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The Next Generation

Diane Von Furstenberg has revived her famous wrap dress--and brought on board her famous daughter-in-law. Together they're proving that two's a company.

April 23, 1998|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the glasses of champagne on trays and the racks of print dresses and a gaggle of shoppers wandering the brightly lit floor of Bloomingdale's, two women are immediately recognizable. It's not because both are wearing some version of the dress on the rack. It's because both women have had their faces plastered across magazine pages.

One is fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, creator of the iconographic '70s wrap dress now enjoying a revival. Her place in pop culture was assured when she posed in her dress for the cover of Newsweek some 20 years ago, triumphantly, coolly, hands on cantilevered hips.

The other is her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Miller Von Furstenberg--the '90s exemplar of the young socialite ("such a silly word," she says later), a photographic staple of society and fashion magazines.

They stand surrounded by reconstituted wrap dresses. The elder Von Furstenberg, a pro at these publicity tours, chats with women who come by, fussing over them as they try on versions of the dress, renowned for its ability to flatter a variety of body types. Some things are different from 20 years ago. There's a strapping blond guy who's eyeing a dress for the nights he wears drag. An up-and-coming actress who was probably a child when the dress came out the first time has just bought several to wear on a promotional tour for her new movie.

"She's in 'Godzee-ya,' " says the multi-lingual, Belgian-born Von Furstenberg excitedly.

"It's 'God-ZILLA,' " corrects her chuckling daughter, Tatiana, a 27-year-old writer living in Silver Lake, who is wearing a vintage edition of one of her mother's dresses.

Alexandra Von Furstenberg, whose shopping habitat is more often a Manhattan designer studio than the Beverly Center store where she now finds herself, is one of several people Diane credits with urging her to reinvent the wrap dress. Alexandra will face a flock of salespeople the next day for a kind of "pep rally" for the clothes at Bloomingdale's in Century City.

"It's 9 in the morning, and you're standing in front of 40 people who don't know you, and they're staring at you," Alexandra says. "It's hard."

But it's business. And the two Von Furstenbergs are a fusion made in commercial heaven. At 51, Diane is the savvy, personable businesswoman who essentially sold off her name at the end of the '70s and went to France in the '80s to start a publishing house. She returned this decade, first hawking a dress line on cable shopping shows, then reacquiring her name to revive the wrap dress and launch a new design collection. With her figure still lean and her face pleasantly aged, she seems to promise that true style is lifelong.

Alexandra--called "Alex"--holds the title of creative director but few of 25-year-old Diane Von Furstenberg Studio's momentous decisions rest on her size 2 shoulders. (A CEO has been hired and so has a head designer.) Although she offers design advice and works on every fitting, what she particularly brings to the wrap dress road show is a frisson of celebrity, wealth and well-bred style.

What Alex seems to promise is the notion that even a woman who wore a Karl Lagerfeld couture wedding dress could want a $190 dress with a security tag on it.

The daughters of billionaire duty-free tycoon Robert Miller, Alexandra and her sister, Marie-Chantal, are known as "the Miller girls," two of the reigning style icons of the fashion world. Marie-Chantal married Crown Prince Pavlos, the son of a deposed Greek king, just months before Alexandra married Diane's son, Alexandre,the prince of an extinct country (Furstenberg) in a 1995 New York society wedding extravaganza. (A third and oldest sister, Pia, not a magazine darling like her sisters, is nonetheless married to a Getty.)

Why Alexandra, 25, works at all is a question she seems surprised to be asked. Work, she says, is something she will do, even after she has children.

"It gives me pleasure, satisfaction," says Alexandra, who dropped out of Brown University after two years of studying art history and costume design. "It's something I really enjoy."

Alexandra, who grew up in Hong Kong, learned French living in Paris and makes her home on the Upper Eastside of New York, has spent the past eight months traveling on promotional tour for the dresses to places she had never been before--like Cleveland. And Dallas.

"I wanted to go so much. I watched 'Dallas' growing up. I wanted to see what it was all about."

Shoppers sometimes come clutching magazine photos of her, which she willingly autographs.

"I do get sick of being photographed sometimes, but I always think to myself, 'You're in your 20s, it's the best time to be photographed,' " she says with a little laugh.

The day after the Bloomingdale's event, she is seated on a couch in the spacious, art-filled Beverly Hills home of media mogul Barry Diller, Diane Von Furstenberg's longtime sort-of companion. (Von Furstenberg is, of course, long divorced from Egon Von Furstenberg, the father of her children.)

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