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Diane von Furstenberg, Unwrapped

  By VEYOLEEN D'SOUZA, TIME N STYLE   Jun 6th 2012 at 6:00AM Watches RATED

 

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Daughter of Auschwitz survivor Lily Nahmias, designer Diane von Furstenberg’s life has been well documented. Born in Belgium, von Furstenberg spent a quiet childhood in Brussels, before moving to study in Switzerland and finally to a boarding school in England. This is where she was first inspired by nature: “I used to take long walks in the countryside there and that is where I began my diary and a collection of photographs that would later inform (sic) my prints.” It is also the place where she realised that she wanted to be a “grownup”, adding, “I always wanted to be a woman!”

It was perhaps this desire that led to the creation of one of the most iconic designs in fashion history. “[The wrap dress] was just a little idea I had to combine a wrap top and a wrap skirt to make a dress. I thought, wouldn’t it be great in this silk jersey fabric...it was all about the fabric. It flattered the body and women could move in it...and then that little dress became a phenomenon,” she shares. Presented in the ’70s, the wrap dress became symbolic of women’s liberation during that decade, a phenomenon that surprised even von Furstenberg. She reveals, “I did not expect it to be such a huge success. I never could have known it would be. But I am glad that it became more than a dress; it became a symbol of the time and of something so important as women’s independence and power.” 

The dress gained cult status and sold more than five million pieces. Its seemingly overnight success and acceptance as a symbol of liberation were a dream come true for her. Although she was married to German Prince Egon von Furstenberg, she yearned to be financially independent. “When I was young, I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to work, to be independent and to not have to depend on a man to pay my bills. And becoming a designer has allowed me to be that woman.”

However, despite the success of the wrap dress, she left the clothing business in the ’80s. Describing it as a “learning experience”, von Furstenberg chopped off her hair and moved to Paris, where she contemplated becoming a writer. Instead, she started a publishing house to help other writers. Gradually, she began to question her move. “There was a moment where I thought, ‘is this really me’? I missed New York. I missed my family. I missed my business—it was such an important part of who I was. So I went back to America to reclaim it. And now I have,” she states proudly. 

During her absence, a lot had changed. While this might have deterred many, von Furstenberg didn’t allow it to discourage her. She says, “It was very hard coming back and seeing how things had moved on. I felt like a has-been and, of course, thought maybe they will laugh at me. The business had been licensed and was in a very bad state, but I just worked at getting it back to what I knew it could be.” Her resilience and determination stem from the lessons that she learnt from her mother. Describing her as the most influential person in her life, she shares, “My mother was a very strong woman. She survived the concentration camps and gave birth to me despite the odds. It was really a miracle. She taught me that fear was not an option and it is something I have never forgotten.” She adds, “That does not mean that you do not have moments when you are apprehensive or afraid, it just means that you don’t make decisions based on that fear. You overcome it. And that is what I did when I rebuilt my business.”

Over the years, her experiences have enhanced her approach to life, and to her work. In 1994, she was diagnosed with cancer. She remembers, “I have always been a grateful person and I think that experience made me even more so. The cancer was in my tongue and I remember thinking it was because I could not express myself...because my business was not what I wanted it to be at the time. So it taught me how important that was…to stay true to myself and my business and my voice.”

On her recent visit to India for the launch of her retail line at Kitsch, she spoke about design: “I always say that the woman is more important than the clothes. With fashion, I think great design reflects a time and a place and it enables a woman to be confident and to be the woman she wants to be. It makes her feel transformed.”

Today, while the wrap dress is a part of her vintage line, and is also available in a host of prints in sync with the season’s trends, von Furstenberg’s designs have evolved with time. “In my work, women inspire me and I work to inspire women.”

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