‘Extraordinary’ is the appropriate word to describe Diane von Furstenberg’s incredible life, career and destiny. The Brussels-born designer dressed millions of women worldwide with her iconic printed, jersey wrap dress. Sensual, elegant and practical at the same time, it encapsulates female power and confidence. Throughout her collections, the Belgian designer kept believing in herself.
Since the 21st of April, the Museum Fashion & Lace in Brussels honors her legacy with an exhibition curated by Nicolas Lor. Named ‘Woman Before Fashion’, it isn’t a retrospective, but an unusual and exciting look at her work, using the wrap dress as a single narrative thread.
In this exclusive interview, we caught up with the famous designer to discuss her unique vision of style, becoming friends with Yves Saint Laurent, and why empowering women and giving them confidence has always been her mission.
The Fashion & Lace Museum is honoring your work with a beautiful exhibition in Brussels, which opens on the 21st of April. Were you directly involved in it?
I am the subject of the exhibition, but it isn’t mine. Nicolas Lor, the curator of ‘Woman Before Fashion’ approached me to explain what he had in mind. Nicolas is young and very knowledgeable when it comes to contemporary fashion. He worked for prestigious houses and has a great eye. I was therefore flattered that someone from his generation would want to do an exhibition about me and my work.
Were you surprised he chose you?
I was. I kept telling him that there were much more important designers in Belgium to focus on, but what he said to me is that my work felt relevant to him -as well as a new generation- which of course was very nice to hear.
You have been a role model for many women and designers alike.
When Nicolas came to New York to see me and visit the archive, I introduced him to the owners of Rizzoli and they developed a book project together on the exhibition, which bears the same title and will come out in September. I need to underline that this exhibition was not a marketing move from our part at all, and that Nicolas genuinely wanted his first show in the museum to be about my work and legacy.
Why is Brussels still important to you?
I was born in Brussels and grew up within the center of the city. The Grand-Place neighborhood is one of my favorite. I went to school there and Brussels holds a special place in my heart. It does feel like a special recognition somehow, and I am extremely honored.
Your wrap dress has been around for half a century now. How do you explain its longevity?
I created the wrap dress to make the life of women I knew easier. I wanted them to feel as secure -and as comfortable- as men were in their suits. Today, my granddaughter Talita is active within the company, and we understand each other well. You know, when I think back about the past 50 years, they feel more like 300. So much has happened in my own life, as well as around me. Many people I was close to are no longer here. The truth is that I am a survivor, and so was my mother. 18 months before my birth, she was in Auschwitz. When she was freed from the camp, she was so frail and underweight that doctors told her she’d never be able to conceive. I was her miracle child.
I guess that set the bar fairly high when it came to your own success. Do you think your ambition comes from this?
I never thought about those things when I was young, but now I understand how it influenced aspects of my personality in the sense that my life itself was a triumph. I should never have been born and yet I was there, healthy and full of energy.
You’ve always had real confidence in yourself, which perhaps explains why you are such a role model for women. Does age make us feel more worthy in any ways?
I think I was aware from quite a young age that the most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves. You will not find strength in others, but in yourself. I’m not sure how I learned this, but my mother’s strict upbringing was definitely an influence. She didn’t allow me to be scared and always said that fear was not an option.
What other values did she pass on to you?
She taught me never to be a victim. We didn’t discuss fashion or clothes together, even though my mother always dressed in a very elegant way. She encouraged me to be independent, too, which for her was the most important thing in life.
You knew many designers personally, who are part of the history of fashion today. Which one impressed you the most?
I loved Yves Saint Laurent, Stephen Burrows, Pucci and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.
What was Saint Laurent like in private?
Yves was a wonderful person to be around. He was fun, sweet, smart and charismatic. He once told me that his biggest regret in life was not being Matisse, a painter he adored and truly worshiped.
What inspires me the most is young people who are true to themselves. We live in a challenging world and sometimes I worry about their future or how they will handle everything, but I guess the secret is to stick to your guns and remain true to yourself, whether it be in life or in fashion. Don’t look at what others do and learn to perfect your own craft instead.