New Diane von Furstenberg Biography Recounts Her Dazzling First Days in New York
If there's a woman today who's a living, breathing manifestation of the phrase "having it all," it's Diane von Furstenberg, hands down. Through talent, resourcefulness, and good old-fashioned hard work, the designer, businesswoman, philanthropist, mom, grandma, and—most importantly—InStyle columnist rose the ranks from more humble beginnings in Belgium to full-fledged fashion icon, creating original silhouettes that would alter even the most fashionable American's sense of style forever (wrap dress, anyone?). Biographer Gioia Diliberto details the full scope of designer's life, including her relationship with her mother, a Holocaust survivor, and an inside look at her marriages to Prince Egon von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, in Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped ($17; amazon.com)—her first-ever biography, out today. Below, read an exclusive excerpt about von Furstenberg's early days in N.Y.C.
Diane fell in love with New York the moment she stepped from the taxi onto the pavement in front of Egon’s building and got her first whiff of Manhattan air—that heady mix of glamour, power, danger, grittiness, and wealth. This was where she belonged.
At Egon’s side she entered the recherché world where society and celebrity meet. The old guard in New York admired Gianni Agnelli, the rich and influential head of Fiat, and embraced his charming, handsome nephew. It didn’t hurt that Egon himself was a prince, a title that gave him a magical glow, invoking romance, fairy-tale endings, and an exotic history of palace riches and court intrigues. Since moving to New York, Egon had been invited everywhere—to Park Avenue dinners and grand charity balls, to gallery openings and polo games in Southampton. Now he took Diane with him. She met everyone from Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol to Brooke Astor, Nan Kempner, and Truman Capote. Painfully aware that she was included on guest lists because she was Egon’s girlfriend, “Diane tried desperately to fit in,” says the writer Bob Colacello, who met her soon after he arrived in New York.
“Egon introduced me to all these [society] girls who’d take me to lunch at 21 and La Grenouille, and they’d explain to me how ‘if you sit on that side, it’s Siberia,’” and social suicide, “and it all felt so strange,” says Diane.
Diane and Egon von Furstenberg at a party at the Venice Film Festival in 1967.
The sixties had been a time of freaks and hippies, of political activism and radical chic. Soon the revolutionary spirit, faux and otherwise, would be overtaken by the dawn of the disco decade with its hedonistic brew of style, irresponsibility, indulgence, and glitz. At the fringes was the drug- and sex-soaked demimonde that thrived in the downtown clubs and gay bars. Egon moved effortlessly through the night worlds of New York. “He was in perpetual party mode,” says Colacello.
Though Egon participated in the training program at Chase Manhattan, his banking career stalled. “He never really made any money,” says his son, Alex. Still, his family money enabled him to live comfortably, and Diane, as his live-in girlfriend, did not have to work.
The idea of being a kept woman, though, horrified her. It contradicted everything about the life of freedom she craved. It also was an impediment to her most deeply held ambition—to be somebody. Since financial independence, Diane believed, was the first step to this end, she toyed with becoming a model. Francesco Scavullo, a fashion photographer best known for his portraits of celebrities such as Brooke Shields and Burt Reynolds, took pictures of her. But when Diane showed her portfolio to Wilhelmina Cooper, the head of Wilhelmina Models, the prestigious agency that represented Lauren Hutton, Janice Dickinson, and Beverly Johnson, Cooper turned her down flat. At a lissome five feet, seven inches tall (she’d shed the chubbiness of her late-teen years), Diane’s figure was in the modeling ballpark. She also had high, chiseled cheekbones and large, wide-set eyes, which made her extremely photogenic. Her face, though, was too strong and mature-looking for American magazines, which at the time favored softer, less exotically pretty women.
Still, Diane’s ambitions focused increasingly on fashion. In Europe it was easy to find affordable, well-designed clothes in comfortable knit fabrics. Diane herself looked good in these clothes, and she sensed that American women would like them, too. The problem was, they weren’t available in the United States. Diane noticed on her many shopping excursions with Egon that American department store fare tended to be either expensive copies of French designers, hippie bell-bottoms and peasant dresses, or schlocky polyester wear. She greatly admired the colorful, fluid designs of Halston, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and Stephen Burrows. As “a boy-about-town,” Diane says, Egon knew these designers and gained access for himself and Diane to their studio backrooms. Here Diane saw firsthand how New York fashion was made. Designs by the likes of Halston, Sant’Angelo, and Burrows, however, were expensive and out of reach for most women. Diane sensed an opportunity.
Reprint with permission from Dey Street Books.