How powerful can a dress be? In the case of Diane von Furstenberg, the wrap dress she created in the 1970s became the cornerstone of a business that its founder has used to amplify communities of women who, she says, “have no voice.” HOW?
Von Furstenberg’s dress catapulted her to fashion’s heights. But when the fickle industry shifted, she nearly lost everything and had to build the business back from the brink. Von Furstenberg made a major comeback in the 1990s and has presided over the brand that bears her initials DVF as it’s become a global juggernaut distributed in more than 55 countries with estimated sales in excess of $500 million. She stepped into the role of chairwoman in May 2016, when Jonathan Saunders joined DVF as the brand’s chief creative officer, and also devotes time (and resources) to philanthropic efforts.
One of those is the DVF Awards which have taken place annually since 2010. The event aims to support women who have had “the courage to fight, the power to survive, and the leadership to inspire,” according to the organization’s mission. Each year five women are chosen and awarded a $50,000 grant to further their work in their respective communities by the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation. To date, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million.
Fast Company caught up with von Furstenberg as she was packing for a trip to her native Belgium. Here’s what she told us about focusing on empowering women through fashion and philanthropy and what she’s learned about creative leadership along the way.
On Creating An Awards Event Rather Than Just Writing a Check
I don’t like the word “charitable.” When you have any kind of success of any level, you have two things. One, you can pay your bills, which is a very comfortable thing to know that you can do. Second, you have a voice. What I want to spend my time for my third and last act, is using my voice and connecting the voices of other people to help the people who have no voices.
Ten years ago, we had just set up the family foundation, my son said to me, “You know, you care so much about women, you should have a prize.” In many years, it will be something of a legacy. He said, “It will be like the Nobel prize,” which obviously it’s not. I wanted to do a DVF award and I knew what it would stand for, but I was concerned about how to do it. When I got involved in the Women in the World, Tina Brown’s conference, I decided to take advantage of that pool and launch it then, which is what I do.
One the Most Rewarding Relationships with Award Winners
(Past award winner) Jaycee Dugard (who was kidnapped when she was 13 and was [held] for 12 years) is now 32 and her daughter went to college. She has a foundation and the logo of her foundation is a pine cone. Every time I see a pine cone I think of her. (Past award winner) Sunitha Krishnan has built centers in India for human trafficking and has become such a friend. (Another past winner) Chouchou Namegabe, the woman from Congo, now she’s studying at Columbia University. We have remained a family and we stay in touch with them.
All of these women who have gone through terrible things, then they turn around and they help others. They inspire me. I’m always so humble that when I listen to them and I say, “Oh my god I have done nothing.” It’s a beautiful thing. I learned from them, I love them and I love the idea that in some ways I can use whatever I have to help them.
On Amplifying the Voice of the Most Important Woman in Her Life
When I started to write my memoir The Woman I Wanted to Be, I really wanted to write my mother’s story. I realized that my mother’s story explains so well who I am and in so many ways, I am my mother’s vengeance. She used to say that God saved her [from death in the concentration camps] so that she could give me life and by giving me life, I gave her her life back. She used to say, “you are my torch of freedom.” You can understand if your mother tells you all your life that you are the torch of freedom, it becomes a very important thing.
On Inspiring Confidence
When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt. That’s what I repeat when I feel down. Don’t doubt your power. I just turned 70, and when you get to be old, you really have to use your experience. I have so much experience because I have lived so fully. I should be 150 because life has been so full. When you have an experience like mine, it is your duty to share it.
Mentoring is something that I love to do because my words can change somebody, because my words can give strength, because if I tell people that I sometimes wake up and I feel like a loser I know that maybe tomorrow you feel like one, you say, “You know what, Diane feels like a loser so it’s okay.”
On Staying Relevant At Any Age
At 28 years old I already had two children, I already had made money, I was already successful. I was on the cover of Newsweek magazine and I was already separated and having fun. I had it all really early.
As I turned this new decade (my 70s), I spent the last year thinking, what woman am I going to be for my third act? I can no longer be seductive or use the tools that I had when I was young. I have to use other tools. That’s why now, I have a new chief creative officer, I’m giving him little by little, the creative, but I’m putting him at the helm of my company, hoping that the company will last and he will refresh the brand. I will focus very much on the mentoring, the philanthropy, helping, using my voice, and connecting the people that I know with voice for people who have no voice.
I always tell women they should maintain an identity outside of their family life at all times. I really believe that because otherwise all of a sudden, you could say “What am I for, they don’t need me, the kids left,” and all of that. I think it is important to feel relevant after 40, 45, 50, whether your claim to fame is you do the best, I don’t know, marmalade or jam or whatever, you have to be useful and relevant. Everybody can be that.
On the Balance Between Vulnerability and Strength
I think it’s important to show, and to share your vulnerability. But what I also have learned is that all women are strong, but we are afraid to show it, whether it’s because of a man, or a brother, or a religion, or a father. Most often in our Western society, we don’t want to show it and we say, “Oh it’s not sexy, or all I want is to make my man feel big and this and that.”
Then you make yourself small and you start to believe that you are small. It isn’t true because when there is a tragedy, strangely enough it’s always the woman who takes over. It’s always a woman who saves the situation. My advice for women is always remember that and show your strength, or at least, you don’t even have to show it, but know that you are strong.