Diane von Furstenberg's new memoir is called
, which is brilliant, because who The Woman I Wanted To Be wouldn't want to be Diane von Furstenberg? She launched her own successful business when she was only in her 20s — and, in 1974, helped usher in women's lib and sexual freedom with her figure-clinging jersey wrap dress. Though she lost her business in her 30s, she launched a massive comeback in her 50s. And, she continues to innovate and inspire in her 60s — collaborating with Google Glass, heading the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and mentoring young fashion hopefuls in her new reality TV series on E!, . Even Kate Moss, according to von Furstenberg's book, once admitted to the designer, "I want to be you when I grow up." (Us too, Kate. Us, too.)
House of DVF
So, what makes von Furstenberg tick? We took a tour of her jaw-droppingly gorgeous personal workspace in New York's Meatpacking District and asked her about her beginnings, inspirations, career advice, and how she manages running one of the biggest independent fashion brands in the world. Get the story ahead, and see more of DVF and her office on
House of DVF, Sundays at 10 p.m. EST.
For Diane von Furstenberg's current live-and-work space, architecture firm Work AC reconverted two historic brick townhouses in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, adding a diamond skylight that cuts diagonally through the building. Photographed by David Cortes.
You moved into your new offices in 2008, but you've actually lived and worked in Manhattan's Meatpacking District for almost 20 years — first in a carriage house on West 12th Street and now in a new space a few blocks north, on Washington Street. What do you love about the area?
"I remember when I first moved my office here, my son thought I was crazy, but it has everything that is great about New York: the energy, the grit. I have loved watching it evolve. The High Line has made an incredible impact and is like a magical park in the sky. It is so close to all of the galleries, so there is incredible art…and with the Whitney coming soon, it is really an incredible place to live and work."
Von Furstenberg's vibrant pink and leopard-print office shows her love of pattern and color. The portrait on the back wall was painted by Zhang Huan in 2011. Photographed by David Cortes.
Your office is so iconic: It perfectly encapsulates the DVF attitude. How do you go about creating that environment?
"My office is filled with things I love: beautiful photos of people I love, beautiful things I have collected from all over the world, beautiful art my friends have created. If you surround yourself with things you love and that reflect who you are, then everything will make sense." What is your most cherished item in your office?
"My desk. It was a gift from my father."
Von Furstenberg's office is filled with her friends' artwork, including "Sunshine of the Heart," which is hanging on the wall, painted by Anh Duong in 2011. Photographed by David Cortes.
What is your work style like?
"Creative…but as much as I love to imagine, I love to make things happen." That's an understatement — in addition to running a business and putting out multiple collections a year, you recently published a memoir. We love the title: The Woman I Wanted to Be. What kind of woman did you want to be as a young girl?
"I knew that I wanted to be independent. I wanted to be the kind of woman who could pay her own bills and make things happen on her own terms. Even when I was first married — to a prince, nonetheless — I was determined to have a career of my own and to have my own identity. That decision was very important, and it led to my becoming that woman earlier than I expected. We moved to America, and I sold my dresses and invented the wrap dress — it was very successful very fast, which made me very successful. It felt like I was living the American dream."
Salvador Dali's surreal lips sofa echoes one of the DVF label's most beloved motifs. Tables designed by Alexandra von Furstenberg and a portrait by von Furstenberg's friend Takashi Murakami give this nook an intimate feel. Photographed by David Cortes.
Were you interested in clothing growing up?
"As a young girl, I wasn’t really interested in fashion, but I was interested in being a grown-up, and I think fashion had a lot to do with that. By the time I had gone through boarding school, and when I was 20 and working in Paris, I had come to love fashion and use it as a way to express myself."
The Wrap Shop model at DVF’s headquarters. Photographed by David Cortes.
You've said that the wrap dress started as a top inspired by a ballerina sweater. Once you translated that concept to a dress, why do you think it became such an impactful piece of clothing for the modern woman?
"It looked like nothing on the rack, but when a woman put it on, something extraordinary happened. ...I didn’t really think of it as filling a void at the time, but that is exactly what it did. Everything in fashion was so complicated then; there were couture dresses that were beautiful to look at but that you could hardly move in. I wanted to design dresses that I could wear anywhere, and once I found that fabric — the silk jersey that was so flattering and so easy to wear — I knew I had found something great."
Von Furstenberg's office is full of photos of family and friends. The mandala was a gift from the King of Bhutan. Photographed by David Cortes.
At the time, did you have any greater ambitions? To create the fashion empire you have today, for instance?
"I don't know if I thought 'fashion empire' necessarily, but I did see a bigger picture in terms of using fashion as a way of empowering women — giving them confidence and making them feel like the best version of themselves." What were some challenges you faced when you were first getting your business off the ground? How did you overcome them?
"My early days in business were a real learning experience. The team was very small. I remember unpacking my first orders from Italy myself, and things would be wrong or there would be too many or not enough, you know. I made some good decisions, some bad decisions, but I always tried to be true to myself."
A collection of treasures from von Furstenberg's travels: The hearts represent one of her favorite mantras — "love is life" — while the ginkgo leaf has appeared in her prints and jewelry designs. Photographed by David Cortes.
Your business grew so rapidly throughout the '70s — you had sold millions of wrap dresses and landed on the cover of Newsweek by the age of 30 — but in the '80s, your business faltered. What did you learn in that time off?
"It made me realize how much I need fashion — as a form of expression, as an extension of myself — and without it, I felt very lost. I thought it would be nice to be away, but I missed it, and when all of the chic young women started buying up my dresses in the vintage shops, I thought, I can do this. I re-launched my business [in 1997] with the wrap dress. I wanted to prove that my success hadn’t been a mistake the first time around. I call that stage 'Comeback Kid.'"
The accessories showroom at DVF's headquarters. Photographed by David Cortes.
How is it that you have continued to generate new, fresh ideas for decades, while remaining true to your core identity? Where do you find inspiration?
"Inspiration is everywhere! If you are even a little bit curious, you will find it. I am always inspired by women, and I will start each collection with the idea of a woman: Where is she going? What is she doing? Who is she meeting? And, I really have an image of a particular type of woman in mind — the most specific ideas make for the strongest collections."
Two Balinese sculptures flank an architectural model of the DVF Headquarters. Photographed by David Cortes.
And, you seem to surround yourself with powerful women in the workplace, too. What qualities are most important to you in an employee?
"I look for people with confidence, with a point of view. A sense of humor is good, too." We've seen some pretty funny moments in House of DVF so far. What do you love most about the cast?
"There are a lot of humorous moments! We always say that we are like a TV show, and now we have one. But really, there are strong characters and opinions and passions."
"Nature is my source of strength," says von Furstenberg of the terrace outside her office. She often leaves the door open during meetings. Photographed by David Cortes.
You've been in the spotlight for so long. Was filming this show just another day in front of the camera, or did it surprise you in any way?
"It was a new and different experience, for sure. The most unexpected thing was the girls and how close I have become with all of them. They email me, we have lunch — that part has been wonderful."
A Chinese trunk from von Furstenberg's personal collection. The wrapping paper is made up of DVF's most iconic prints. Photographed by David Cortes.
On the show, the girls are training and competing in hopes of becoming the next DVF global brand ambassador. Was cultivating these relationships and mentoring these young women part of the appeal of doing the show for you?
" House of DVF is a lot of fun, but it is also a way to reach a younger generation of women and to get some of those good messages in. It is a privilege, really, once you have a little success, to help another woman find the same." That makes sense since you’ve played such a tremendous role in mentoring and inspiring young designers — through the CFDA's Fashion Incubator Program and lecturing at schools — particularly young women. Why do you think that’s important?
"I have dedicated my life to empowering women — through fashion, through mentoring and philanthropy. It is something that has always been important to me, and now that I have success, I am so grateful and love to use that to shine light on other women who might not otherwise be recognized. With success comes a responsibility to help other women and to inspire them as they have inspired me."
Von Furstenberg uses this private extension of her office to practice yoga. Photographed by David Cortes.
There’s been a lot of debate — from public policy experts, Pepsi's female CEO, Hillary Clinton, even Hollywood celebs — about whether women should try to "have it all." How have you balanced running a successful business — in such a male-dominated world, no less — with having a fulfilling life outside the office?
"Early on...certainly, I experienced sexism. I tried to laugh it off, and I am grateful now for how far we have come from that, though there is still work to be done. As far as balance, both my work and my family life are so much a part of me that it never felt like a struggle, psychologically, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle logistically just finding time to make it all happen and to do all of the things that are important to you. So, I think it is great that there is an ongoing dialogue about that."
The building's whimsical facade includes DVF's trademark lips. Photographed by David Cortes.
Finally, what advice do you give young women starting out in their careers or trying to pursue their passions?
"I always tell young women or young designers to figure out who they are and be true to that. The most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself."