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Talk Asia

Fashion Designer Diane von Furstenberg

Aired July 13, 2012 - 05:30   ET


ANNA COREN, HOST: Her dresses are a staple of Tinsel Town's elite, but there is one design that trumps them all: the wrap. A favorite of women all over the world, the body-hugging shape is so revolutionary that it now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

And this is the woman behind it, Diane von Furstenberg, international fashion icon, business tycoon, and princess.

Inspired by a traditional Japanese kimono, her dress skyrocketed to success in 1976 after she sold 5 million of them, prompting "Newsweek" to call her "the most marketable female in fashion since Coco Chanel."

Now, she is one of the most revered names in the industry, president of America's prestigious Council of Fashion Designers, and behind her own award scheme, recognizing women who further other women's causes.


DIANE VON FURSTENBERG, DESIGNER: It is my mother who taught me that fear is not an option.


COREN: This week, Diane von Furstenberg joins TALK ASIA in Hong Kong, where she opens up about her time at Studio 54, being married to a prince, and why she thinks China is the most exciting country in the world.


COREN: Diane von Furstenberg, welcome to TALK ASIA.


COREN: You have been in the fashion industry for more than 40 years, which is a stunning achievement.

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, not more than, but 40 -- yes, it is -- yes, 40 years. You're right, you're right.

COREN: It is quite extraordinary. And you've gone through this amazing resurgence in recent years. I think you described it as a second act.

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, I have had -- actually, I've had, I call them three acts, if you want. The first act was in the 70s, early 70s. I was a young girl from Europe in my 20s, early 20s, and I came in with a few little dresses and I lived this incredible thing called the American Dream.

Overnight, I was a huge success. Overnight, I was a brand when I didn't know what a brand was. And it was like it happened so fast, it was so fast, I just kept on running behind it. And it was an incredible adventure.

And at that point, the reason I did this the first time was to become independent. Because I didn't know when I first started, I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the woman I wanted to be. And it was really fascinating.

And then, I sold my company. Then I went away, I went back to Paris and so on, and I thought this was over for me. And I came back, and -- to America. And then, about 12, 13 years ago, I started again, because the brand had disappeared.

COREN: It is amazing longevity. It's amazing success that you have been through these last 40 years. And we're going to talk much more about your career. But I now want to speak about your family.

You were born in Brussels, Belgium, back in 1946. Your father was from Romania, your mother from Greece. And your mother is really quite extraordinary. Lily --


COREN: -- was her name. She was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, and she had you 18 months after she was freed. Tell me the influence that your mother had on you -- then and --


COREN: -- and throughout your life.

VON FURSTENBERG: Actually, I never realized how much my mother had an influence on me until she is no longer with me. But now, I realize that she really is the one who made me strong. She really is the one that taught me that fear was not an option.

She is really the one that said -- that taught me how to take responsibility of myself, never to blame anything or anyone, and just take on myself myself.

COREN: Did she talk about her time in the concentration camp?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, my mother, she was 20 when she was caught. She was caught because she was doing her -- this dance. She was caught then, and she spent 14 months between Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. When she came back, she weighed 49 pounds, 29 kilos. She was supposed to be not alive.

And it's very funny, because when they -- when she was liberated, they had to fill these forms with -- write their names and -- and so, she writes her name and so on, and then it said, "What health -- what state of health are you in?" And she wrote "excellent health." And that alone, I think, explains who she was.

COREN: So, you grew up in Belgium, went to school in the UK, and then university in Switzerland. And that's where you met your first husband.


COREN: Prince Egon zu Furstenberg who, of course, was the son of a German prince. What happened there that really sort of changed the course of your life?

VON FURSTENBERG: No. Everything that happens everyday changes the course of your life. I met Egon, we met at school, we loved each other. And then I went on an internship in Italy, he went on an internship in America.

And we met, we got engaged, I got pregnant faster than I expected, so we married quicker than I expected. We moved to America, I started the dresses. He gave me the most beautiful children, he gave me my name, and we separated quickly, but we stayed the best of friends. And unfortunately, he left us a few years ago.

COREN: Tell us about those times, and I guess life as a princess, because that's what you had become.

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, I never really used my name -- my title as princess. Maybe in hotels and get tables in restaurants. So, I -- it didn't -- we lived in America. There's no such thing in America, so it -- it helped me at the beginning because people would say, "Who is this -- European princess who's selling inexpensive --" I mean, at the time, they were very inexpensive little dresses.

But -- so, there was no, oh, life as a princess and life without being a princess. I never really used it very much.

COREN: As you say, you separated from your husband, you got a divorce, you used that name, his name, which obviously has opened many doors for you. One of those doors was to US "Vogue" editor Diana Vreeland.

And she saw your work, loved it. Tell me what it was like to get that stamp of approval from someone like her?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, when I -- we first came to New York, we were very young, in our early 20s, and we both looked good. And so, we were the "it" couple kind of thing. It did get me to meet Diana Vreeland, but -- but she loved what I did.

She loved the clothes. She helped me. She thought it was original to come up with simple, easy little dresses that people can wear everywhere. So, she was really -- she became a fan immediately, and it did help me.

But at the end, even that, even to get the exposure in a magazine and all of that, that is not really what turns you a success. What turns it into a success that millions of women bought the clothes. And that is not a marketing tool. That is just because they reacted to the product.

And what is amazing about the story of that dress is that that dress was relevant 40 years ago. And when Mrs. Obama for her first Christmas card, that's the same dress that she picked. And that is, to me, really interesting.

COREN: How did it feel to know that what you had created was such a huge hit?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, it was fun to see -- I mean, it still is fun to see women in the streets wearing the clothes. It's -- but the most important thing is the stories they tell. "I got my first job," "I met my husband," "I went on my first date," blah blah blah. Those are the things that years after years, decades after decades make you feel good.

To be young in the 70s was a lot of fun because it was a decade where we were squeezed somewhere between the pill and AIDS.




COREN: I just want to go back now in time. In 1976, you appeared on the cover of "Newsweek" having sold 5 million wrap dresses. You were just --

VON FURSTENBERG: Twenty-eight.

COREN: -- twenty-eight years old. They described you as the most marketable woman in fashion since Coco Chanel. You had become this icon. Those must have been heady days.

VON FURSTENBERG: You live your life -- you live the present. You don't just sit there and say, "Oh, look what happened!" It is. Yes, it was exhilarating, but you don't even understand the power of it until much later. It's like history. You only understand it years later when you see it.

It was impressive to live that so young. But I thought it was equally as impressive to come back and do it again with the same product. That also. And every day, things happen, and every day things are fascinating and interesting and -- yes. It's just been -- ongoing.

COREN: I read that it was sex that inspired the wrap dress. Is this true?


COREN: Sex. Or sensuality that inspired the wrap dress? No?

VON FURSTENBERG: No, no. The dress is -- it's -- listen. The wrap dress is a very, very traditional shape. It's a dress with no zipper, no buttons, it's like a kimono. What made that dress different was that I did it in jersey, and therefore, it molded the body. And I used it in prints, and my prints had movement. So it made a woman feel very feline.

But it was really a very -- it's actually -- it's a proper dress but that makes -- but that is sexy, but it's not sexy because it's very open or anything. It is sexy because it makes a woman feel good about herself. And a woman who feels good about herself and whose body is molded is very becoming, and men like that.

COREN: During my research, reading about you, and you had said that you had more than your fair share of men in those days. Richard Gere, Warren Beatty, Ryan O'Neil, just to name a few. What was it like, those times?

VON FURSTENBERG: Listen, I was young at the right time. To be young in the 70s was a lot of fun because it was the decade where you were squeezed somewhere between the pill and AIDS. So, clearly, sex was more -- liberating than it is now. And so, I was a young, liberated woman enjoying it.

COREN: How did it feel to be so desired?

VON FURSTENBERG: I don't know. I never asked if I was desired or not. I just had a good time. But I -- I did a good -- I had a good time. I worked a lot. It's the whole -- the whole life and the whole fantasy of living a man's life in a woman's body. That's something that I liked.

COREN: What do you mean by that?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, to be -- to be free. To pay your bills, to decide, not to depend on a man or a man's phone call. That kind of feeling is what I mean, a man's life in a woman's body.

COREN: You were a regular visitor of Studio 54 back then, along with good friends Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. Can you tell us what those nights were like?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, Studio 54, first of all, was a very short time. It lasted only two years, really. And it was a great night club, it was a fun place. It -- I've never seen anything like that after or before. And it was a lot of fun.

But again, that was a tiny little moment of my day, because I worked early in the morning and I lived at home with my children and my mother, and I had a business to run. And so, Studio 54 was somewhere between 12:00 and 2:00 in the morning.

COREN: Andy Warhol was one of your good friends, and he's painted you several times, one of his paintings hangs, I believe, in your office in New York. Is it surreal to have someone as famous as Andy Warhol paint you?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, for me, he painted me twice. He did twice my portrait in the 70s and in the 80s. But it's only now that you realize how special it is.

But I did an exhibition last year in Beijing, and it was called "The Journey of a Dress," and it was the journey of a dress and the journey of my work. But it was also all the artists that have painted me over these four decades.

But these people were just my contemporaries. Now, they are a bigger deal. So, that's why you have to be -- be friends with your contemporaries.

CORREN: The 80s arrived, and you had over-saturated the market. I think you had something like $4 million worth of inventory and you had to sell your business. That must have been a tough time.

VON FURSTENBERG: The hardest time for me was when I came back to America and I realized that my brand had lost its value and it meant nothing and it had deteriorated and it was dusty and the product did not -- did not represent what I believe in. That was hard.

And then, I started again. You process it. So, I think the most -- because really, I have -- I always joke, but it's like I have three children. I have a son, a daughter, and a brand. And my children, my real children had grown up to be wonderful, successful young people, and my brand I had lost. And so, I had to get it back and educate it again.

COREN: But to embark on something again the second time around, I can imagine it. There must have been --


VON FURSTENBERG: Yes, actually, I forgot about it. But you constantly have to work on yourself and constantly have to prune and take off the leaves at -- too many leaves. You have to prune yourself, you have to keep the plumbing clean, you have to look for clarity. Clarity is the hardest thing to find.

COREN: Well, Diane, let me as you this: how do you find clarity?

VON FURSTENBERG: By scratching a lot and by thinking a lot, by spending a lot of time with myself. By question -- constantly, every day, questioning everything and everything I do and why and how. And being honest with yourself. That is the hardest thing. And that is what gives you clarity, but it's not always pleasant.

COREN: Where do you get your inspiration from?

VON FURSTENBERG: Oh, inspiration! Women. Women and nature.




COREN: Where do you get your inspiration from?

VON FURSTENBERG: Oh, inspiration! Women. Women and nature. Look how pretty. This is such a pretty blouse.

COREN: And I love the colors and the print.

VON FURSTENBERG: The color, yes. Prints I get inspired in nature, very often. I always have a camera with me. And then, colors is so important. Look at that. This is like the sunset.

This is something that -- it's a beautiful handbag, but what is special about the handbag is you slip your iPad in it, and you see this is -- and you could work it --

COREN: That's fantastic!

VON FURSTENBERG: You could work your iPad --

COREN: Out of your handbag.

VON FURSTENBERG: -- out of your handbag. And accessories is super important.

COREN: Because this is where your company's going now --

VON FURSTENBERG: Yes, and also --

COREN: -- it's really into accessories.

VON FURSTENBERG: -- accessories, it's fun. These are evening bags, which do very well. But even in accessories, you see, color is so, so important.

COREN: And --

VON FURSTENBERG: And a cup. Isn't that a pretty little bag?

COREN: It's gorgeous.

VON FURSTENBERG: A little evening bag. But you could still put your camera, which is important to me.

COREN: And what about competition and staying, I guess, ahead -- ahead of the rest.

VON FURSTENBERG: I don't think you should think too much about competition. I think you should do what you want to do and just do it the best way you can and not worry about it.

COREN: From the women that I've spoken to, they all say they love DVF because it's affordable.

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, I try. I try to give real design real quality at a price that, hopefully, people can reach.

Hopefully, a woman walks in here and she'll find things. My only goal is that if you come to a shop, you will leave a little bit happier.

COREN: At the age of 54, you remarried to a man, I gather, who always loved you. Tell me about your relationship with media mogul Barry Diller.

VON FURSTENBERG: Barry is -- has been in my life for 37 years. When we first fell in love, I was 28, he was 33. We were very much in love, it was very passionate. Then, after five years, I guess I had to -- I felt I had to live my life. I had to -- I just wanted to explore, and I did. But he always loved me. And eventually, he got me. Simple as that.

COREN: Tell us the story about your wedding day. Because I think that is -- it's a beautiful story about how you decided to get married. You proposed to him, basically, didn't you?

VON FURSTENBERG: We knew we were going to marry at some point, and a week before his birthday, I did not know what to give him for his birthday. And he always gives me very special gifts, very -- it always has meaning.

So, I thought, I said, "OK, for your birthday, I'll marry you." So, we quickly had to call City Hall, and we decided to get married in a week.

COREN: Diane, you have two children and three grandchildren. Your business is a family company. And I believe that your dream is for your grandchildren to one day take over. Is that the idea?

VON FURSTENBERG: Well, my -- my family and I, we do everything together, so -- and we own everything together. So, my business is their business. And I work very hard at making it so that there will really be a legacy after me, and they will own it, so, they can do what they want.

COREN: What do you think is a future for the luxury industry, considering the current climate?

VON FURSTENBERG: It's so strange, because on one side, there's this huge economic crisis, and yet, there is more wealth in the world in a lot of parts of the world. So, it's really -- it's distribution of wealth that's really -- we need to address.

COREN: Last year, you were in Beijing for your Journey of a Dress exhibition. You mentioned that a bit earlier. Why did you pick China?

VON FURSTENBERG: How can you not pick China? China is the most exciting thing in the world. China is -- feels to me like what America felt in the 70s when I moved to America. You feel like everything is possible, you feel that there's so much energy, people want to learn, they want to improve themselves, they go. It's fascinating.

When I was a little girl, if you did not eat your soup, my mother would say, "Eat your soup and think of all the Chinese children that have nothing to eat." Then, for my children's generation, it was, oh, the children -- the Chinese, they make everything, right? They make everything. And right now, it's the Chinese buy everything. So, this is only in my lifetime.

COREN: You are president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a position you've held since 2006. What does it mean to have that role?

VON FURSTENBERG: The CFDA is the family of designers. We protect each other. The little ones get help, the big ones help. That's what we are. And as the president, I am the mother.

We are very involved in getting scholarships to students, in helping young designers, helping them with CFDA-Vogue fund. We expose them, we give them money, we protect our intellectual property. We do all these things.

COREN: You and your husband are philanthropists. You set up the DVF Awards for Inspirational Women, and you've also promised to give away half your fortune to the Giving Pledge, which was an initiative set up by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Why did you choose to do this?

VON FURSTENBERG: As I said, one of the things -- one of the privileges of being successful is to be able to share. So, that is a privilege. And later in life, you actually do get the joy of giving. And giving, by the way, is not just giving money. It's also paying attention. Paying attention to detail, paying attention to people.

I have a little game that I play with myself. Every morning, the first e-mail I will do is something that doesn't benefit me.

COREN: Diane, you've spoken about what you've achieved and still what you would like to do. What would you like your legacy to be?

VON FURSTENBERG: If I would have given confidence to a few women and told them -- and they believed -- that they can be the woman they want to be, that's a great legacy. And I would like to do that to as many women as possible.

COREN: Diane von Furstenberg, lovely to meet you.