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Diane Von Furstenberg is a fashion icon who made a huge impact on the way women dress today with her signature wrap dress in the 1970’s. In this episode we explore her life from her early days in Belgium and France to her becoming a real-life princess and then taking the fashion world by storm with a style and sense that is all her own.
Meet Brit Morin, the founder and CEO of Brit + Co, a modern lifestyle and education company. Brit brought us the story of princess, fashion designer and businesswoman Diane Von Furstenberg. In this interview she tells us more about the experience of being an entrepreneur and how you can get started on your OWN business adventure.
BRIT MORIN Once upon a time there was a girl who would bring comfort and glamour to women all over the world.
MORIN Her name is Diane…
One day, when Diane was only nine years old, she got on a train from Brussels, Belgium to Paris, France, all by herself. She was young, but Diane wasn’t afraid. She felt grown-up and independent as she sat by the window and watched the countryside whizz by. Other children her age traveled with their parents, but Diane preferred to be alone. That way, it was easier to imagine herself as an elegant, sophisticated grown-up.
Diane’s mother Lily had taught her the importance of independence from the time she was very small. Her mother had survived a terrible war and knew how important it was to be able to depend on yourself.
She passed this along to Diana, who Lily always called her torch of freedom.
MORIN I’m Brit Morin. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy-tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Diane Von Furstenberg.
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MORIN From the time she was a little girl, Diane always knew she was her mother’s torch of freedom. “God saved me so that I could give you life,” her mother always told her.
Her mother was strict, teaching her miracle girl to be independent and self-reliant.
On that train to Paris I told you about, nine-year-old Diane was going to visit her Aunt Mathilde, who owned a luxury clothing boutique that sold beautiful printed scarves and fine, elegant dresses.
At the shop, Diane helped by folding the clothes discarded in the dressing rooms and putting them back. She loved watching a woman enter the boutique, find an item of clothing that made her feel more beautiful, and stride out with new confidence.
She wrote in her diary each night, dreaming of being glamorous and sophisticated too. But even an ambitious dreamer like Diane never imagined where her life would take her…
MORIN One night when Diane was a student at the University of Geneva in Switzerland she was invited to a birthday party. She dressed in an outfit that made her feel confident and elegant, like the women in her aunt’s dress shop all those years before.
She wore flowy pink palazzo pants that swished against her legs with every step, and an embroidered tunic unlike anything the others at the party would be wearing.
At just 18 years old, her sense of style and self-confidence stood out – especially to one of the party guests.
Like Diane, he was a student at the University of Geneva. His name was Prince Egon von Fürstenberg. That’s right…prince. The two hit it off immediately, talking and laughing the night away. Decades later, Diane would remember what she’d worn that night; there was magic in the perfect outfit.
MORIN Prince Egon had a wonderful sense of adventure, and took Diane on a whirlwind trip through the Far East, visiting Thailand, Cambodia, India, and Burma. But when Egon moved to New York for an internship, independent Diane wasn’t about to follow him. She had her own dreams.
MORIN Through Egon’s family, Diane was introduced to Angelo Ferretti, an Italian textile manufacturer. That means, he made fabric. He invited her to come to his factories and learn how his fabrics were made.
One of Angelo’s factories made jersey, that’s the stretchy fabric used to make t-shirts. Back then t-shirts weren’t exactly high fashion but Angelo was creating high quality jersey fabric in beautiful prints to be turned into fashionable clothes.
Diane learned how prints are designed. She took her camera everywhere and snapped close-ups of bark and leaves and stones. Then she’d develop those photographs and blow them up to find the patterns. She’d think about the beautiful fabrics they could make.
MORIN On a trip to visit Egon in New York, Diane became even more immersed in the world of fashion. Her boyfriend was a prince, after all. That meant important designers wanted Diane to wear their clothes when she and Egon went out to parties.
Turns out – that’s pretty fun.
MORIN Diane was having the time of her life and decided she wanted to stay in New York. But she didn’t want Egon to support her. After all, her mother had raised her to be independent. She had to find a way to support herself on her own.
So, Diane returned to Italy, inspired by all she had seen in New York. She started to think about dresses made from Angelo’s soft, comfortable fabric and beautiful prints. Diane wanted to dress women in a new style – something that wasn’t like the casual looks of the hippie era OR the stiff, stuffy dresses that lots of women were still wearing.
She befriended the factory’s patternmaker, Bruna. They used whatever scraps were left around the factory’s sample room and created Diane’s first simple dresses with easy shapes and flattering lines, made of soft, comfortable fabrics with vibrant prints.
When Diane had enough of these sample garments to fill a suitcase, she set sail for New York. Yup – SAIL.
MORIN It was 1969. She could have taken an airplane. But Diane decided she wanted to sail from Europe to New York because she wanted to take her time arriving. Along the way, she visualized her success. How she would bring her new ideas and carve out her own, independent space in New York fashion.
And, Diane wanted to pass the Statue of Liberty as she arrived, like so many other immigrants in pursuit of an American dream.
MORIN This time, Diane wasn’t only in New York to soak up the fashion scene. She was there to break into it. In those days, undiscovered designers took sample garments around to buying offices, which ordered clothes to be sold in department stores and boutiques. The buyers were amused by the young, pregnant princess with the heavy Belgian accent and a suitcase full of dresses made from t-shirt material.
But no one wanted to take the chance on these unusual clothes.
By that time, Diane and Egon had married. Now she was Princess Diane von Furstenberg. But that only made Diane more determined to succeed. She did not want marriage or a royal title to make her reliant on her husband.
Like her mother taught her, Diane would be independent.
Two months after her son, Alexandre, was born, Diane went to the offices of Vogue magazine. There, she met with the legendary editor, Diana Vreeland, a legend in the fashion world, and extremely intimidating. Diana realized right away that these jersey dresses, which looked like nothing on the hangers, needed to be worn. She called two in-house models and had them try on the dresses.
And then she realized…she was looking at a fashion revolution. “How incredibly clever of you and how modern this is!” Ms. Vreeland said. “Terrific, terrific, terrific.”
MORIN One of the fashion editors at Vogue advised Diane on the next steps she should take and Diane followed them exactly. She got a room at the Gotham Hotel during Fashion Week, an important time in New York when everyone in the fashion world comes together to discover new talents and trends. She showed her samples to buyers. She listed herself on the fashion calendar, and she put an ad in Women’s Wear Daily—a photograph of herself in one of her dresses.
At first, Diane was frustrated because everyone was more focused on her being a princess than the clothes. But as more and more buyers stopped by her room in the Gotham Hotel to see her dresses, she realized it didn’t matter. They might come out of curiosity. But they would place orders for her dresses because they knew the dresses would sell.
MORIN Over the next year, orders for Diane’s simple, printed shirtdresses snowballed. Soon she was flying back and forth to Italy once a month to produce dresses in Angelo’s factory. It was exhausting, especially because Diane had two very young children at home; she had a second baby only a year after her first.
And then…in 1974, Diane introduced the wrap dress.
It had no buttons or zippers. It closed with a simple tie at the waist. The very first prints were snakeskin and leopard. It was a sensation. Affordable, comfortable, appropriate for the office or for a night out at parties. Soon women all across the country were wearing the wrap dress.
For Diane it was like a whirlwind. At only twenty-nine years old she was on the cover of a major news magazines. Millions of wrap dresses were flying out of stores.
But how long could this last? By this time, everyone who wanted a wrap dress had at least one in their closet. How many more would they buy?
MORIN As it happens – not many. The company had produced far more wrap dresses than stores could sell. Not because the dress wasn’t still fashionable, but because everyone already had at least a couple in their closet.
Diane was left with tons of dresses and no one to take them off her hands. But Diane’s mother had taught her that when one door closes, another will open. So she unloaded the company and put her energy into other ventures. She started a makeup line and expanded her fragrance line. She began to write her first book, and work on a collection of home furnishings.
She even bought a shop in New York and called it Diane. She created ball gowns and high-end looks. But it was the 1980’s and fashion had changed. Diane didn’t like the new trends, or what New York City had become.
She moved back to Paris – where her love of fashion had begun, and started a publishing company. Later, she came back to America, where she designed and sold a successful line of dresses through a television channel.
But, everything old is new again.
MORIN In the mid-1990’s, Diane started to notice that her stylish college-age daughter and her friends were scouring thrift stores for HER wrap dresses. The fashion trends had changed again and the simple, clean lines that Diane made famous in the 1970’s were back.
And so, it was time to bring back the wrap dress.
That one little dress had taught Diane everything she knew about business, fashion, women, life, and confidence. Now she would make them for a new generation of women.
MORIN In 1970, Diane wore the very first wrap dress in an advertisement she placed in Women’s Wear Daily. Almost forty years later, first lady Michelle Obama wore the re-released wrap dress on the official White House Christmas Card.
Diane hadn’t always known what she wanted to do with her life. But she had always known what kind of woman she wanted to be. Independent, self-reliant, free; honoring the mother who survived war to give her life.
With one little dress—and a lifetime of creative risk-taking—Diane von Furstenberg has done just that.
Today’s episode was hosted by Brit Morin. Brit is a podcaster, an author, and the founder and CEO of the lifestyle brand, Brit and Co.
This podcast is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media.
Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Victoria Gruenberg, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Joy McCulllough and edited by Katie Sprenger. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music and sound design by Elettra Bargiacchi and final mix by Mattia Marcelli.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!