On June 14, attendees at the Tribeca X Awards at the Tribeca Festival, presented by OKX in New York City, enjoyed a delightful chat between keynote speaker Diane von Furstenberg and late-night host and comedian Seth Myers. Recognizing the achievements of companies and creators who share a mission to connect with consumers through the power of storytelling, the awards really took off when von Furstenburg curled into her chair, and the power of her storytelling had the audience enthralled. When the organizers were considering who to bring on stage with the fashion designer, they turned to AI which offered up Myers, who also happens to be von Furstenburg’s friend and neighbor. “[And yet] we’re fighting against AI in the writers’ strike,” joked Myers, in reference to the standoff between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“How I was born defines everything that I am,” began von Furstenberg, whose mother, an escapee of the concentration camps and weighing only 49 pounds, was told by doctors she should not have children. Warnings that she could die or that the child would not be born normal went unheeded. Said von Furstenberg, “But I was not normal. My birth was a triumph over misery.”
Brand storytelling by Diane von Furstenberg
The designer believes that these circumstances predetermined that nothing would ever get the better of her. Indeed her brand has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows, from the roaring success of her wrap dress which she launched in 1974 to selling her brand and losing her name just a decade later, then starting all over again in 1998 to the fiftieth celebration of the wrap dress next year. “I hadn’t realized how much of my identity is linked to my brand,” said von Furstenberg. “I created the wrap dress, but truly the wrap dress created me.” The simple dress, often in colorful printed jersey material that wraps around the body, crosses at the chest and cinches at the waist, still sells widely with a customer base that skews towards younger women, something that pleases the designer immensely. You can tell she sees herself in her customers, the impression being that she has their back. Starting out at 26 with nothing but a suitcase of samples, von Furstenberg said, “I wanted to be a woman in charge, a woman who had a man’s life but in a woman’s body.” She described her career as a continuous reinvention of herself and that her image and the dress she created which, according to Forbes, had already reached one million sales by 1976, were conduits. “I was selling confidence,” she said.
Unapologetically referring to the dress as a uniform, she talks less about creating fashion moments than she does about making women feel beautiful. “I’ve always been a feminist and I encourage every women to be a badass,” said the designer. She re-crossed her elegant legs clad in stockings which provoked admiration from Myers.
In today’s corporate culture there is something almost disorienting about this kind of candor from the celebrated designer who is also the former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. But it is this quality that has allowed her to evolve her career over the past 50 years. She sold her dresses on QVC when it was considered the kiss of death for an elevated brand; she opened a store in NYC’s Meatpacking district “when it was still full of butchers” adding with a wink, “maybe it still is but they’re a different kind of butcher.” This pioneering spirit is just one of the facets of her personality that will be explored in the Hulu documentary that is currently being filmed about her.
In her signature drawl bearing the traces of her Belgian accent, she smiled mischievously, looked knowingly at the audience, all while maintaining a feline grace as she slid down further in her chair. She mentioned how she has always thought of herself as having three children: her son, her daughter and her brand. This jogged her memory of a story that clearly tickled her which she shared with the audience: “My son describes my brand as the son that is in and out of rehab. Sometimes, we’re all so proud and he’s doing so well; then a few years later he’s doing everything he can to kill himself.” The crowd erupted in laughter. Fifty years of storytelling on the back of one dress.