Q&A: Furstenberg on Why Fashion Matters

Life has not always been easy for Diane von Furstenberg, 59, but at least it hasn’t been dull. She has wed a prince, befriended the likes of Andy Warhol, sold millions of her famous dresses, neared bankruptcy, rebounded by selling clothes on TV and returned again with her own luxury line. Now, new generations of women—from Teri Hatcher to Paris Hilton—are discovering her clothes, and she’s opening stores in Paris, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere.

Last week, the industry anointed her the queen of U.S. fashion: the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Almost 10 years after she relaunched her line and 30 years after NEWSWEEK placed her on its cover, Diane is on top again. She recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s A. Christian Jean. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So, has anyone ever written about you and not mentioned the wrap dress?

Diane von Furstenberg: That’s a very good question. Not for a while. Not in a long, long time. I guess at some point it will be written on my tombstone.

You know it was 30 years ago that I was on the cover of NEWSWEEK. It was a very big deal at the time. And at the time they didn’t believe my age [she was only 29]. They went and checked my birth certificate.

The designer graced the cover of NEWSWEEK on March 22, 1976

You were one of the first major designers to make affordable clothing. Why are big names like Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney now designing for H&M?

There’s no question mass consumers have recognized the value of design, and it’s a way for designers to make a little money. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m not doing this anymore. My distribution now is very narrow. I only sell to a very small distribution in the very best stores around the world.

What city do you think is currently the world's fashion capital?

Oh, I don’t know. I think New York is extremely important. I think Paris, of course. I think London. In terms of markets, you have very strong new markets: like Dubai, where they do huge business.

Any thoughts on “getting older?”

I am getting older. The good thing, as far as my work is concerned, is that the older I get, the younger my brand gets. My customers are getting younger and younger as I get older and older. The only two disadvantages are that you have less time ahead of you and that physically you don’t look that good. But everything else is better.

Your line is popular with young people, right?

Yes, it is. And that’s been very, very rewarding to me, actually. When I went back to work [in 1997 after spending several years in Europe on hiatus and then designing for QVC], I didn’t know if it was going to work.

Do you watch “Project Runway” on Bravo?

I have been on it once or twice, so I know what it’s about.

Do you like it?

I think it’s actually a nice show. It’s professionally done. I think Tim Gunn is a pro, and I think all the candidates are pros. It’s for the public, and it gives you a good insight into what you have to do. And for the candidates it gives them exposure. So, yes, I think it’s very good.

Who are your favorite designers?

There are so many. In the past, Yves Saint Laurent was my favorite, when I was growing up. At this point, there’s just so many people who are talented: [John] Galliano, there’s a lot of people.

And the young talent?

Francisco Costa is very good. I think the designer Nathan Jenden, who works with me, is very good.

Now for the “serious” question: Why does fashion matter in such a troubled world?

Fashion is a very mysterious thing, and it is very much a reflection of people. We are living in such a troubled world that fashion seems completely irrelevant. Yet, it’s a huge industry. It provides jobs to a lot of people, and it makes people happy.

But it’s a very, very mysterious thing. Why all of sudden do people like yellow? Why all of a sudden do people wear combat boots? It’s a very interesting way of interpreting your time, your period.

And you’ve gone through your phases too. I read you once wore a lot of fishnets and stilettos.

Yes, I did wear a lot of fishnets, and I still wear stilettos.

What made you go for the job as president of the CFDA? You’re certainly busy enough otherwise.

A while ago, they put me in charge of finding a new president. I really couldn’t sell it to the people who would be good for the job. I ended up thinking, “If I can’t sell it to anybody, then I’ll do it.” If they wanted me, I would do the best to come through. I did not do any lobbying or anything like that. We had a vote [between von Furstenberg and designer Joseph Abboud], and they asked me to come.

What are some of your plans?

I want to make the membership very exciting. It’s all about the members. I want to create a true fraternity and support system for the members. I would like to turn it into a huge, massive great network.

You’ve weathered a lot in your career. Any advice to designers starting out today?

The best advice is to pay attention and to be focused on what you do, to do it with your heart, and to make sure that the product is at the right price. It really is a work in progress, just day after day after day. You don’t sit on it. You can never sit on it. It’s one big dream and lots of little steps.

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