There is no shortage of books by or about Diane von Furstenberg, the designer who made a name for herself in the 1970’s with her famed wrap dress. At 68, DVF herself has written more than a half-dozen books, most recently a memoir “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” (Simon and Schuster, $26) published last fall.
There have also been more than a few biographies written by others about the designers. This month, a new entry from author Gioia Diliberto, hits shelves.
“Diane von Furstenberg A Life Unwrapped,” (Dey St., $28.99) doesn’t break a lot of new ground but if offers a compelling portrait of the designer, and it proves that telling stories about the wrap dress creator is as ubiquitous as women telling stories about their wrap dresses.
In the book’s prologue, Diliberto shares her own wrap dress tale — the night in 1977 when she wore a green and white geometric print wrap dress to interview for a job as a newspaper reporter. She spotted a good-looking man at the rewrite desk. He saw her too. She got the job and a few years later they were married.
I was too young to have a wrap dress story during DVF’s first foray in fashion, but I have my own tale from the mid – 1990s after she relaunched her brand. In my pre-journalist days, I worked as a research analyst and traveled to Europe and South America as often as three weeks per month. I wanted my style to reflect a certain Euro-chic. The catch was, it was my first real job post-college and I couldn’t afford designer clothing. So I got crafty and used award points from my corporate Amex to fund my wardrobe, including my first DVF, a graphic print black and white wrap dress purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue.
So yes, the wrap dress has managed to remain relevant for decades, and so has DVF, who in addition to resurrecting her brand in the nineties has also served as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 2006. In 2010 she created the DVF Awards to honor women who have transformed their lives or the lives of others. Winners earn $50,000 to continue their work at the organizations with which they are affiliated.
Diliberto highlights the usual notes on DVF’s background. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, DVF would break into the fashion scene determined to make a name for herself. She married the bi-sexual prince Egon von Furstenberg after learning she was pregnant, and DVF felt the need to prove she hadn’t trapped him by becoming successful in her own right.
Diliberto captures Diane’s determination in the early days to build a fashion brand and her great success striking the exact right note at the right moment with the creation of her modern wrap dress. Of course, there is some dispute about exactly who created the wrap dress. Two former employees insist that one of them, Richard Conrad, created the wrap. Another designer, Clovis Ruffin who died in 1992 said DVF swiped the design from him. DVF nor the author ever actually settles this dispute for the reader.
Just as her company took off, DVF’s marriage began falling apart, but she soldiered on, held up by the thousands of women parading the streets of Manhattan in wrap dresses. She and Egon wouldn’t divorce for another 10 years, but both had their respective romances which DVF reveals in the book, including her affairs with male Hollywood heavyweights (straight and otherwise) and women.
By 1977, the ride was slowing down. Stores were discounting the wrap dress and DVF realized her business had gotten too big too fast. But it was too late. She would spend the next few years trying out new fashion ventures, most of which never reached the heights of the past. When it was clear the game was over, DVF turned to romance and got involved with several ill-fitting suitors: a Brazilian artist she met in Bali and a moody writer, Alain Elkann, with whom she lived in Paris.
When she resurfaced in New York in 1989, the fashion world had changed. Her name was passe and she has lots of competition. Starting with a line for QVC, DVF staged a comeback, aided by the ever-present Barry Diller, who she would began dating again and finally married in 2001.
The rest of the story is pretty well-known. It’s all the stuff that has been written about DVF in the fashion press over the past 25 years. For that reason, Diliberto chooses to end her biography with the 2001 nuptials.
Anyone who is well-versed in DVF’s life won’t find a lot of new material, though they will hear from DVF’s kids, friends and husband. Most refreshing is her son Alex von Furstenberg who does not mince words when talking about his mother, from the company’s poor brand image of to his mother’s squishy advertising slogans that do nothing to push her closer to her desire to be “as big as Chanel.”
It’s some of the same stories, told through different eyes, and just like the wrap dress, they never really get old.