Diane von Furstenberg, after decades as a designer, stands tall as an undisputed icon in the fashion industry.
There are, of course, the accolades. Forbes named her one of the most powerful women in the world in 2014. In 2019, she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And, she was named one of the most influential people in the world on Time 100’s prestigious list in 2015, putting her in the company of Angela Merkel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Misty Copeland and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There is her enduring leadership as a grand dame of the fashion industry. She served as chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for more than a decade, and has continued to share her secret to success in no less than four best-selling books.
There is also, of course, the wrap dress, which nearly 50 years after creating it, still remains a go-to for women of all shapes and sizes.
But for the icon herself, it was the platform her success in fashion gave her that enabled her most important work.
Her work over the years with Vital Voices and her own foundation’s DVF Awards has recognized hundreds of women. This March, that work is being recognized with the 2022 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award.
Luxeicon chatted with von Furstenberg in advance of the formal ceremony at the Library of Congress on March 11, where she’ll accept the award.
Here, von Furstenberg shares her thoughts on why feminism and fashion can be one-in-the-same, what’s next for her brand, and what it was like to hold the ‘tiny strong hand’ of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
You’re known as a fashion icon, but tell us why your philanthropic work has been so important to you over the years.
Well I was always a feminist. I should say from my birth, I’m a survivor because my mother survived a death camp, and so my birth was very much a miracle [von Furstenberg’s mother was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp]. Her survival was a miracle and I think it’s very important because it defined the person that I am. I am a feminist, have always been a feminist. When I was growing up, if you asked me what I wanted to do, I did not know what I wanted to do but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be an independent woman who can pay her bills and can lead a man’s life. A man’s life in a woman’s body. I’m not sure if saying that today is PC, but that’s how I felt when I was growing up. I wanted to be in charge.
Fashion became my way because I went to work in a print factory, and so fashion became my thing. I created the wrap dress, but truly the wrap dress created me. The wrap dress gave me independence, the wrap dress gave me freedom, the wrap dress allowed me to be that woman in charge I wanted to be. And the more confident I became—because I was becoming confident with the dress—I was passing that confidence to a lot of other women through the dress. Then I realized that, when I was growing up I wanted to be taken seriously, but as I became more successful I realized that to show your vulnerability is much more inspiring to people than just talking about your success. I also realized that when people would write about me they would write about me like a Park Avenue Princess, which is really not who I was. So that’s when I realized that if my narrative was a bit more provocative it would get more attention, but more importantly it would be my words.
The minute I had a voice—and that voice came to me because of my success with the wrap dress—I realized you can speak and you can help people who have no voice. I want every woman to be in charge and that’s why I got involved with Vital Voices many years ago. Vital Voices is this extraordinary organization of bad-ass women in 186 countries. It was originally started as a conference in Beijing organized by the U.N. and that’s when all these women got together. I love it because it’s not about giving charity, it’s about supporting and helping these incredible women leaders in all the countries in the world, so it really sang to me.
Tell us about starting the DVF Awards.
My son came to me and he said, ‘You know, you should create a prize for women so that we can support women every year financially and also give them exposure.’ I started the DVF Awards 13 years ago and it honors five extraordinary women who have the courage to fight, the strength to survive, and the leadership to inspire. Four of those women are not known. But in order to give them exposure, you need to incorporate women who also will get the award that will get the press for the others. This is why I created The Lifetime Leadership Award. The Lifetime Award went to Anita Hill, Hilary Clinton, Gloria Steinheim, RBG and people of that stature.
You mentioned wanting your story to be in your own words. What do you hope your legacy will be?
I’m an older woman. I’ve just entered the winter of my life. There are three parts of you. There is the family you’ve created. I’m very proud of my kids and my grandchildren. They do things, they are kind, but they’re fun. They’re not banal. I love it. That gives me huge pleasure. Then you have the brand I created. In fashion, you go up, you go down, you go this, you go that, you have big success, but it has been consistent. Anything that you see that I have done years ago, the work is still the same and the dress, that one dress, is still available. People still sell it and I don’t think there’s ever been a dress that has lived that long. And then there is the impact. The impact that you have made doesn’t have to be on the world, but on people. I try to make a miracle every day. Everyday I try to connect at least one person to a person or a thing that they normally would not be able to do and that creates the chain of love.
You’ve honored high-profile women over the years but like you said, most are not known. Who stands out to you?
Almost all of them. Once they come into my life and once they are part of the DVF Awards, they’re part of a family. And I mean every single woman has been amazing. [For example], Veronika Scott the young girl who was homeless and who started to make sleeping bags for homeless people and gave them work. Everyone of these women has been amazing.
You’ll be in DC in March to receive the 2022 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award. What does the award mean to you?
I don’t even know why I deserve it. I am so impressed and moved. But apparently, according to the committee, before she died, [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] said I hope one day the committee will honor Diane von Furstenberg. That means so much to me.
Did you meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg before her passing?
I met her when I gave her [the DVF Lifetime Leadership Award] also at the Library of Congress, which was her last public appearance. I spent a lot of time with her granddaughter and her granddaughter is just amazing. After the ceremony, [Ginsburg] sat in a little corner in the library and I went to sit next to her and we held hands. My souvenir from her is that tiny little strong hand.
What advice would you give women just starting out in their career?
Go for it, just go for it. There are two major major, major pieces of advice I give everyone. First is, the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. Once you have established that, every other relationship you have is a plus, not a must. And number two, that I discover more and more every day, is that the most important thing is to stay true to yourself as much as possible. Do not lie and do not be delusional. If you are always good to yourself, it’s the best investment you can make.
What advice do you have for women trying to stay motivated in their careers?
Take time for yourself. Take time to think things through. My advice to everyone is to keep a diary. I’ve always found them really helpful even though I never read them, but somehow the communion between you and the page helps. Trust yourself. It’s your life. Do what you think is right.
How often do you write in your diary?
Oh, almost daily, but I don’t write much. I have a full closet downstairs that’s full of hundreds of diaries. I started when I was about 12. But I lost the first 10 years, so I would say what I have here is from age 22.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to my company being reset … my CEO [Gabby Hirata] is very young, she’s in her early thirties, and my granddaughter is taking my place, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they will do with it.