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.
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.
DVF: Egon [Eduard Egon Prinz zu Fürstenberg] and I met at university, and soon after he surprised me with a ring, and we got engaged. That night I got pregnant. I found myself engaged to the best catch in Europe. I was embarrassed about that—I didn't want people to think I got pregnant on purpose. My mother lived in Geneva, and I went to see a doctor there to terminate my pregnancy. I told my mother, and she said, "Are you crazy? You can't do it without telling him." I thought that was fair. So I sent him a telegram, which was in code, because how do you tell that in a telegram? The name we had for my period was Sophie, so I said, "Sophie's late, but don't worry, I can take care of it." And he sent me a telegram in return.
OW: Which you have to this day.
DVF: I do. It said, "Arrange wedding for July 15." And we got married and came to New York. He came by plane, but I took the boat. I wanted to come slowly. I wanted to think about my life and my future.
OW: You purposefully came by boat!
DVF: I was so seasick, and I also had morning sickness, so I didn't really enjoy it!
OW: But you arrived. And what was that time like?
DVF: We were very much the It couple.
OW: Was the life of a princess everything you had imagined?
DVF: I never had time to imagine. Soon there was a scandalous story about us in a magazine, and on the cover was a beautiful picture of the two of us and our apartment, and it said, "The couple that has everything—but is everything enough?" I read this article and saw the pictures—I looked at us, and I didn't like what I saw. I thought, I can't take responsibility for us as a couple. I can only take responsibility for me. I felt then that we would have to separate.
OW: You knew that.
OW: Did you know that because of the way you were raised? Throughout your book you talk about what a major influence your mother was—how she made you strong. How did her life define yours?
DVF: She lost her freedom. She was in captivity for 13 months, in Auschwitz and then Neustadt-Glewe. When she came back, she weighed 59 pounds. It's a miracle she survived, a miracle I was born. I am the fruit of what my mother lived. She made me so strong. She made me independent. She taught me that fear was not an option. If I was afraid of the dark, she would lock me in the closet until I realized that there was no reason to be afraid. And the other lesson she taught me is never, ever, ever think of yourself as a victim. No matter what.
OW: Says the mother who survived Auschwitz.
DVF: Yes. After she died, a cousin of mine gave me a whole bunch of family pictures, and among them was an envelope that said "Lily 1944." Lily was my mother. Inside were two little notes she had written on the truck after she was arrested. She threw them in the street, hoping somebody would deliver them to her parents. And someone did, and there they were in my hands. She said, please take care of yourselves, because when I come back I want a beautiful wedding and I want you to be there and I want you to be in good health. And she said, I don't know where I'm going, but I want you to know I'm leaving with a smile.
DVF: That's who my mother was.
OW: She taught you to be strong, but in the book you describe a time when you were not strong—you were in a relationship that silenced you. I think his name was Alain. You lost your voice with him.
DVF: I did. He was an artist, and I thought I would be his muse. It was fine for a while. We had a great time, but I gave up my identity, my work. When he met me, I had my big apartment and leopard rugs and sexy shoes, and he loved that—that's who he fell in love with. But then he tried to change me into something smaller, quieter, and I let him, and by the time I was finished changing, he didn't want me anymore.
OW: During that time, how did not having your voice manifest in your life? Everybody wore your wrap dress, including me back in 1974. They were affordable—
OW: But then it went away.
DVF: We had saturated the market. I sold the company, which was reduced to practically nothing. Those were the years I lost my voice. And when I lost my voice, I got cancer of the tongue. That was 20 years ago.
OW: Wow. That's amazing.
DVF: But then 15 years ago, I started to see that young, hip girls were buying my wrap dresses in vintage shops. That's when I started again. A completely different generation was buying the dress.
OW: I bet it was like a musician hearing his songs after years and years. And now the dress is back again in full force.
DVF: The exhibit shows a photograph of Mrs. Obama, who wore the dress for her first Christmas card as first lady. I didn't know—it was Annie Leibovitz who told me. So I called the White House, and I said, "May I have a Christmas card?" And they sent it to me.
OW: And then American Hustle.
DVF: Yes, American Hustle. The wrap dress was practically a character in the movie.
DVF: You never really feel the success; you always feel the things that are going wrong. So many mornings I wake up and I feel like a loser, and I ask other people who are successful, "Do you ever feel like a loser?" and they say yeah. What is different now is that I am in the autumn of my life—if I'm lucky. I'm in maybe the end of the September, the October of my life. I have children; I have grandchildren; I've had a full life, a full past.
OW: I was struck by the story you tell in the book, about your granddaughter and mother.
DVF: The energy.
OW: Tell me what was going on.
DVF: It was near the end of my mother's life, and she was very sick. She was sitting in a chair, and my son, Alexandre, brought his little girl for Mother's Day. He had three bouquets of flowers: one was for my mother, one was for me, and he was bringing one to his wife at home. We were sitting there, and my granddaughter got out of the stroller and was crawling, and she attached herself to a chair and she stood up. She took her first steps! And my mother was looking at her, and she was looking at my mother, and there was this moment when I saw something come out of my mother and go into her. It was my mother's energy—she gave it to her.
OW: Like a white light—a spark.
DVF: Yes. I saw it. I believe very much in energy. So much. I became more spiritual after having cancer.
OW: What did that experience teach you about yourself?
DVF: I learned both my fragility and my strength.
OW: What keeps you inspired?
DVF: Love. Life. Nature. I love the beauty of nature. I love to hike.
OW: You are a great hiker! You are always in the lead. The way to hike with you is to not try to keep up. Anyway—what helps to keep your point of view fresh?
DVF: I surround myself with young people. I don't feel my age. I mean, I know I am my age, and I don't try to hide it. But I have a lot of energy, and I'm curious about the world. And in any situation in life, I always say, "Well, how can I help?"
OW: You've been such an amazing example of aging gracefully.
DVF: I'd always wanted to be older than my age. I didn't like being a child because I couldn't decide things for myself. I couldn't wait to grow up. If somebody told me I looked fresh, I would take that as an offense, because I wanted to look like I had lived, with wrinkles. I thought that was glamorous. Then you stop being fresh, and realize you actually liked being fresh....
OW: Exactly. I look at pictures of myself years ago, and I think, Why didn't I appreciate that when I had it?
DVF: If you don't like how you look in a picture, wait ten years. You'll love it.
OW: In the book you say you never thought of yourself as beautiful, but you knew you were seductive.
DVF: I didn't, and thank God. I don't think it's nice to think you're beautiful. You end up counting too much on it. I had to count on my personality. And my legs.
OW: You know how to work those legs.
DVF: I have a funny story about my legs. Once, [fashion designer and film director] Tom Ford was having dinner with Colin Firth and his wife, and she had just met me and was telling Tom about our meeting. Then he said, "I met Diane many years ago when I sat next to her on a plane, and she was the only person I'd ever seen who could curl her legs around each other twice." And he tried to imitate me and threw his back out right there in the restaurant.
OW: I was going to say, did he twist himself and fall over?
DVF: He got stuck!
OW: You always knew that there was a woman you wanted to be. Who was she?
DVF: The woman I design for, who's independent, beautiful, in charge of her life.
OW: And are you still that woman?
DVF: Oh, I'm too old to be that woman—but she is still inside me. The great thing I've discovered about aging is that it means you have a past. If you've lived your past well and are happy with it, you have lived fully.
OW: Why did it take Barry [Diller, von Furstenberg's husband of 13 years] so long to convince you to marry him? You turned him down several times.
DVF: One day early on, we were driving in New York. He stopped the car because there was an old couple crossing the street—very old, like in their late 80s. The man was protecting his wife as they walked. And we both thought the same thing: that we wanted to be that couple someday. We said it to each other right then. The only thing we disagree on is that he thinks it happened on Madison Avenue and I know it was Lexington. But we've mentioned that moment many times. And over the years we were together and not together, but even when I was with other men, Barry was always there. And gradually, we spent more time together. One year I didn't know what to give him for his birthday, and I called him and said, "You know, if you want, for your birthday I'll marry you."
OW: And he said?
DVF: "Let me see if I can arrange it."
OW: My favorite words.
DVF: It's what he always says, and he always arranges it. A week later we married at city hall, and he gave me—this is so Barry—he gave me 26 wedding rings, for the 26 years we had not been married.
OW: He allows you to be you. All your DVF-ness—he welcomes it and embraces it.
DVF: He wants me to be happy.
OW: Well, you can't ask for more than that. What are you proudest of?
DVF: My children. And the great relationship I have with me. That is my biggest source of pleasure. I trust myself, I respect myself, I know I am a good girl, I know I can rely on myself. I like my own company. I'm funny. I talk to myself and have a good time.
OW: You know, I've asked that question of thousands of people, and no one has ever answered that way. I love that.