Dressed up

IN January, Belgian designer Diane von Fürstenberg opens Journey of a Dress, a touring exhibition celebrating 40 years of her signature wrap dress.

Dressed up

Beginning in Los Angeles, the retrospective includes vintage and contemporary samples. Design experts have put this effortlessly sexy style on a par with such 20th century icons as the Eames chair and Chanel no.5. It is endlessly copied and originals are available in over 60 countries. In 2010, Michelle Obama wore a DVF wrap dress in her family’s Christmas card photo. The success of the dress is all wrapped up in Diane’s own. Its story began with her marriage. “Most fairytales end with the girl marrying the prince. That’s where mine began,” she wrote in her 1998 memoir.

Diane’s fashion life began at age 23 when she apprenticed to Milanese clothing manufacturer Angelo Ferretti in 1969. Ferretti had three factories, each producing a fundamental of a wrap dress: prints, cotton-jersey and garments. That year, she fell pregnant by her fiancé, Egon von Furstenberg, son of a German prince and an heiress to the Fiat fortune. She knew he’d have to make an honest woman of her quickly, so ran up some dresses to sell with a view to gaining financial independence. Their French country nuptials were covered by Vogue that summer. Diane emigrated to New York, Egon’s adopted city, with a case of samples among her luggage.

Through Egon, Diane got a meeting with Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, whose approval convinced her — six months into her pregnancy — to take an ad out in trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily, book a hotel room and show her samples to buyers. She asked a friend to take a picture of her for the ad. In it, she wears a cotton-jersey dress and sits on a white box, on which she wrote her famous slogan “Feel like a woman: Wear a dress!” for the first time. And she was off.

Initially, orders were small but steady. She operated from her dining room table, simultaneously caring for her young son and a daughter who arrived a year later. Becoming an in-house designer for a large store seemed eminently practical, but none were interested. She decided to hire a sales manager, offering him equity and a small salary. He was a talented recruit, and soon she was flying all over America, making personal appearances at her own outlets. In 1974, president Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie wore one of her wrap tops on television. It sold out so fast that Diane decided to make it a dress. And the first DVF wrap dress was born.

The style was an instant hit. Fans Marisa Berenson, Pat Cleveland and Jerry Hall were at the peak of their fame. In truth, the surplice style was very much where fashion was at in the early Seventies. Roy Halston, Betsy Johnson and Yves Saint Laurent all produced wrap-detailed garments before Diane and wrapping itself predates sewing as means of securing one’s clothes. But von Fürstenberg is the only one who “will have ‘the wrap dress’ written on my tombstone,” as she told a Google Talks audience in 2006.

This inextricable link happened through a fortuitous concert of the zeitgeist, marketing and Diane’s own élan. Firstly, while the brand has always been high-end, it is entry-level luxury and sells at a lower price point than many competitors (this is still the case). Second, she was her own best advertisement: appearing on magazine covers and society pages, making a groundbreaking stab at the work-life balance and charming women at store appearances. She frequently speaks about how interested she is in women, their stories and strength.

The timing of the style’s debut was also serendipitous. The contraceptive pill had barely been around for a decade and Diane would often associate the wrap with casual sex. It didn’t hurt that it falls and moves better when worn without underwear and will not wrinkle when left on the floor. Gloria Steinem was a close friend of von Fürstenberg and often seen in wrap dresses. “A manifesto for the liberated 1970’s woman” is one of many virtues the designer now ascribes to the design.

Success proved a double-edged sword. After four years, the market was saturated, stores marked down prices and magazines began calling it passé. Diane became interested in other things. Having fallen into a career in fashion with no formal training, she was now the seventh richest woman in the US. She wrote a book about beauty, started a cosmetics line and licensed her name to various accessories and luggage companies. Clothes-wise, she experimented with suits. One day in 1980, her sales manager called to request she give the brand’s banks her personal guarantee. It turned out Diane von Fürstenberg’s quick expansion was largely financed by loans and the company was leveraged to the hilt.

Diane was by then separated with teenage children at boarding school. She sold the clothing part of her company and moved to Bali and then Paris, where she took care of her ailing mother and had a romance with a writer. An unfortunate consequence of the sale was that she lost the right to trade under her own name, one of the worst fates than can befall a designer. The new owners stamped it on everything from paper towels to pencil cases, sapping its chic in the process. The wrap dress was completely at odds with brash 80s fashion. When Diane returned to the States in 1990 she found her brand had lost its identity and she “had to eat humble pie for many years”.

Friends in high places, including Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld, encouraged her to retake control of her name and revive the wrap dress. She was also inspired by young New Yorkers buying her old designs from vintage stores. She lopped the dated cuffs off the 70s wrap dress and refreshed it with new prints and fabrics. She thought shopping channel QVC desperately tacky, but knew it was a fast, far-reaching way she could reconnect with women who once loved her. In her first hour on the air in 1992, she made over a million dollars. Stores were immediately interested again and she began scouting sites for a New York boutique. Suddenly, she was one of the highlights of Fashion Week and has been in vogue ever since.

Her handsome son married Alexandra Miller, heiress to the Duty Free fortune, in 1995. She and her two sisters were 90s It-girls (Pia is the now ex-wife of Christopher Getty and Marie-Chantal is married to Pavlos, the exiled Prince of Greece and Denmark). The US press couldn’t get enough of these frequently wrap-dressed ladies. Alexandra began working for Diane and was eventually made creative director. She was especially good at ensuring the wrap dress seen on the celebrity du jour, which kept it hot right through the last decade. Diane is currently writing a memoir, The Woman I Wanted to Be, to be published by Simon&Schuster next winter. I can’t think of a better bedtime story to read little aspiring designers. Who needs a fairy godmother when you can marry a prince and rescue yourself twice over?

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