There are currently 200 mannequins bearing Diane von Furstenberg’s face in the 20,000 square-foot gallery of Los Angeles’ historic Wilshire May Company Building. In addition to wearing her cheekbones and lips, they are also wearing her signature garment: the wrap dress.
This piece is the designer’s most iconic item by far, and the inspiration behind her “Journey of a Dress” retrospective in LA. The exhibition was created not only in celebration of the brand’s 40th anniversary, but of the designer herself. Though her creation is unequivocally one of the most essential items in the history of fashion, von Furstenberg acknowledges that when she created the frock at the age of 26 as a recent newlywed to Swiss aristocrat Prince Egon von Furstenberg, she had no idea that it would become her defining item.
“I had no idea that the wrap dress would become such a phenomenon,” she admits. “I just set out to make a simple little dress that I could wear anywhere. It turned out to be exactly what women wanted at the time, and still [want] today. It allowed women to get dressed for work and still feel like a woman. It gave them confidence and independence, and that is a very powerful thing.”
Though she says “them,” the designer is also referring to herself, and she’s understandably proud of the fact that the garment has helped her to become the woman she is today. “For me, the journey of the wrap dress was all about becoming the woman I wanted to be. The wrap dress is really what allowed me to become that woman. It paid all my bills, and it gave me confidence,” she says.
This is something that the designer hopes to inspire in others as well, not only with her designs, but through her philanthropic work, through her position as President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and as a mentor. “Power is all about how you use it,” she notes, adding, “I have dedicated myself to empowering other women.
“You have to be yourself, which is the most original thing you can do!” the now-67-year-old declares. “You have to have a vision and make it happen. That is one of my favorite things about being a designer. I love to make things happen.”
The “Journey of a Dress” exhibit is a prime example of the designer’s ability to catalyze her desires. Every dress on display, every photo, every painting is a tribute, a memory to her life. There is her very first advertisement from 1976, a photo bearing her motto “Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress.” Among the self-portraits of the designer done by artists such as Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz, there is the letter from former Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland that essentially started her career. There are shots of Iman, Cheryl Tiegs and a 17-year-old Jerry Hall modeling in her shows, as well as photos of A-list fans like First Lady Michelle Obama wearing the dress.
The garmet definitely has its place in film history as well: director Pedro Almodóvar based Penélope Cruz’s look in Broken Embraces around the dress, while Amy Adams was so enamored of wearing the item in her Oscar-nominated film American Hustle that she even said of her character: “When she wears the dress, she changes and is empowered.”
As this was von Furstenberg’s intent while creating the garment, she’s happy that others feel the same. “The wrap dress is about the woman. It is just simple enough, just sexy enough. It has a way of making a woman feel like the best version of herself,” she says, adding, “Any woman who has confidence, a joie de vivre, who knows who she is and is true to that, all of these things embody the DVF woman.”
Though she resides in New York for most of the year with media mogul Barry Diller, her husband of over 10 years, there is something about the ladies of Los Angeles that inspire von Furstenberg. “I love the glamour of LA women, and also that they have an effortless side, a side that loves nature,” she reveals. “They understand the yin and yang.”
It isn’t only the female residents of Los Angeles that the designer loves, but the City of Angels itself. It is where she chose to launch her retrospective, after all. Of this decision, she says, “The May Company Building is perfect, because it is where the Wilshire May Company department store used to be, and the wrap was sold there in the seventies. It is on the LACMA campus, and it is the future home of the Academy Museum, so it is the perfect mix of retail, art and glamour.” She adds, “Los Angeles is also where my children live, where my grandchildren live and [Barry and I] have a home there. It was a very natural home for the exhibition.”
As we’ve discovered, von Furstenberg’s life is all about doing what feels natural, what feels right. She will continue to be an icon, to create and to inspire others. The latter, it seems, is the most important, and it will be her legacy.
“I have had three distinct phases of my brand,” she says. “There was the ‘American Dream’ in the ’70s, and then in the ’90s I was the ‘Comeback Kid.’ Now, it is all about ‘Legacy’, about empowering other women to be the women that they want to be. My plan is to keep doing that…through mentoring, through philanthropy and through my designs.”