Diane von Furstenberg on fashion, origins and financing the new Statue of Liberty Museum
If any designer is surely worthy of a biopic it has to be Diane von Furstenberg. A beautiful multi-career change designer and entrepreneur, who met and married a European blue-blood prince at 18; invented the wrap dress; made herself New York’s greatest ‘It’ girl of the 1970s and founded a fashion empire.
In between she managed to find time to raise two children Alexander and Tatiana, be painted by Andy Warhol and photographed on the cover of Newsweek (the magazine’s story said she was “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel”); open a publishing house in Paris; practically invent TV shopping and make it a socially acceptable phenomena on QVC; and be president for over a decade of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the industry’s governing body in the USA. She is about to hand over her position at the CFDA to Tom Ford.
However, this Belgian-born symbol of American freedom and opportunity is already about to celebrate her latest mega project, engineering the creation of a museum for the United States’ greatest monument, the colossal Statue of Liberty.
This Wednesday, May 15, DVF, as many people call her, will inaugurate the opening of the 26,000 square-foot Statue of Liberty Museum. As chairman of the museum fundraising campaign, she convinced her old friend French-American artist Anh Duong to create a Liberty Star Mural, which features 50 sculpted stars including the Founders Star, each of which have an underwriting of $2 million. The museum will also house the statue’s original torch, and will have a green roofscape with native island vegetation and bird-safe glass exteriors. It is set above 500-year flood levels and built to withstand hurricane-force winds on Liberty Island.
Von Furstenberg, who was born 18 months after WW2, first came to New York in 1970. During WW2, her petite yet incredibly brave mother Liliane Nahmias was taken away to Auschwitz at the age of 22, not because she was Jewish but because she was in the resistance. Remarkably, she managed to survive and return home emaciated to Brussels, with two lines of blue tattooed on her left arm, as von Furstenberg recounts in her candid and best-selling 2014 autobiography The Woman I Wanted To Be.
This spring in Paris, testifying to von Furstenberg’s status, the US embassy threw a diplomatic cocktail to honour her. Anna Wintour, Livia Firth, Natalia Vodianova, Antoine Arnault, Karlie Kloss, Danièle Thompson and Christian Louboutin all showed up. The event was delayed briefly as, under intense security, three armour-plated Escalades suddenly swung into the embassy garden with the US Secretary of Treasury, Steven Mnuchin no less, and ambassador Jamie D. McCourt.
So, the day after she spoke at the American embassy in Paris, we caught up with von Furstenberg for a personal tour of her new boutique and a chat with American fashion’s most iconic lady on fashion, fame, fortune and finding the financing to revive the Statue of Liberty.
Diane von Furstenberg:
I’m Lady Liberty; the statue’s godmother. It’s been an adventure that started three or four years ago. When Stephen Briganti (president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Foundation) came to see me. I actually had met him, very funnily, because of Belgium. I came to America back in 1970, and in 1986 when the Statue of Liberty was restored, Mayor (Edward) Koch picked 87 people who had come from abroad and had to live in the city. People like (Mikhail) Baryshnikov and Milos Forman; and I was chosen for Belgium. But the point is that that was when the Belgians, who knew nothing about me, noticed me. And then I went to Belgium and they were doing a museum on the Red Star Line the boats that used to bring people into America from Antwerp, people like Einstein. They asked me to help them a little with this museum. And at the opening of that museum, I met the man that was there today. And he introduced himself: “I’m Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation,” when giving me the Ellis Island Prize, which was very moving. And he kept saying, “Can you come on the board of this museum?” And I said that if I go on one more board my husband will divorce me. And then I started to read – about Lady Liberty and (Frédéric Aguste) Bartholdi (the architect), (Édouard René) de Laboulaye (conceiver) and Victor Hugo. And I thought, “Oh….?”
And then he read my book, and how my mother wrote to me: “God saved me, so I could give you life, and by giving you life you gave me my life back to me, so you are my torch of freedom.” So Stephen came to me and he said, “Your mother said you were her torch of freedom, so you have to come on our board for the Statue of Liberty.” And that’s how he got me.
But then I realized that their big goal for me was raising money. And I am not good at raising money at all. But we came up with this wonderful idea of creating a mural in front of the museum. The armature was done by Eiffel. Because when Bartholdi built it in 1871 he thought it would be held up by sand bags. Can you imagine?
She doth protest too much. DVF is notably philanthropic. She and her second husband Barry Diller have together donated $20 million to complete the High Line project close to her headquarters in the Meatpacking District.
FashionNetwork.com: So inside the original statue there is steel, right?
DVF: Not steel – copper! Hand done by Eiffel, this guy was a genius, a genius. He invented the rivet, and there are 300,000 inside, and then the wrought iron lattice ‘X’ and that’s why all the American bridges could be built. The money for the stature was raised by the people of Paris, in Montmartre. People would walk by and see it growing up, gradually. In order to raise money, they made baby statues for people to buy, made by Atelier Gaget, Gauthier et Cie. which is where the word ‘gadget’ comes from. So then they built this thing, and the government paid for the trip after they dismantled it and put it into 600 boxes. And then it got to America and nobody wanted to install it. New Yorkers said, if the French wanted to build this let them build the pedestal! So, Joseph Pulitzer, with his newspaper The Nation, said he would print the name of every person, no matter how much they gave. And that’s how they raised the money! To me, those names on the front of his newspaper were the first crowd-sourcing.
The new museum was designed by Ed Slosberg, who is married to Caroline Kennedy.
DVF: I also did a documentary which will come out on the Fourth of July, and hopefully will be accepted in Cannes. It is called Liberty: Mother of Exiles. Plus, I packaged a book with Rizzoli and this French historian Robert Doisneau in three months – on the story of the statue, Monumental Dream. And I did all by my little self. The Statue of Liberty belongs to everyone. It’s such a nice symbol. Consider the amount of immigrants who passed by her, even the ambassadress’ family. I got her the certificate of her family. I did the same thing with Lady Gaga, her grandparents, who came by the way from Sicily and Naples in 1902. As I want her come and sing for the opening.
FNW: Why the event in Paris?
DVF: I opened this boutique and I thought we should celebrate and I called the ambassador saying it would be nice to announce the opening of the museum.
FNW: Did you expect Steven Mnuchin? Guests speculated that it might be Trump on the way back from Singapore? It felt like a gathering of Republicans?
DVF: No, Steven Mnuchin and the ambassadress were meeting with Christine Lagarde in the Elysée. I am totally liberal. Lady Liberty will last over him (Trump), which is why we have to promote it.
When Trump signed an executive order barring all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely, New York Senator Chuck Schumer wrote on his twitter account: “There are tears running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight.”
DVF: Things are really bad now. Outrageous, much worse than we expected. By the way, this is why the people of France did this for Americans. The French intellectuals were very disappointed with France, as they had the revolution and then the empire. But on our side, they saw the abolition of slavery and the end of the civil war and the making of our constitution. And they admired that.
FNW: Why did you open a new boutique here?
DVF: I just moved back to this neighbourhood, I hated (her former store on) rue François 1er. So, this is supposed to be a dressing room. Like a vestiaire.
FNW: You have changed your creative directors several times in recent years Yvan Mispelaere, Jonathan Saunders and now Nathan Jenden. Why?
DVF: You know Jonathan Saunders – originally I asked him to come and help us with prints and he said, “You know what? I could do the whole thing,” and I had a lot of respect for him and I said okay. But the truth was that at the end he wanted to be cool, but this is a brand that isn’t about being cool, but about giving women uniforms for their lives. My fashion is easy and effortless. Now, I have a great CEO (Sandra Campos), a beautiful woman, and now I have a brand director and she has great women under her. And I realized that it has to be women, just women.
FNW: You didn’t stage a runway show last season, why?
DVF: I didn’t do anything – I just showed in private, one-to-one. With everything that happens now with influencers, you cannot really show six months in advance. If you do everyone has copied what you created. When I was running the CFDA as president, I would tell young designers, be careful, as when you stage a show you spend all of your marketing money, and if you really have something great they will have copied it all before you come out with your clothes. It is very tricky to know what fashion week should become. Everything today is about now. You don’t even read a newspaper because you get the headlines on your phone.
FNW: What sort of year are you having?
DVF: The company is still independent. We reduced it a little, but I have 35 stores in China. And I love the idea (that) I have a beautiful CEO, Sandra Campos. We want to really focus on who we are. She came from California, of Texan background, but is really a Mexican. Moi, j’adore that everyone is an immigrant, and everyone is a woman. But it is so hard, as you can lose yourself and you forget who you are!
FNW: See-now-buy-now was meant to be fashion’s next big thing, but it didn’t really work, did it?
DVF: Well, a lot of people do it but don’t admit it. Even the big houses do.
FNW: Don’t you think the future is lots and lots of drops?
DVF: What does the drop mean? You have it when you need it. It is just a matter of planning it. What makes a difference is if you have your own stores you can do that. Before Jonathan, I had someone who tried to go very mass, with the Michael Kors route, but I didn’t want to that. But now I have my granddaughter starting – Alex’s daughter, Talita. She is studying at Georgetown, but now she will have a little drop of her own in April. She is on the cover with me in Town & Country.
FNW: How do you see the future of magazines, seeing you have made the cover of so many?
DVF: Dead! Who reads a magazine anymore? The whole world is changing – so you have got to change.
FNW: So, is this Anna Wintour’s last year?
DVF: I don’t know about that!
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