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The wrap artist

Diane Von Furstenberg's signature dress endures, just as she has.

November 25, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

DIANE VON FURSTENBERG has a second career even more successful than her first. She's a grandmother three times over. And at 58, she still looks fabulous in the wrap dress that put her on the fashion map in 1976, when Newsweek called her the most marketable woman in fashion since Coco Chanel.

So it's no wonder that the designer says she is getting better with age.

A new boutique in the Melrose Heights shopping district, her first on the West Coast, is the latest showcase for her ever-expanding empire of clothing, accessories and fine jewelry. With leopard print rugs, a twinkling Art Deco chandelier and a replica of her famous Andy Warhol portrait on the wall, the place is every inch "DVF," as she is known to her employees.

And yes, Von Furstenberg does spend time here -- she calls Los Angeles her second home. She shares a Coldwater Canyon house with her husband, Hollywood mogul Barry Diller (the two were introduced 30 years ago by power agent Sue Mengers and married in 2001), and her children from her first marriage live here. (Tatiana is a screenwriter and Alexandre works in finance.)

But for much of the year, the designer with the velvety voice, warm gaze and forever legs lives in New York's West Village above her design studio.

Walk up the staircase at that studio and you'll see photographs that inspired Von Furstenberg's 1970s prints. And she still takes a camera everywhere she goes, snapping pictures of bark, twigs, leaves -- anything that might translate into the wrinkle-proof jersey that is used in the dress, the famous wrap creation that continues to reflect Von Furstenberg's lifestyle. Indeed, she remains that charter member of the jet set who would just pick up and go to Bali.

"I really didn't realize it would have the resonance it did," she says of the iconic dress. "But it's become like a pair of jeans or a miniskirt. It's a social phenomenon."

Since she relaunched her label seven years ago, she has expanded it to include skirts, tops and swimwear. Although she sells to high-end department stores and boutiques such as Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, the average price of a dress is about $385, far less than most designer labels.

To celebrate the recent opening of her L.A. store, she hosted a ladies' lunch with Taryn Manning, Regina King, Teri Polo and other young celebrities. "I don't remember who they are, but they were very nice," she says.

The eponymous shop offers an expanded selection of evening dresses for the red carpet, a term Von Furstenberg loathes. Unlike many designers, she does not give away clothes. "That's not the kind of thing I do. But they do buy my things. Julia Roberts took a bunch of girls to Las Vegas for her birthday and bought them all DVF clothes. And Madonna and Renee Zellweger have worn my things on press junkets."

During the last year, the designer has been on a roll, propelled in no small part by fashion's current appetite for dresses. She has opened three new shops -- in L.A., Paris' Left Bank and Hong Kong. She relaunched her beauty line with updated colors and packaging, along with a new e-commerce site, DVF.com. Fans can keep up with her travels through a diary, read interviews with inspiring women such as CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and view a monthly yoga pose.

In addition, Von Furstenberg has designed rugs for the Rug Company and a collection of fine jewelry for H. Stern -- smoky quartz cocktail rings that sell for $2,200 and chunky gold chain-link bracelets that start at $7,200. Handbags in python and other exotic skins will be next.

"I was in the shower the other day, and I was trying to rationalize how I could be making accessories that are more expensive than my clothes," she says. "It doesn't make any sense. But I wear my clothes, and I also wear Christian Louboutin shoes. I decided that clothes are more disposable than accessories, which are timeless."

Fairy tale phase

There is little about Von Furstenberg's background that says "fashion entrepreneur." She was born Diane Halfin in Brussels in 1946 to wealthy parents and attended boarding schools in Switzerland and England. While studying economics in Geneva, she met Prince Egon Von Furstenberg, a descendant of the German aristocratic family and the Italian Agnellis, owners of the Fiat car empire. "Most fairy tales end with the girl marrying the prince," she says. "That's where mine began."

At the time, she was working as an apprentice at an Italian friend's textile factory, getting exposure to the knitting and printing techniques that would establish her place in fashion. After learning she was pregnant, she married Egon, moved to New York and settled into a party scene that included Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger and Warhol.

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