Among a handful of successful women fashion designers, Diane von Furstenberg (born 1946) made a name for herself when she devised a simple jersey wrap dress. She became internationally acclaimed for her no-nonsense, affordable clothing that acknowledged the modern woman as both beautiful and career-minded.
Diane von Furstenberg was born Diane Simone Michelle Halfin on December 31, 1946, in Brussels, Belgium. Her well-to-do Jewish parents, Leon, an electronics executive, and Liliane Nahmias Halfin, provided von Furstenberg with a comfortable childhood. Her mother, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, imbued her with the self-confidence and drive that helped her become one of the world's most successful fashion designers.
Von Furstenberg attended finishing schools in Switzerland, Spain, and England, and in 1965 entered the University of Madrid. Transferring a year later to the University of Geneva, she selected economics as a major. She then worked briefly at Investors Overseas Ltd., a mutual fund company in Geneva.
While attending the University of Geneva, Diane Halfin met Prince Eduard Egon von Furstenberg, heir to the Fiat automobile fortune. The two were married in Paris on July 16, 1969. At her wedding von Furstenberg, now Princess von Furstenberg, wore a white piqué dress of her own design made by the fashion house of Dior.
That same year she apprenticed with Italian textile manufacturer Angelo Ferretti and was soon designing simple dresses using his silk jersey prints. The von Furstenbergs moved to New York City in late 1969, where her husband went to work on Wall Street. In New York Diane attempted to interest garment manufacturers in her sample designs. In her early months of designing and promoting, she worked out of the dining room of her Park Avenue apartment.
Encouraged by designers Bill Blass and Kenny Lane and by Diana Vreeland, editor of the influential Vogue magazine, Diane von Furstenberg put together a collection of her dress designs. In April 1970 von Furstenberg revealed her first collection at the Gotham Hotel in New York City. The price range was moderate, from $25 to $100.
Although her designs were a commercial hit, her marriage failed. Von Furstenberg aimed even more at making herself financially independent and stable. Because she had little experience in producing clothes on a large scale, von Furstenberg at first worked with major women's clothing manufacturers, but in April 1972 she established her own manufacturing business. With the help of friend and entrepreneur Richard Conrad, and with a $30,000 loan from her father, Diane von Furstenberg opened a Seventh Avenue showroom. Although her designs were variations on items in her initial collection, she produced a new, very popular sweater dress named "Angela," after the black activist Angela Davis. Next came von Furstenberg's enormously popular wrap dress. "Fed up with the bell-bottom jeans and sexless pantsuits of the day, she devised a slinky, moderately priced wrap dress that turned millions of mall mothers and working women into saucy sirens virtually overnight," noted J.D. Polosky in People. After only a few months of business, her wholesale sales topped $1 million.
In 1973 von Furstenberg bought an old farmhouse in Connecticut, where she retreated from her frenetic business life. In 1975 she separated from the prince, and in 1983 divorced him, retaining custody of their two children, Alexandre and Tatiana.
With a good grasp of both design and economics, von Furstenberg augmented her fashion line several years after opening her showroom. She added jewelry, furs, shoes, scarves, and sunglasses to the articles bearing her signature. Later she conceived of a cosmetic line, including a fragrance named for her daughter, Tatiana. She branched into housewares: sheets, bath towels, and home accessories. Soon her trademark began appearing on fashions for children.
Her dynamic career and elegant looks kept her in the public eye. Diane von Furstenberg, the princess-turned-designer, was featured often in magazine articles and interviews. In 1977 she published Diane von Furstenberg's Book of Beauty. She appealed to working women because her practical designs acknowledged the growing number of career women. In 1984 von Furstenberg opened a Fifth Avenue boutique catering to women who desired a more luxurious type of women's apparel.
Von Furstenberg proved herself a financial genius and fashion wizard whose achievement was based on creativity, imagination, and hard work. Her line eventually included eyeglasses and even nurse's uniforms and brought sales of more than $1 billion in the 1980s. "I lived the American dream," she told People. "I made money, I made children, I became famous, and I dressed everybody in America."
In 1985, she moved to Paris, and lived with French novelist Alain Elkann. She founded a publishing house. She broke up with Elkann in 1989 and returned to the United States, living at a farm in Connecticut.
Her 1991 book Beds displayed the bedrooms of celebrities and royalty. She followed by making a comeback to the dress designing world, releasing a 1990s version of her signature wrap dress. In 1993, another book, The Bath, offered a brief history of bathing and a look into celebrity bathrooms.
Seeing new possibilities for commercial success, von Furstenberg, in the mid-1990s, began marketing her dresses, home furnishings and other items on a cable television home shopping network. During her first segment, she sold $1.2 million worth of clothes in two hours. "She's smart and warm, glamorous and earthy, and she know how to seduce her customers," Jane Shapiro explained in a January 1994 article in Lear's. Asked to explain why middle-class customers always were her mainstay, von Furstenberg answered: "Because I think women are all the same. And I think that women are wonderful, strong, and beautiful, and if you get two women in the room, they're gonna start winking at each other."
Numerous articles and interviews describing Diane von Furstenberg throughout her career appeared in popular magazines. One of the most informative is J.D. Polosky, "Not Lying on Her Laurels," People, December 9, 1991. Diane von Furstenberg's books include Diane von Furstenberg's Book of Beauty (1977), Beds (1991), and The Bath (1993). □
Learn more about Diane von Furstenberg