An extremely long, black, rented limousine came to pick me up at home to take me to Connecticut, where I’m going to interview Diane von Fürstenberg. In the car is Tatiana, the designer’s twenty-year-old daughter, with two friends.
Alain contributes his 1992 interview for AMICA Magazine to the 40th year celebrations for the iconic DVF wrap dress.
With a supple ride, more like that of a boat than an automobile, the limousine crosses Upstate New York and Connecticut. I pretend to take a nap and listen to the kids, who talk about their love interests and their travels. After an hour and a half we arrive at Cloudwalk, an enormous piece of property that once belonged to the Johnson family and to the orchestra director Leopold Stokowski.
There are five antique, white houses made of wood: one for Diane, one for her children, one for guests, one for the staff and one for Oliver, her best friend, who has worked with her forever. Diane von Fürstenberg acquired this property twenty-seven years ago, with her first earnings. “I needed nature, space. A house where I could be with my children, my family, my friends,” she would later explain.
Diane von Fürstenberg accompanies me to my room, which is in the guesthouse. The furniture is antique, American. The beds are dressed with the most colorful quilts. We had dinner immediately: Diane, her mother Lili Halfin, Tatiana and her friends all took their places at the table. The menu? Roasted chicken, American red potatoes, homemade apple pie (which was excellent), red wine from Bordeaux. Diane drinks two glasses of red wine every evening, in addition to water and herbal tea. Every once in a while she smokes a cigarette. When she is at Cloudwalk, she likes to take long walks through the woods at a decisive pace, followed by her many dogs, each of a different breed.
The following morning at ten Diane is punctual for the interview. She wears a close-fitting pair of blue jeans, a dark blue cashmere sweater over her bare skin and cowboy boots. Her silhouette is aquiline. Her large black eyes express melancholy, curiosity and even severity.
Diane is a solitary woman, one gathers from the way she lives. She likes to direct, organize for others, for the people she cares about, but she likes to be alone. She invites me into her studio, where Leopold Stokowski once worked. It is a big room that looks like a large loft. On the walls there are white shelves overflowing with art books, volumes on architecture and novels. A retractable screen hangs from the ceiling on which the stylist projects new films procured for her by her ex-boyfriend, the producer Berry Diller, who directs Twentieth Century Fox. In the back of the room there is a platform with two identical, very simple desks with drawers on either side. In the drawers the stylist keeps designs for models and precious fabrics she buys when she travels. During the interview Diane never sits still. She’ll go from time to time to one of the other houses to verify that the table she prepared for twenty-two people is ready. She’ll receive a fax, answer the phone in a variety of languages and speak about work and personal matters with various interlocutors: with her son Alex, with her ex-husband Egon von Fürstenberg, with a gentleman who wanted to meet with her to get her to sign, for his fiancée, a copy of her book on beds that she just compiled. She takes careful note of his address and then responds politely to my first question.
Are you American?
No, I arrived in America when I was twenty-two and I’ve lived here for twenty-two years. I have two children who were born in America and who consider themselves American. I was born in Belgium and have a Belgian passport.
And your parents?
My father was born in Kishinev, the capital of Moldavia, and his language is Russian. My mother was born in Thessalonica, in Greece, though she has lived in Belgium since she was a child.
What is your first memory?
When my brother was born, I was almost ten. When my mother went to the clinic, I remember that I was afraid I would never see her again.
What is your father like?
Handsome, very affectionate, not severe at all. Present and absent at the same time, preoccupied above all with his work in electronics. My mother on the other hand was always present, severe.
Did you have a happy childhood?
There is always something tormenting about childhood. As a child life seems like an enormous void. There is the anguish of the unknown. My childhood was gray because Belgium is a gray country. I remember that all of my female classmates at school were blonde with straight hair. I was a brunette with curly hair. The month of November was always very long, sad. Sunday afternoons with my family seemed never-ending. And so, ever since I was very little, I wanted to get out and to make a life for myself.
What type of family do you come from?
A Jewish, bourgeois family. My mother had two numbers tattooed on her arm because she had been a prisoner in two concentration camps during the war. Even if she didn’t talk about it and she didn’t allow it to burden her, those tattoos evoked the horror. During the war in Korea, I remember noticing in my family a great fear of Russia and of communism. I even began to arrange my bed in such a way that I wouldn’t be caught off guard by the sudden arrival of the Russians. I read many novels and did lots of dreaming, conjuring up great destinies. But I was desperate and afraid that nothing would ever happen to me. I had a friend, Mireille. We spent a lot of time together and we dreamed of becoming princesses, of living grand passions. My mother must have understood that I wanted to expand my horizons, and so, when I was thirteen she sent me to school in Switzerland, where there were students from all over the world and therefore it was a less banal environment. Then, when I was fifteen, I went to England, which seemed immediately beautiful to me, and that’s where my life began. After England I went to Spain for university, where I studied philosophy for a year. I didn’t know anyone, just an anti-conformist young man who was a self-proclaimed socialist. Spain was still under Francoism. His name was Felipe Gonzàles, and many years later he would go on to become Prime Minister. After I left Spain, I moved to Geneva, where I met Egon von Fürstenberg, a young man who had just returned from Africa. In Geneva I found a job with an investment firm and I began to make money.
Did you think much about making money?
No. For me life was an adventure, I didn’t think about money.
In 1968 I decided to go to work in Paris. It was the year of the barricades, free love, the war in Vietnam. I worked for a photography agency, and that’s how, representing, for example, David Bailey, I made my first contact with the world of fashion. In January 1969 I went to visit Egon in New York. It was my first time in America. When I left I was only planning to stay for two weeks and I ended up staying two months. New York was much different than I had imagined: rather old, with a very stimulating bohemian atmosphere. In Europe they waged a cultural revolution without getting anywhere. In New York, on the other hand, I felt a special energy. I decided to get involved in fashion and I went to Como to work with Angelo Ferretti, who had a fabric factory and a printing press. There, I very quickly learned everything I needed to know about fabric, color and designing.
Egon returned from America, we got engaged, I discovered that I was pregnant and we were married July 16, 1969 in Montfort l’Amaury near Paris.
In seven months you discovered America, decided to throw yourself into fashion, got pregnant and married. Didn’t it all happen a little too fast?
No, from that moment my life acquired a velocity and an intensity that lasted a long time.
What do you mean?
October 15, 1969 I boarded the Raffaello in Genoa because I wanted to make the journey on my own, to be able to reflect in peace on the new life that awaited me. I had become a princess, I was about to become a mother and I was beginning my career. I therefore had to take things slowly and think things through. That was when I learned that every once in a while you have to detach yourself for a second, take a step back, to see things more clearly. As soon as I arrived in America my existence became a wonderful whirlwind of activity.
How did your success begin?
I was pregnant and I remember that I had a huge Louis Vuitton suitcase full of samples I was to present to Vogue, where I went to meet the woman who was considered at the time the empress of fashion, Diana Vreeland. I was extremely scared, very intimidated, when she received me in her office that was all red. She was surrounded by assistants and all of these absolutely gorgeous models. I began to show her the clothes I had designed. She looked at them and kept exclaiming: “How beautiful!” “How intelligent!” “How beautiful!” Then all of sudden I found myself alone, with the clothes to fold. She had gone and, disconcerted, I asked myself: “And now what? What am I supposed to do now?” Her assistant began to laugh and told me that Mrs. Vreeland had really liked my work. She explained to me that Market Week was about to begin and she suggested that I book a hotel room and sign up for a slot on the Fashion Calendar and hope that I would receive orders. I followed her advice.
And your children?
My marriage suffered as a result of this initial success and so I dedicated myself exclusively to my work and my children. I travelled a lot. I would take early morning flights so that I could get home to be with my children in the evening. I had a lot of energy. The adrenaline flowed. I discovered America and America discovered me. I discovered women as well as myself. Designing and creating for women, I became a woman. Everything, in one way or another, was connected. That was how at the age of twenty-seven I bought Cloudwalk, the house we’re in right now.
You said that success ruined your marriage. Do you think that success is incompatible with a normal family life?
No. I think that modern life, the fact that I got married so young, the freedom of the period and the speed with which I found myself faced with so many responsibilities (hundreds of employees, the production of twenty-five thousand pieces of clothing a week) was perhaps a bit much to also have the patience to make a marriage work. But I have to say that even if Egon and I were separated after just a few years, we remained friends and above all closely united in the education of our children and with respect to the family.
Was your success pure chance? Very few Europeans have been able to do so well in the United States…
Work was my outlet. Success was how I forged my real independence and my children were my salvation.
You didn’t answer the question…
I don’t know. Success is the result of the desire to succeed, good fortune and certainly sound judgment. I made things that people wanted and needed and I worked a lot: the whole thing produced a chemical reaction and permitted me to live the “American dream”. However, success is double-edged sword. You’ve got to keep moving forward. Never put your feet up.
What happened after ’77 and the “wrap dress”?
A line of cosmetics, houseware and accessories, aimed at women and still in line with my needs and my instincts. I was the first to come up with attractive and sophisticated fashions at a price that any woman could afford.
Have things changed since then?
For ten years, from 1972 to 1982, I worked like crazy creating an empire. My products were achieving a turnover of a more than three hundred fifty billion lira a year. After ten years of this commercial euphoria I needed other things. In 1980 I took a long trip to Asia and I spent a lot of time in Bali. In 1983 I sold my cosmetics line to a large English pharmaceutical company and licensed out other products. At that point I lost, in large part, control of my brand: selling the name was a bit like selling a child. I missed Europe a lot, so I moved to Paris for four or five years, thinking that I had left America behind for good.
Then what happened?
Little by little, I bought my brand back, and now I am ready to start over and do things differently.
What are your plans?
I understand the modern woman who has to do many things, be ready for anything, elegant and not spend too much. I want to furnish these women with clothes, cosmetics and accessories.
What does a typical day look like for you?
By now my kids are all grown up and I live alone, shuttling back and forth between my country house, and my apartments in New York and Paris. Unfortunately I waste a lot of time in airplanes. What do I do? I work. I love my friends. New York is a strange city, interesting, a symbol of our epoch. It is a great fairground where there is always a friend working on something, presenting a book, a film or an exhibition. I am fascinated by what happens in the world. I think the world will change more in the next five years than it has in the last fifty. We all have to be very careful and flexible. More than ever we must be ready to face every day of our reality.
What difference do you see between the destiny of Europe and that of the United States?
The great difference between Europe and America is the space. Unfortunately in old Europe, a place that has seen so much history and so much progress, there is little space and always more people.
How important is love to you?
I’m always writing: Love is life and Life is love. For me love is life. Without love there is no life.
You’ve hardly said anything at all about other people working in the world of fashion…
In fashion the most important creator of the century is Yves Saint-Laurent. However, for me, fashions are accessories that reflect a lifestyle and an image. For example, nothing has influenced fashion more than blue jeans.
This means that there are geniuses like Yves Saint-Laurent, but fashion also begins on the street.
Translated by Steve Baker