Sunday, August 31, 1997
Diane Von Furstenberg holds court. When she talks, people hush. When she jokes, people laugh. When she moves, all eyes follow.
``I have been many things in my life,'' says the fashion designer, 50, says in a French accent. ``First I was a wunderkind, then a success, then a recluse and, for a while, a has-been.
``And now they say I am an icon.''
Von Furstenberg crosses legs, bare and shapely, pauses to smooth the wrap-front of her dress. She pulls back long, dark hair to reveal an exquisite face. ``I think,'' she says with an off-center smile, ``I like this `icon.' ''
The word ``icon'' fits Von Furstenberg like her signature wrap dress. She has the aura of a woman comfortable on a pedestal. Born in Belgium, educated in Switzerland and France, Von Furstenberg married a prince and gained a title. She launched a business and made a name for herself.
In the 1970s, Von Furstenberg sold more than 5 million little wrap dresses. She licensed her name for a full-range of products from luggage and lenswear to fragrance and furniture. In 1976, Newsweek magazine put her on its cover and called her ``the most remarkable female in fashion since Coco Chanel.'' Andy Warhol immortalized her not once, but twice, in his signature iconic portraits.
Then Von Furstenberg entered her ``recluse'' stage. Actually, she moved to Paris and established a successful publishing house -- but because the books were in French, Von Furstenberg rarely made American headlines. Her licensed products, however, continued to generate $1 billion in sales. She returned to the United States in the 1990s and helped pioneer television shopping, hawking her ``Silk Assets'' line live on QVC, and later working with Avon on the Home Shopping Network. That's when hisses of ``has-been'' were whispered.
But big profits make good earplugs. Now Von Furstenberg seems destined to make even more money with a line called Diane, which includes wrap dresses, suits and separates, sold exlusively through Saks Fifth Avenue. ``This time,'' she says of the business. ``I'm determined to do it right.''
Von Furstenberg wanders between the racks at Saks Fifth Avenue in Portland straightening one dress on a hanger, adjusting a collar on a manikin. After seasons of black, black and more black, her collection boasts the subtlety of a kid's coloring book. There's a glass-green abstract, a blue-and-purple dot, and a multicolored mosaic print. ``The time is right,'' Von Furstenberg says of the revival of her wrap dress. ``Everything now is from the past.'' Von Furstenberg turns and stares at the escalator. Four figures appear, ascending with the moving steps. They rise up gradually like memories -- first heads, then shoulders, then complete outfits -- four young women in vintage Von Furstenberg dresses. ``I don't believe this,'' she says, laughing.
The women, along with the owners of Torso, a vintage boutique, have come to pay homage to a fashion idol. ``I love this,'' Von Furstenberg says, obviously delighted by the tribute. ``But this dress? This is not mine. It is a rip-off.''
The face of the woman wearing the fake turns ashen. Von Furstenberg quickly grabs the woman's arm, gives her an affectionate squeeze. ``But a good rip-off,'' she says. ``A very good rip-off.''
Von Furstenberg offers to buy the authentic dresses. John Hadeed, the proprietor of the vintage shop in Portland, is not persuaded by her offer of $50 each. At his store they sell for $150 and $275. ``But the new dresses cost only $190,'' Von Furstenberg says, both flattered and flabbergasted by the second-hand price. ``The old fabric is special,'' Hadeed reasons.
The '70s dresses are made of polyester. The new designs are of a silk jersey. Neither Hadeed nor Von Furstenberg notes the irony. Von Furstenberg ups her offer to $100 for the one dress. She wants it for her archives and to copy the print. Hadeed and his friends leave not with Von Furstenberg's signature on a check, but with her autograph on a keepsake card. He has decided to hold onto his merchandise. They pose together for photographs. Everyone smiles.
Alexandra Von Furstenberg, 24, listens passively to conversation between her mother-in-law and over-eager strangers. As talk grows more animated, she becomes more reserved. Her oval face remains placid; her dark, almond-shaped eyes gaze about the room. She seems not distant but tranquil, silently surveying the scene around her and probably forming some killer opinions.
Alexandra, like Diane, enjoyed a privileged up-bringing. Born in Hong Kong, educated in Europe and the United States, the young woman slips from French to English without a trace of accent. ``I've lived everywhere, but all I want is to stay in one place,'' she says. Alexandra met her husband, Alexandre, in an elevator. Their sisters knew each other from school in Switzerland. ``There was an immediate electricity,'' she says of that first encounter. ``As much as there can be at age 14.'' They started dating when she turned 18 (he was 21) and married two years ago. Now she works side by side with Diane who, no matter how wonderful, is still her mother-in-law.
``I just slid in,'' Alexandra says of her position as creative director. ``There's been no conflict. Not just between the two of us, but any family members. It has been easy.''
Diane thinks it's because the families have known each other for so long. The children hung out together, the world as their playground. ``And I was the cool mom,'' says Von Furstenberg says with a smile.
In the fitting room at Saks Fifth Avenue, a voluptuous blonde tries on one of Von Furstenberg's wrap dresses. The silk jersey clings to her every curve, almost as though it is enjoying itself.
``Beautiful!'' Diane proclaims. ``Sexy,'' Alexandra says. The two of them fuss over her, adjusting the wrap belt, cooing compliments. The woman looked wonderful before, but by the time they're finished with her she looks positively radiant. She buys the dress.
There is something strange about watching the two women -- women who most likely have maids at home to do this sort of thing -- hanging up clothes like shop clerks. But Von Furstenberg insists on hands-on selling. She and Alexandra are scheduled for appearances in 10 cities to launch the new line.
``This business belongs not just to me but to my children,'' Von Furstenberg says. ``I'm building it for them.''