Diane von Furstenburg’s life is almost unbelievably dramatic, but what we admire most is her will and intelligence to persevere.
Born to a Holocaust Survivor.
Born in 1946 in Belgium to Jewish parents, her mother was a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp just 18 months before Diane was born. Europe was in ruins and families and communities destroyed. Diane wrote in her biography, “I didn’t know, as a very little girl in Brussels, why my mother had two lines of blue tattooed numbers on her left arm. I remember thinking they were some sort of decoration and wished I had them, too, so my arms wouldn’t look so plain.” The number was 5199.
Fear Is Not An Option
Diane credits her now famous “Fear is not an option” quote to her mother. In spite of lingering effects of her trauma, her mother also taught her that being a woman was a huge advantage, and she has carried that confidence with her throughout her life.
Her well-to-do Jewish father had escaped to Switzerland before the war. With her parents connecting and marrying in 1945, they were able to provide their daughter with an education and comforts. Diane studied economics at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She then moved to Paris and worked as an assistant to a fashion photographer’s agent, and then to Italy to work as an apprentice to a textile manufacturer.
Married To Royalty
Diane met Prince Egon von Fürstenberg in college. He is said to have been the heir to some of the Fiat fortune. As a German prince descended from Charlemagne and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, they were an unusual match. The couple married in 1969, and Diane’s new father-in-law boycotted the event because “Jewish blood in the family” was unheard of. They had two children, Alexander (1970) and Tatiana (1971). By 1972, the couple had filed for divorce.
Started Her Company With $30,000
She is frequently quoted as saying that she began her career as soon as she realized she was getting married. Simply put, she wanted to be known for more than being the wife of royalty.
While Diane was still married, she started her fashion company – named Diane Von Furstenberg (DVF) – with a small $30,000 investment. By that time, she’d learned something about textiles and fashion from her work as an assistant.
The Big Apple and Vogue
After her divorce, she moved to New York City in 1974. Her designs were soon recognized by famed Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland. With that boost, the Diane von Furstenberg company (DVF) was listed on the New York Fashion Week calendar, which made it more visible to buyers.
The Famous 1974 Wrap Dress
The wrap dress caused a firestorm in the fashion world, garnering a lot of press for DVF and, eventually, a permanent spot at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The dress became an incredible trademark. To many women, the dress expressed confidence and a professional look in the work place. With her enormous success, Diane seemed to represent the possibilities of the 1970’s women’s liberation movement. Quite appropriately, she was called “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel.”
DVF Expands Beyond Fashion
Soon after launching her wrap dress, Diane started a cosmetics company and created a perfume named after her daughter, Tatiana. The success of the dress also led to licensing in accessories, beauty and several other ventures. She eventually sold the cosmetics company because she was feeling too much pressure from over-diversifying.
In the 1980s, Diane returned to Europe and founded multiple other businesses, including a French publishing house and a home shopping business. Her boyfriend at the time was Ryan O’Neal.
Losing Control of Her Brand
She says that when she returned to the U.S. in the 1990s, she realized that the DVF brand which bore her name was no longer under her control. She had to regain control and re-connect with her customers.
Pioneering the Home Shopping Trend
After some searching, she took an amazing shift in strategy to pioneer in the home-shopping craze. It generated over $40 million in revenue in sales selling her dresses, suits, pants, skirts, blazers and tops. She continued to sell on QVC for four years until the official re-launch of her company in 1997.
Surprising Re-Launch of DVF
While Diane was showing on QVC, she found that younger women were looking for her 1970’s wrap dresses in vintage shops, and geared up to bring back her iconic dress. In 1997 it was roaring success. She had officially taken back her brand.
Diane Marries a Billionaire
After dating on and off for more than 20 years, she married her current husband, media mogul and businessman Barry Diller, in 2001. She has been linked to many high profile men throughout her life. The pair has often been referred to as a modern couple who both highly value their individual independence, while still working in partnership – in both business and philanthropy.
DVF Expands Again
Since the re-launch of DVF, she has used her name recognition to expand her brand. She has opened shops all over the world, collaborated with top designers, and has converted her fashion collection into home goods and jewelry. She has also ventured into designing fabrics for hotel suites.
In 2009, Michelle Obama wore DVF’s first print (a black-and-white chain link), reissued in a slightly larger scale, on the official White House Christmas card.
Diane enjoys staying in touch with current trends and debuted Google Glass at her next fashion show, over the objections of her design and PR teams.
Philanthropy and Women
Over the years, Diane has become an icon for women’s empowerment. She and her husband created the Diller-Von Furstenburg Foundation, which hosts an awards ceremony to highlight four women in leadership positions each year. She’s also been heavily involved in rebuilding areas of New York City and receives much of the credit for the NYC High Line (the celebrated urban park on an old elevated train line).
Now on the cusp of 70, she will undoubtedly continue to be a figure of fascination and accomplishment.