“Dressing up was a ritual that put her in a serious mood: the cloth was no longer a mere fabric, it was becoming the matter of the thing and it was this material to which with her body she gave body—how could a simple rag gain such movement?”
—Clarice Lispector in An Apprenticeship or the Book of Pleasures
Diane von Furstenberg walks onstage at Graham Chapel and in one fluid movement, sits and throws her head back. Not with the abandon of her Studio 54 days, just with ease. Her smile is wide, her hair long and curly, and at seventy-six, she has neither had nor needed any “work.” At a glance, you can see the natural, relaxed sensuousness that shows up in both her designs and her life. Which are, after all, inseparable.
Von Furstenberg’s style, iconic for more than half a century, has been characterized as “bold without being hard-edged, sexy without being vulgar, and cheerful without being unsophisticated.” And I want to know how she pulled it off.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” says Susan Sherman, cofounder and board chair for the Saint Louis Fashion Fund. “It’s who she was. Her interest in art, the way she lived her life, the incredible circles she moved in. I think she just loved what she was producing and left it to others to come up with ways to describe it.”
In cooperation with Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Visual Arts and Design, the Fashion Fund has brought DVF to St. Louis. Young designers already know about her legendary wrap dress. But they needed a chance “to really touch the fabric, and meet her, and feel her warmth,” Sherman says. And St. Louis needed a chance to show itself as an unlikely but emerging fashion center.
The event was planned as an intimate conversation with three hundred guests, max. Four hours after the announcement went public, there were six hundred RSVPs. By the time the venue was switched to Graham Chapel to accommodate the six hundred, there was a waiting list of more than a thousand.
• • •
Before the event, racks of brightly patterned wrap dresses are wheeled into an exhibit space at The Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Louis. In a storage room, women are disrobing, slipping soft fabric over their head, peering over their shoulder at a propped mirror. One emerges and gasps when she sees von Furstenberg a few feet away, rifling through one of the racks, then holding a dress against the young woman to gauge the effect. She hugs easily, lets admirers grab her hands and hang on to them for the entire conversation. At seventy-six, she hikes, swims, and wears little makeup. She came early to St. Louis because she loves to shop and talk with other women. Seeing a few Midwestern bows, she gently shows the women how to pull the fabric tight across their breasts and make a single loop. It will stay. No need for a fussy, anxious bow.
A tiny metaphor for the breezy confidence that has swept her through life.
On the other side of the wall is a video installation by another textile artist, her fabric patterned with photos of St. Louis neighborhoods. With a different fashion designer, the contrast of a piece about racial justice would have been sharp enough to draw blood. Not here; von Furstenberg has used her success to fight for more representation of people of color, more opportunities for women, more dignity accorded to immigrants, more sustainable practices in fashion….
She is more, far more, than The Dress.
One of her nature-inspired patterns follows Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome in Patterns 2. Design, Art and Architecture. She served for years as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She helped establish the Statue of Liberty Museum. She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur (the day before lockdown). Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s last public appearance was to receive a DVF Award.
• • •
Women had worn wrap dresses before—Elsa Schiaparelli’s in tussore silk, cheap cotton “Hooverettes” during the Great Depression, crisp poplin in the fifties. But for hers, von Furstenberg used a light, soft, clingy, wrinkle-free cotton-rayon jersey that followed the curves of a woman’s body then fell free, draping lightly, opening to allow a glimpse of thigh as she walked. The Dress looked professional and put-together, yet was as comfy as pajamas. Within the first two years, she sold two million.
She was still in her twenties.
She did not need to work. Born into a comfortably well-off Jewish family in Belgium, she had done something characteristically bold: fallen in love with a German prince. A friend would later describe Egon von Fürstenberg as “guileless. He had a heart of gold and was very generous. But he was the most amoral thing I’ve ever come across. He’d fuck anything—boy, girl, whatever.” When Diane told him she was pregnant, he was quick to marry her, ignoring his parents’ raised eyebrows. Lest anyone dare think she had trapped herself a wealthy prince, von Furstenberg promptly started her own business. In its first four years of wild success, she also had a second child and swept up the shards of that quick marriage.
“Thank God when you’re living something you’re not really aware of it,” she says now, laughing but meaning it.
Her wrap dress hit the market in 1974—alongside designer jeans and Spandex—and felt equally liberating. The soft, simple DVF wrap was described as “making nine-to-five sexy,” at a time when that still seemed like a good idea. Worn with chunky gold jewelry and boots or stilettos, it offered what had until then been an oxymoron: relaxed glamour.
Today, nobody talks much about glamour. When someone quotes her classic line about “Feel like a woman, Wear a dress!” DVF bursts out laughing because she happens to be wearing one of her pants suits. Yet the wrap dress is still selling, as are other pieces; at the trunk show, a stunning young man was clad in a long black skirt and velvet jacket….
Life has changed all around The Dress.
• • •
Two hours after the trunk show closes, the pews of Graham Chapel are bright with DVF dresses, their prints glowing like the stained glass if slightly less sacred. This is truly ready-to-wear couture; no alterations necessary. The Dress takes it upon itself to fit every body.
The conversation is between von Furstenberg and her friend Derek Blasberg, a funny, clever fashion editor and writer who launched YouTube.com/Fashion, knows everybody, and is considered a more lovable reincarnation of Truman Capote.
Blasberg graduated from Affton High here in St. Louis. So did Mayor Tishaura Jones, who is on hand—wearing a DVF dress—to proclaim October 12 Diane von Furstenberg Day. “For women, our fashion is the armor we choose to wear out into the world,” Jones remarks. “So many people feel strong in Diane’s designs.”
Which was precisely the intent. “When I was growing up,” von Furstenberg tells the audience, “I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be…. I wanted to have a man’s life in a woman’s body.”
She did that by giving herself tremendous freedom, owning herself, being open about her vulnerabilities and turning them into strength. Yet as Gioia Diliberto points out in Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped, she changed a bit with each man she loved. When she moved to Paris, she started a publishing house and styled herself in black sweater, black pants, black flats. This, from a woman known for Cleopatra eye makeup, animal prints, stiletto heels, and luxurious falls of fake hair?
“I fell in love,” she tells Blasberg, her shrug amused. Candid about her past relationships, she is famous for rarely getting angry and never holding a grudge. She is equally good-humored about her business, explaining that the wrap became so popular, they had to hire security for the warehouse to stop people from breaking in to steal it, so she was pressured to produce more and more, and then critics announced that she had saturated the market and devalued The Dress. Her name and her brand wound up in the hands of people who destroyed them. “But that’s life,” she adds cheerfully. “You go up, you go down.”
Would she discourage young designers from selling their name, Blasberg asks. She shakes her head. “I got it back,” she points out, her grin mischievous. “They destroyed it so much that I got it back for very little!”
Diane von Furstenberg has always known she was meant to be here, meant to design. Back in high school, she was writing papers exploring beauty as a defense against death.
“Eighteen months before I was born, my mother was a skeleton in a field of ashes,” she says now, the dark lyricism silencing the chapel. Her mother spent fourteen months in Nazi labor camps. When she was released, “her mother fed her like a little bird, every ten minutes.” Six months later, her fiancé returned safely, and they married. The doctor warned them not to get pregnant for three years: “You will die, and your child will not be normal.”
Her mother went ahead, survived, and gave birth to a little girl who would grow up to be one of the most powerful women in fashion. Also one of the warmest, most down-to-earth philanthropists.
But what von Furstenberg does not mention at Graham Chapel is how her mother continued to suffer—and how sad she was, how she wept every day. Her affection for her daughter was fierce, but she had a hard time demonstrating it. Mainly, she wanted to make sure Diane knew no fear. So when the little girl was scared of the dark, her mother locked her in a closet. Von Furstenberg, who brushes pain from her mind as soon as it is over, later reported that “it worked.” She was never again scared of the dark—or much else.
And she was full of the impulsive warmth her mother had never been able to muster.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.