The ballroom full of women erupted into cheers as Diane von Furstenberg took the stage at the American Express OPEN Forum: CEO BootCamp event in New York for an afternoon fireside chat. Looking chic in tall black boots, a black DVF dress and graphic print coat, you’d never know that she’d been up since 6 a.m.
Four decades after arriving in New York with a suitcase full of her now-famous jersey wrap dresses, Diane von Furstenberg is still a woman-on-the-go—sexy and effortless, just like her designs. It’s been a triumphant year for the designer, who cemented her comeback and fashion pioneer status with Journey of a Dress, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) celebrating the 40th anniversary of the iconic wrap dress that empowered millions of women and launched her career, a new reality TV show on E! called House of DVF, and the publication of her book, The Woman I Wanted to Be.
She’s particularly excited about her new book, a heartfelt memoir that chronicles the ups and downs of her career, including building and selling two wildly successful businesses by the time she turned 30, staging a return to the fashion world at the age of 50, and her loves and losses along the way.
"I really did write it with my soul,” she told the crowd. Then, on impulse, von Furstenberg asked everyone in the audience to hold up their copies of the book (a gift to BootCamp attendees) so she could snap a photo to post on her Instagram account. Hundreds of women jumped out of their seats and complied. “This is great!” exclaimed the designer.
Von Furstenberg is disarming like that. For the next hour, the princess-turned-tycoon regaled a rapt audience with stories from both her personal life and career, and dished advice for women seeking their own paths to success.
Confidence Is Everything
“As a young girl, I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be,” von Furstenberg offered. “I wanted to be an independent woman and I wanted to be in charge of my life.”
But there is an element of serendipity to success, and she advised aspiring entrepreneurs to be alert to opportunities. For von Furstenberg, it was an offer to work as young girl with Angelo Ferretti, an Italian fashion manufacturer who showed her the ropes and supported her own aspirations as a designer. “Fashion happened to be my door, and I pushed it. What is really important is to focus at the beginning of your life to see what door is going to be yours, make sure it makes sense, and then go for it.”
She also emphasized the importance of inner confidence and belief in yourself. “Confidence is everything. You can say the same thing, but if you say it with confidence, it will sound different.”
Von Furstenberg admitted to feeling anything but confident at times. “Some days I feel like a loser. There are no successful people who never feel like losers,” she said. “It’s really a matter of being disciplined about everything that you do. I realize now that, whether it’s personal, love, beauty, health, business—it’s all the same. You have to have your truth and you have to work for it and continue to stay on brand. It’s not easy. Even when you are successful it’s hard to stay there. In the end, it’s really about the relationship you have with yourself—you have to trust yourself, to know that you can do it, and not blame anyone else. Make sure that you build your strength every single day.”
Accept Your Failures
That trust in herself helped von Furstenberg navigate the ups and downs of her own roller coaster career. As she recounts in her book, the initial success of the wrap dress in the 1970s set off a frenzy of demand, and before she knew it, she had licensed her name and designs to products from luggage to bedspreads. That pattern would repeat itself a number of times throughout her career, but always, it was returning to the essence of her brand—simplicity, effortless beauty and empowerment—that saved the day.
“My biggest fault is my impulse,” admitted von Furstenberg. “It’s also my greatest quality. I had no recipe, I had no plan for decades. It’s only now that I realize I need a business plan.”
She advised creative women to take care when choosing which ideas to go forward with. “Sometimes a good idea is badly executed or you do it with the wrong people,” she said. “You have to accept [the mistakes] and move on.”
Be the Woman You Want to Be
Now in her 60s, von Furstenberg is able to look back and distill lessons from her life, which often unfolded at an exhilarating speed that left little time for planning, much less analysis.
“I’m lucky because I came up with something—this little wrap dress—that’s been around for a half a century. But I took it for granted,” she said. It was only as she was driving to LACMA on the opening day of Journey of a Dress that it struck her: The body of her life’s work was in that building. “That’s the first time I saw the dress, not for what it did for me, but what it did for generations of women,” she said. “I was a conduit for the dress.”
Her mission today, she said, is “to empower women—through my work by making them sexy and powerful, through mentoring and through philanthropy. And it’s all related. Everything I do is about being the woman you want to be.”
When asked about her message to women pursuing their dreams and returning to careers, von Furstenberg was pragmatic. “It isn’t easy to have your own business,” she told the audience of female CEOs. “We work harder. You have all the problems on your hands.” She counseled business owners to make sure the product or service they are offering is unique and makes sense. And, of course, to be true to themselves. But then the irrepressible impulse kicks in. “My advice? Go for it. Do it with fashion, but go for it.”
OPEN Forum: CEO BootCamp is a program designed to help business owners reach their full potential as CEOs and grow their businesses. To learn more about upcoming events and access videos, articles, guides and more, visit openforum.com/ceobootcamp.
Photo: Scott Kowalchyk Photography