl from El Salvador whose brother was kidnapped. Well, after that horrible experience she started an organization to help boys who might join gangs, to give them something else to do, somewhere else to go. Now these boys do beautiful weaving, which we use ourselves at DVF in jewelry and belts and so on.”
“So, there you go,” von Furstenberg continues. “First this amazing woman, Ariela, had the courage to fight, then she had the power to keep going, to survive. And now she is a leader, she inspires.”
Von Furstenberg speaks in a torrent. Talking with her, even briefly, you come to understand how she has fit about a dozen lifetimes’ worth of experience into her outlandishly eventful seven decades on earth. Diane von Furstenberg is not waiting around for someone to tell her what to do, or for someone else to define her. The bullet points of her biography are the stuff of legend: she married a prince; she is a mother of two; was a Studio 54 habitué and friend to the glamorous and famous; she changed fashion with the label she started at the age of 28; had a few wild affairs and a failed business, only to come back bigger and better than before; and she married a media mogul. She has become the kind of person who can be referred to solely by her first name; she is, irreducibly, Diane. And that is what is extraordinary and exemplary about her. For all the roles she has played and embraced, she has never let a single one of them circumscribe her. In spite of her acknowledged beauty, she relied not on her looks, but on her wits and her desire for success. And where other fashion-loving young princesses might have sought to capitalize on their social connections, von Furstenberg created a brand and a style for every woman. She made her own money and her own mistakes. The mistakes didn’t define her, either – the best was always ahead.
“If you doubt your power, you give power to your doubts,” von Furstenberg says, repeating the mantra she uses on herself whenever she is feeling low. “No matter how successful you are – and I know many people who are incredibly successful – there are always mornings you wake up and think, ‘Ucch, who am I, anyway?’ Well,” she goes on, “as I like to say when I give talks, the most important relationship you will ever have is the one with yourself. You may wake up feeling like a loser, but the only person who can change that feeling is you.”
Von Furstenberg insists that her ethos of self-reliance is in tune with the resurgent feminist moment, even though much of the public talk has been about the systemic forces that have held women back. She believes it is important to recognize those forces, but equally important for women to recognize the power they have to push back against them.
“You need to see what you are up against, of course,” she notes. “That is the real value of the conversation about women in the workplace that is going on now. It is vital we share our stories – including our stories about when we have felt self-doubt, when we have had those mornings where we feel like losers. But if you’re going to be part of the change,” she goes on, “you have to find that inner strength, that self-belief.”
Von Furstenberg is proud to call herself a feminist. Second-wave feminism was at its height when she launched the original DVF in 1972, and she was happy at the time to drop her title of Princess and simply be called Ms. She remains connected to the ideals of that era, as witnessed by the fact that she gave the American feminist and activist Gloria Steinem a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 DVF Awards. And she recognizes something of the energy of that second-wave era in what is happening now in the current #MeToo campaign.
“Something has been unleashed,” she notes. “I see it in my granddaughters, they are 18 and 19, and it is clear they are not going to stand for the status quo. We have to demand equal pay – it is not an option. It is ridiculous. We have to be in charge, in charge of our bodies and our careers and lives. It does not mean we are not women, that we do not flirt or wear make-up, but we have to be in charge.”
It would seem that being in charge comes naturally to Diane von Furstenberg. But, she says, she considers it a duty to admit to the occasional insecurity. When she discovered, for instance, that the CFDA was planning to give her the Swarovski Award for Positive Change, her response, she reports, was incredulousness. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “And then, also, I told them I’m the president of the organization, so it is absurd for me to be honoring myself!” Nevertheless, she relented. And before von Furstenberg could be lauded as a philanthropist, she had to teach herself the art of philanthropy.
“I was very nervous at first,” she recalls. “I compare it to landscaping at my house, Cloudwalk, in Connecticut. I was still quite young when I bought the place, and in those early years, when I was meant to plant a tree here, or trim there, I felt like I knew nothing about it. But then, gradually, I got to see things grow. I started to be more confident. With philanthropy it is the same,” continues von Furstenberg. “It is awkward, you do not know what you are doing or if it means anything to anyone, really, and then you do a bit more and one day you turn around and you realize you have changed people’s lives.”
It may well be that von Furstenberg’s fame and accomplishments as both a designer and a businesswoman will be what history remembers her for (that, and the famous Warhol portrait, of course), but it is plain that von Furstenberg sees her activism as another legacy project. Following on from her principle that the blessing of her early and longstanding success obligates her to “use her voice”, she says she intends to “spend the years [she] has left” doing just that. She will be spreading her mother’s gospel of strength online, on the runway and on the stage at the DVF Awards.
“The last ceremony was the best,” von Furstenberg muses, almost purring with pleasure as she talks, “because my granddaughters were there. So, they got to see these amazing women, the woman fighting to stop genital mutilation, the woman helping refugees, women who have been groundbreaking, like Misty Copeland and Sonia Sotomayor. And, you know, they were so interested – not looking at their phones or anything, which is incredible today,” she adds with a laugh.
“And for me that was the best,” she sums up, “because for once I got to give my granddaughters a sample of my values, the values I took from my mother, without saying a single word. They were watching these women onstage, and the lesson was clear enough.”
This story appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Lewis Merritt; Nick Machalaba/Penske Media/Joe Schildhorn/BFA/Rex/Shutterstock; Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The Life Images Collection/Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Michael Buckner/Getty Images; courtesy of Diane von Furstenberg