New Diane von Furstenberg Doc Shows the Famed Designer is Still Stylishly Empowered at 77

Diane von Fürstenberg

Diane von Furstenberg, seen here in 2023, is the latest fashion personality to received the documentary treatment. Photo: Dave Benett/Hoda Davaine/Dave Benett/Getty Images

You’re no one in fashion nowadays unless you’re the subject of a legacy-burnishing documentary or miniseries. (See: Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, Cristóbal Balenciaga, The New Look, High and Low: John Galliano, Invisible Beauty and The Supermodels as more recent examples.) 

For the creator of the iconic jersey wrap dress synonymous with Second Wave feminism, that documentary is the new Disney+ offering Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge. 

At 77, Belgian-born fashion designer and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg remains a cultural force. Anecdotally, there isn’t much we haven’t already learned from one of the icon’s several bestselling memoirs, authorized biographies, self-help books and countless profiles over the years. But oh, the way she tells it! 

Sharing her life story as the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor and a middle-class Jewish girl one who became famous after she married a German prince there’s no question DVF has “it.” The screen can barely contain the magnetism and captivating charisma that she weaponized for success and fame. 

The setting is preparations leading up to the 2023 opening of her retrospective “Woman Before Fashion” exhibition in Brussels marking the 50th anniversary of the iconic wrap dress. And she’s told many of these jet set stories before – the libertine Studio 54 disco era, the rise and fall of her business fortunes – but  in the documentary they’re augmented with the candour of wisdom and experience. Dynamic layers of personal photographs, home movies and archival footage also make it a visual delight.

Adding to the multi-faceted portrait, co-directors Trish Dalton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy assemble observations from an eclectic who’s who – Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Ahn Duong, Christian Louboutin, Fran Lebovitz, Marc Jacobs, Anderson Cooper and Edward Enninful are just a few, as well as candid reminiscences from her adult children Alexander and Tatiana and husband Barry Diller.

Here are a few of the new, and fascinating, facts revealed in the new Diane von Furstenberg documentary.

 

She Embraces Aging

 

Our first shot of present-day von Furstenberg early in the movie is of her rummaging through her cosmetics drawer, barefaced, and climbing onto her bathroom vanity to sit in her sink, leaning into the mirror to apply face cream and makeup. “I don’t understand why so many people don’t embrace age. I’ve always been attracted by wrinkles, you know? Age means living,” she at one point explains. “You should say how old you are, you should say how long have you lived! If you take all your wrinkles away, the map of your life is different.” As she recently opined in an interview, “I don’t understand people who say, ‘Oh, I’m 50.’ Fifty?? You’re just beginning.” 

At one point it’s pointed out that she’s 76 but that, based on the sheer number of escapades packed into her one adventurous life, the real figure should be 300. Later, wandering the grounds of the Connecticut country home she shares with husband Barry Diller, she takes the filmmaker to her future resting place, which she claims to visit every day as a comfort. Von Furstenberg says she thinks about death all the time “but with zero fear” because it gives her gratitude and the ability to fully enjoy life.

Diane von Furstenberg talks positive aging in her new documentary, noting “I’ve always been attracted by wrinkles, you know? Age means living.” Photo: Courtesy of Disney

 

Watergate inspired the Iconic Wrap Dress

 

The iconic dress’s initial iteration was jersey separates, von Furstenberg explains, inspired by the “little wrap tops worn by ballerinas in rehearsal” and manufactured at scarf printer Angelo Ferretti‘s factory in Como, Italy. But like many in the summer of 1973, von Furstenberg was glued to coverage of the Watergate scandal. One day while watching a press conference of President Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia defending her father, the designer noticed the way it looked when she paired a patterned DVF wrap top with its coordinating skirt, and had the idea of combining them into a single easy piece. It was shown to buyers and commercialized in 1974 and soon she was selling 25,000 of the $86 dresses a week. It was the first job dress, the first interview dress and form-fitting sensual riposte to expectations that women in the workplace dress in mannish suits in order to fit in.

Several talking heads appear and attest to its seductive power: Oprah Winfrey recalls her days as a young reporter saving up for the wrap dress because it was a status symbol that conferred social capital. “It’s odd to think that a single dress could have made that kind of impact. But I was there,” Hillary Clinton adds, “and it did. It had a huge reverberation.” By 1976, DVF and the dress were on the cover of Newsweek’s “Rags & Riches” issue. The designer’s current spring/summer 2024 collection, called Wrap 50, celebrates its half century milestone with a new Tribute collection. 

Diane von Fürstenberg
The designer poses next to portraits, by Andy Warhol, depicted in her wrap dresses at the opening of Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress exhibition in Moscow, Russia on October 30, 2009. Photo: Alexei Filippov/Itar-Tass/ABACAPRESS.COM/The Canadian Press

 

She’s Not Much of a Businesswoman

Recalling how the wrap dress eventually oversaturated the market and the company faltered in the 1980s, it was because she didn’t know anything about running a business. “I still don’t,” the onetime fashion mogul self-deprecatingly admits, because she never meant to get into fashion. “I had a vocation to be a woman in charge,” is how von Furstenberg puts it early in the documentary (while wearing a gold necklace with that mantra written out in cursive, Carrie Bradshaw-style).

She never intended to create what became Second Wave feminism’s uniform for freedom (a notion she says would have been ridiculous and arrogant). Fashion merely became a way to achieve her goal of being in charge. She does, however, have incredible instincts (for trends as much as for survival). DVF was a key figure in another watershed industry moment: the 1990s home shopping revolution on QVC (after marvelling that soap opera star Susan Lucci could sell $700,000 worth of shampoo in two hours). In Maureen Dowd’s extensive recent New York Times profile of the designer, we’re reminded that once again “the company’s next act is up in the air” after over-expanding a decade ago and losing so much money that DVF shuttered all but its New York flagship in 2020 (closing 18 U.S. stores, along with letting go of 60 per cent of corporate and retail staff).

Diane von Furstenberg poses for photographers in front of her collection of wrap dresses during the Journey of A Dress exhibition in Los Angeles in 2014. Photo:  Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Diane Von Furstenberg

 

 

She Hasn’t Always Behaved Like a Feminist

 

The Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress is an icon of fiercely independent feminist emancipation. Makeup artist Gigi Williams recounts how when they toured shopping malls around America together, feminism was their main focus – “that you should only spend a few minutes doing your makeup because you have more important things to do.” Williams reminds viewers that in 1976, as a woman, you couldn’t have a credit card or a chequing account without a husband or father co-signing for you.”

Yet even as the wrap dress creator relentless pushed her way into a business run by men and faced near-constant sexist dismissiveness (in part for being a gorgeous woman in fishnets, the opposite of how women who wanted to be “taken seriously” were told to dress and behave at the time), she also conformed and transformed herself to match the interests and expectations of several successive romantic partners. Close friend Fran Lebowitz observes how she played the role of jetset glamorous princess wife for promiscuous first husband Egon von Furstenberg, for example. Another close friend details how during her Paris-based relationship with writer Alain Elkann she embraced being a bookish literary salon hostess publisher in sober conservative tweeds. Where is she in life now? She wants to be able to put herself in the service of women.

Diane von Furstenberg and her then-husband, Swiss socialite Prince Egon von Furstenberg, during Francesco Scavullo’s birthday party at Studio 54 in New York on January 17, 1980. Photo: Oscar Abolafia/TPLP/Getty Images

 

She Keeps a List of Conquests

 

“Has she given you the list?” her son Alex asks the camera, with an amused smile, referring to the master list of conquests his mother apparently keeps, in addition to her extensive scrapbooks. It’s extensive and, as her friend, artist Ahn Duong points out, sexually fluid. At Swiss boarding school after her parents’ divorce, her first romantic relationship was with a boy (“a Persian”) followed by one with a young woman, for which she was expelled. The list includes Warren Beatty and Ryan O’Neal. (On the same weekend. “How about that!?” the designer laughs.) Richard Gere’s name appears, and she recounts also being invited to a threesome with Mick Jagger and David Bowie (in their prime!) – but when the time came, she opted out. 

Now happily married to billionaire entertainment tycoon and “soul mate” Diller since 2001, with whom she had an on-again off-again romance since the 1980s, von Furstenberg can wistfully declare that she has lived a man’s life in a woman’s body.  

“The common thread in my life has always been freedom.”

Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge premieres June 25 on Disney+.

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