Share via Email Within minutes of my meeting fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg at her favourite hotel, she has started to take my clothes off. I am wearing what she is most famous for: Because of its practical wearability - and, no less importantly, the ease with which it could be removed - it went on to become a symbol of that sexually liberated era.
Admittedly, my attire is treading a fine line between homage and pure sycophancy, and I wonder, as von Furstenberg brusquely unties the bit around my waist, if she is going to suggest I wear something else for our interview.
But she merely shows me how to tie it differently. She speaks in a low Belgo-American drawl and, at 55, looks no different from any of the ads that have borne her image since To Calvin Klein she is 'the quintessential modern woman'. Newsweek once named her 'the most marketable woman in fashion since Coco Chanel'.
Deepak Chopra simply calls her 'an inspiration'. As she herself says, her life began the way most fairytales end: Though she was hardly a pauper to start with - the young Diane Halfin went to boarding schools in Lausanne and Oxford before meeting Prince Egon von Furstenberg at a nightclub in Geneva.
Warhol painted her portrait twice not including repetitions of the same screenprint. But those who care little for riches or society might see a role model in von Furstenberg because of her success in business, or because, with no formal training, she has already taken up a position in the canon of fashion. Or, if the professional seems less admirable than the personal, you might be impressed by her as a mother of two, or because she has survived the cancer for which she was treated eight years ago, or even because she made her way in the world having been born to a Jewish mother who had escaped from Auschwitz only 18 months earlier.
At first, all she knew about her mother's suffering was that she had bought a fur coat with her repatriation cheque from the German government, but she says now that 'had she not been pregnant with me she may not have survived afterwards. I think I was the life inside her, and her vengeance so to speak. And I became that: It is five years since she relaunched the dress that made her famous, and now her career has taken off again.
The centre of her operation is a huge former carriage house in the hip meat-packing district of Manhattan, where she has a shop, the studio where it's all designed, a private apartment and a large theatre where she stages dance productions and holds exhibitions. Now she is about to launch a range of beauty products.
I had this huge company and everyone was older than me - they had families and cars, and I was kind of supporting everything. And now I am much older than everyone else. The president of my company is And, in a way, I like it better. She saw, when she dropped her child off at the nursery, that the mothers there had nothing interesting to wear.
Fashion consisted of either drip-dry polyester trousers or huge hippie kaftans. Mothers needed to be practical, she thought, but there was no reason why they shouldn't be sexy. She said to herself: The catchline on her adverts was: I wonder if von Furstenberg thinks it still has the same significance.
I was a very young girl and I got into fashion very much by accident, wanting to be independent. What was wonderful was that while I was learning and discovering - learning about the work, discovering myself as a woman - I was allowing other women to feel the same way.
So it turns out that even though I wasn't really that interested in fashion - I was more interested in women - it did become a social phenomenon. At the time I would make 25, dresses a week.
That's a lot of sleeves. Now she sees girls going into the fitting room in her shop, 'And mmn! New York magazine had run a cover story on her and her husband, with the headline: But the husband was just too much. She was so nervous, and so determined to look sexy and thin, that she took a diuretic before dinner. Needless to say, she spent most of the meal in the loo. Other dates were more successful. One day in the offices of Rolling Stone magazine, she turned to the editor, her friend Jann Wenner, and asked him to guess how many of his cover stars she'd slept with.
She laughs when I remind her of this: I didn't want ever to feel that way - let them worry. So yes, early in my life when I was no longer married, I did, in a sense, want to live like And I absolutely enjoyed it. Their affair lasted five years, and after that they remained very close.
Last year she and Diller got married, which came as something of a surprise to those who had assumed Diller's reported status as a 'confirmed bachelor' to be euphemistic. Andy Warhol once wrote of the couple in his diaries that 'she gives him straightness and he gives her powerfulness'. But von Furstenberg stands tall in the face of the rumours. I ask how she came round to the idea of marrying him, and she tells me they did it 'because he was always in my life and because he loves me so much, and so unconditionally.
We always talked about it, that one day we would do it, and it was his birthday and I didn't know what to give him so I said all right, I'll give myself. It happened just like that. Sex is a very normal thing for me. It's never been a problem. So whether it is or whether it isn't [happening], it's never a problem. I don't know that there are any rules. The truth of the matter is, I had a lot of fun, and I had a lot of affairs in my life. And I think that I've done my quota.
There are different things at different times in life. There's a time for everything, I think. She remains paradoxically open and enigmatic at the same time this is a woman whose friend once told her she was more personal on the Shopping Channel than she was with her.
I ask which are her favourites of her own clothes, for example, and she takes me into her bedroom and pulls open the door of her wardrobe. There is a red and black wrap, a dramatic red silk dress, and some lighter things from this season's collection. As I leave, she invites me to a lunch that she's planning at her studio in New York. For a split-second I am delighted. Then I feel my throat constricting with panic. Christ, I think, it's taken me days to decide what to wear to the interview.
Now she wants me to come to lunch? The scene at the studio is like This is Your Life combined with the party pages of Vogue. I decide it's improper to suck up twice, but when I arrive I realise my horrible mistake; everyone is wearing DvF, except me.
On the walls in the stairwell are swatches of vintage von Furstenberg fabrics, and scattered about her apartment are dozens of framed photographs of her family. It is the day after the Oscar night of the fashion world the Council of Fashion Designers of America held their fortieth annual awards the night before , and Suzy Menkes, the indomitable, Sitwell-esque tastemaker, is here for lunch too. Last to arrive is young model Lauren Bush, the President's niece.
She is accompanied by her mother, a PR from her modelling agency, and - I realise when they're not introduced - two bodyguards. Two of the guests are on their way to a five day-long debutantes' ball in Versailles.
One attended Claudia Schiffer's wedding the week before. Another is to be congratulated for appearing on the 'Best Dressed List'. Small amounts of delicious food are consumed, followed by what in other circles might be called dessert, but here appears to be a competition to eat the tiniest piece of chocolate cake.
DvF herself seems unfettered by these concerns - she says she loves whipped cream, and helps herself to a big dollop, adding, with a sideways glance at an enormous portrait of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, that she would like to have a bath in it some day. When lunch is over Lauren, for one, has to dash - she is christening a boat on behalf of Tommy Hilfiger , DvF changes into something more casual and drops in at her shop downstairs. A customer buys her autobiography, along with a dress, and asks her to inscribe it to her daughter.
I have to suppress a chuckle, because I said the same about my own mother, and I'm getting some idea now of how it is for Diane von Furstenberg. She must be able to count on the fingers of one hand the days when someone hasn't said that to her since she relaunched her wrap dress, and yet she manages to appear flattered, as if the compliment were nearly new. She smiles at the woman, and says, with slow, weary charm: