If you've never had the pleasure of meeting the beloved fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, let me tell you what it's like: First, she envelops you in a hug. Then, her intense gaze fixed on you, she offers you a cup of potent ginger tea. She wants to know where you found those gorgeous earrings, that lovely top, those fantastic shoes. Why? Because she's genuinely curious, fascinated by everyone she encounters. To meet Diane—or DVF, as many people call her—is to be, just for a moment, the center of the universe.

Recently, when I visited her at her sunlit, sweeping and utterly eclectic Manhattan studio—with its Warhol portraits, framed snapshots from all over the world, and, of course, stunning array of graphically patterned dresses—I was reminded of the incredible life she's led. Born Diane Halfin to a woman who had survived the Holocaust, DVF was raised in Belgium, married a European prince (hence the von Furstenberg), launched a powerhouse fashion line before age 30, and went on to steer that business through good times and bad. Now her greatest creative achievement—the body-skimming, universally flattering wrap dress that secured her place in fashion history—is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and DVF, 67, is commemorating the milestone with the publication of her candid new memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be. In it she recounts the extraordinary life she's lived—and looks forward to the thrills, joys and lessons to come.

OPRAH: So it's 40 years since that dress. Forty years. I went to your Journey of a Dress exhibition [in Los Angeles' historic May Company building] and was in awe of the magnitude of that one dress. You say in your book that it made your career. Where did it come from?

DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: It's so strange: This little dress paid all my bills, paid for my children's education, made me famous, gave me a voice—I mean that little dress did everything for me—but for the longest time I took it for granted. I never honored it. When people said, "Diane von Furstenberg, the wrap dress!" I'd say, "But I do other things, too." It was only last year, as I prepared the exhibit, that I realized how important it was.

OW: Many times when you're in the middle of something...

DVF: ...You can't see it. So you asked how it happened. First it was a little wrap top with a skirt, and then somehow—I don't remember, the way you often don't remember the most meaningful things in life—I decided to put the two together.

OW: And Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Vogue, fell in love with it. How did you get yourself into her good graces?

DVF: My first husband organized the Diana Vreeland meeting shortly after I arrived in America—and I arrived here privileged; I arrived as a princess. I had married this good-looking prince. That opens a lot of doors. But even so, before Diana Vreeland, no one I showed my clothes to was interested.

OW: Didn't she say "Terrific, terrific"?

DVF: She tried it on two girls, said "Terrific, terrific, terrific," and then, poof, I was out of her office. I said to another editor, "Well, what do I do next?" And she said, "Take out a little announcement about the dress in Women's Wear Daily." I said, "Can I use your desk?" And I did it right there.

OW: And it was a phenomenon.

DVF: Yes. I started working in '72, and in '76, only four years later, I was selling 25,000 dresses a week, and I was on the cover of Newsweek and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. I was 29.

OW: Wow.

DVF: It went very fast.

OW: I remember waking up on my 28th birthday, thinking life was over because I'd been this prodigy, the first this and that, the first black woman to anchor this, and I thought there were no more firsts. How did you feel at 28? Did you feel accomplished?

DVF: I was proud that I paid my own bills. I had two children. It was also a hard time, though, because I was separated.


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