Special to USA TODAY
Published 10:32 AM EDT Oct 11, 2018
Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
A household name around the world, Diane von Furstenberg is an icon. The designer of the famous wrap dress and leader of a powerhouse brand, von Furstenberg spends her time these days cementing her legacy with her brand and through charity work.
“One of the things that I tease is that I became an icon, and now I am in the age of becoming an oracle,” she says. “So now it’s time for me to share my experiences and all of the things that I have learned.”
USA TODAY caught up with the fashion designer, author and philanthropist to talk about everything from forgetting her passport and the anniversary of the famous wrap dress to charity work and the importance of trusting that you know yourself best.
Question: What is the last book you read?
Diane Furstenberg: I just finished a French book on the Statue of Liberty that talks about the woman that apparently was used to pose for the statue.
Q: Who’s been your biggest mentor?
Furstenberg: One was the Italian manufacturer I used to work for when I first started and taught me everything about printing and textiles and everything else. Then, there was Diana Vreeland (a noted fashion columnist and editor for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaarand Vogue), who was the first person who actually paid attention to the new dresses that I made. She gave me the confidence and put it in the magazine in a big way and put me on the map.
Q: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
Furstenberg: At age 28, when I was on the cover of Newsweek. I went to Canada for personal reasons, and I forgot my passport because I forgot Canada was a different country. I had no passport and I showed them the cover, and they let me go – which was clearly a different time.
Q: What does your career path look like?
Furstenberg: My career’s been a long journey and also like a roller coaster because I started really fast with a huge American dream at the age of 22. By age 27 I was making 25,000 dresses a week, so I had a huge, huge, huge, fast, fast start. All of this was happening, all of this saturation – I wasn’t equipped for it. Then, I had to license my fashion business, and then I started the cosmetic business. Within five years I turned that into something big. And then I sold everything because I was very good at creative things, but then I sold everything and I thought I was finished. I moved to Paris for a while and I had a publishing house, and then I came back and I felt like a loser. I thought I had lost my identity, and then I discovered (TV shopping channel) QVC. I went from being a “has-been” to a pioneer in a matter of months, and I started my regular business again and then I had another success. Four years ago, I celebrated the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress, and now I’m embarking into the legacy phase of my life. I finally have a great CEO, and I’m giving them all of my knowledge and this and that, and I really want to focus personally on empowering women and philanthropy.
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Q: How does your passion for philanthropy fit into your career path?
Furstenberg: Nine and a half years ago, I started DVF Awards with the help of my family foundation, the Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation. We give exposure, money, support and mentoring to these extraordinary women who have the strength to fight, the courage to survive and the leadership to inspire. That has been really amazing, but it’s not just that. I’m on the board of Vital Voices, and empowering women is my mission. I will do more and more of that.
For years, they wanted me on the board that manages the Statue of Liberty, and I really didn’t want to go on another board. I never really paid that much attention to what the Statue of Liberty was. I thought, like a lot of people, that it’s a big statue that welcomes people to New York. Then they gave me a book, and I started to read that, and I thought the story was fascinating. Stephen Briganti, the president of this foundation, came to me saying he had read my book and, in my book, I talk about my mother. My mother was a survivor of the Holocaust (at age 22 she was a prisoner in Auschwitz). She always told me, “God saved me so that I could give you life. By giving me life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom.”
So, he said, “you can not (turn down a board seat) if your mother called you the torch of freedom.” So, that made me go in. Then, of course, I got on the board, and my big role was to raise money for building the museum of the Statue of Liberty that will be on Liberty Island – it will open in May 2019. I helped raise about $85-$90 million, and the museum is almost finished. The more I got involved. I sold the idea of making a documentary on the Statue of Liberty for HBO, which will also come out next year. The more I dug into it the more fascinated I was. I realized that what was incredible about the Statue of Liberty is that it was given by the people of France. It’s the people of France who collected the money to give it to America, and then it came here. What is magical of the Statue of Liberty is that she represents the freedom, and therefore it’s like the sun – everybody appropriates her, and she means something else for everyone.
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Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Furstenberg: I don’t know about a typical day – There is no typical day, because I move so much. I live in the country, and then I come to the city and then I travel so much. Let’s say that I now am at the autumn of my life, and therefore it’s about focusing always on the things that I leave behind. So, I am giving out the best that I can both to the company and (elsewhere), so my typical day is trying to find the clarity to find all of the things I need to do to leave my legacy and to have the company live on and have a relationship with my children and my grandchildren. (Also), all of the projects I have – I’m on the board of the Statue of Liberty, I’m on the board of The Shed, which will also open next year, I’m on the board of the Film Academy museum in Los Angeles, which will also open next year. So there’s a lot of projects and a lot of things.
Q: What has been your biggest career high and your biggest career low?
Low: I have had many lows, but the truth is that lows are as important and as instructive as the highs, because once you are low you see what is wrong, and you change things and don’t even realize that it all happened because something bad happened.
High: Your biggest satisfactions sometimes are so personal that they don’t mean anything to anyone else. Also, you shouldn’t spend too much time on the high. Obviously, at the beginning my highs were at a young age, I saw everybody wearing my clothes in the streets. But, highs can be so many things, and sometimes highs don’t seem to be that high – but to you, they mean a lot.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Furstenberg: Very often, the world thinks you are all the way high, and you yourself know that you’re not, because you’re having some issues. And sometimes people think you are at your lowest and you also know that it isn’t true, because you’re already on the way up.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Furstenberg: I don’t know what it means to follow in my footsteps. The most important advice I would give anyone about the career is to be true to yourself, to be hard on yourself and not to be delusional.