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Wielding the Torch

Diane von Furstenberg and the Evolution of Feminism

By Jordan Staggs

“The minute I knew I was about to be Egon’s wife, I decided to have a career. I wanted to be someone of my own, and not just a plain little girl who got married beyond her deserts.” This is what internationally known fashion designer, author, and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg told the New York Times in February of 1977 when discussing her former marriage to Prince Egon von Furstenberg of Germany and the title and privileges that came along with their 1969 union.

True to her heart and her word, the newly minted princess invested $30,000 in her eponymous fashion and beauty line; the brand’s worth grew to over $100 million in the first decade and has grown exponentially since.

Despite being a princess by marriage and more than financially secure, von Furstenberg bucked the norm when she started her business and continued to do so in more ways than that. In the beginning, she preached the importance of women using their power—looks and style included—to achieve their goals. Though the idea might seem a bit taboo today, she insisted that even intelligent and driven women should consider the importance of looking the part for any situation. Her beloved wrap dress design now has a permanent place in the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I design for the woman who loves being a woman,” von Furstenberg says, but far from being limited to fashion tips, she has gone several steps further to help lift women up in spirit, style, and power, often through disrupting social and political norms. She said at the 2017 Women in the World New York Summit, "I’ve been disrupting for a long time. I became who I wanted to be through a little dress, and through that same little dress, I made a lot of women feel good about who they are; so my legacy is to tell women they can be the woman they want to be."

She and her husband, Barry Diller, formed the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation to aid nonprofit organizations in everything from creating safe and healthy communities to supporting the arts, education, the environment, human rights, and more. Through the foundation, von Furstenberg also established the annual DVF Awards in 2010; the awards honor five women each year who have committed themselves to furthering women’s causes. The 2019 honorees were Nadia Murad, Hadeel Mustafa Anabtawi, Susan Burton, Katy Perry, and Anita Faye Hill.

The DVF Awards is an affiliate of Vital Voices, a global partnership whose mission is to improve the world through supporting and investing in women leaders from all industries and walks of life.

“I was born with a torch of freedom in my hand, and that is very heavy to carry. I have honored my mother because I fight for freedom and I fight for the people who want freedom, because freedom is everything.”

When speaking about her drive to support her fellow women across the globe, von Furstenberg credits her mother, Liliane Nahmias, a survivor of the Holocaust who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz just a year and a half before her daughter was born. Von Furstenberg says her mother called her daughter “her torch of freedom” because she gave her new life after the horrors she endured during that time. “I was born with a torch of freedom in my hand, and that is very heavy to carry,” von Furstenberg says. “I have honored my mother because I fight for freedom and I fight for the people who want freedom, because freedom is everything.”

And, of course, she fights with an impeccable sense of style and an irreverence that could only belong to a self-proclaimed disrupter. She encourages having fun, living life to the very fullest, dismantling the patriarchy, and being whomever and whatever you want to be. “Women are so strong. Women are so wonderful. Women are so powerful. Why the f**k are you insecure?” she asked at Women in the World, quickly admitting, “I’m insecure, too.”

The designer commissioned fellow disrupter Ashley Longshore, a New Orleans–based pop artist, to create a series of thirty-seven original paintings to debut at the DVF flagship store in New York City on March 8, 2019—International Women’s Day. Each painting depicted a powerful “woman in charge” in all her colorful, whimsically unique beauty. Several of them, including Gloria Steinem and Michelle Obama, were painted wearing DVF heritage prints and styles.

“I was immediately impressed by Ashley’s contagious enthusiasm and vibrant talent,” said von Furstenberg of the idea. “I knew she was a ‘woman in charge,’ and I felt she would be perfect to curate our next inspiration room, especially with International Women’s Month approaching. The collaboration felt seamless.”

Longshore describes being commissioned by von Furstenberg as “a dream.” She says, “Diane has an incredible legacy that she built for herself, not only as a brilliant fashion designer and entrepreneur but also as the godmother to the Statue of Liberty, raising $100 million for that incredible museum on Liberty Island, and the ongoing efforts she makes to connect amazing women with each other, to wake up in the morning and to try to do something for somebody that they may not be able to do for themselves.” The artist, who is known for painting (often irreverent) portraits of powerful women and men, says she learned a lot while creating pieces for the DVF installation. “I think the greatest lesson was not about the accomplishments these women have made, but rather how they dealt with adversity in their lives—and all of them have faced huge amounts of adversity in one way or another. That, to me, is the connectivity. It isn’t all about perfection, money, being thin, or having the right clothes; it’s about what you do when everything goes to hell in a handbasket and how you pick yourself up, give yourself a pep talk, and continue to stand up for yourself when nobody else believes in what you’re doing. I think that’s where the magic is.”

“That is very much what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, is to use my voice and to capture the voices of other women to weave into a fabric of strength, compassion, and impact to make this world a better one.”

Pieces of the collection are still on display and available for purchase at the DVF flagship store. And stay tuned, because Longshore says her partnership with von Furstenberg isn’t over yet.

At age seventy-two, what is the secret to von Furstenberg’s seemingly endless supply of energy and her passion for propelling “the feminist agenda”? She is a vocal advocate for designing your own life, as professed in her September 2019 speaking engagement at TEDxVeniceBeach. Again citing the wisdom of her mother, von Furstenberg gives two lessons she learned as a young girl: “Fear is not an option,” and “No matter what, you can never be a victim.” This advice comes not from a position of shame but from a reminder of something she realized when looking in a mirror: “I have control over myself, and it’s probably been the most useful thing I have ever had.” Throughout her whole life, she says, she’s not worried about aging or things changing, because she gets to go through it with herself.

DVF, Diane von Furstenberg
Photo by Ovidiu Hrubaru / Shutterstock

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” has become von Furstenberg’s mantra, and it is echoed loudly in her mission to empower women of all ages and with all types of dreams for their futures. The new voices of feminism seem to agree, drawing on the leadership and wisdom from independent foremothers such as von Furstenberg. She says, “That is very much what I want to spend the rest of my life doing, is to use my voice and to capture the voices of other women to weave into a fabric of strength, compassion, and impact to make this world a better one.”

Be yourself, love who you are, and design your life to reflect the woman you want to be.

— V —

Visit DVF.com to learn more.

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