NEW YORK >> Designer Diane von Furstenberg’s current favorite model is, not surprisingly, tall — more than 100 feet, actually. And though this model’s 225 tons don’t exactly fit into a DVF wrap dress, she does have some rather iconic accessories: a tablet and, most importantly, a torch.
Von Furstenberg’s latest project — part of a redirection of her energies in the year since she handed over the creative reins of her company — is the Statue of Liberty. More specifically, it’s a new museum that aims to better serve the four million-plus visitors who come to Liberty Island each year, since the vast majority can’t get into the statue itself due to increased post-9/11 security. The goal is to raise $100 million for the project, which is slated to open in 2019; Von Furstenberg has already raised $74 million in a year and a half, according to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
But the veteran designer, who recently turned 70, says she had one key request when signing on as chair of the fundraising campaign: “Don’t call me chairwoman. Give me the title of temporary godmother.”
It’s an apt title in a number of ways. For one thing, “Diane really is a godmother of fashion,” says Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, where von Furstenberg serves as board chair. In her role — she was president of the organization for about a decade — she is a key influence and source of support for up-and-coming designers, Kolb says.
And as she shifts into the latest stage of her career — a year ago, she ceded her company’s creative director position to Scottish designer Jonathan Saunders — she has focused increasingly on projects that promote women, including her annual DVF awards, now in their eighth year. She also often speaks to groups of women and girls, and is on the board of Vital Voices, the women’s leadership organization.
In her CFDA role, she notes, she writes to designers before Fashion Week, reminding them to avoid using models who are “too thin and clearly starving themselves to death.” And the flashy CFDA Awards ceremony that she presides over each year had a more political bent earlier this month, honoring three women for their roles in the Women’s March on Washington in January: feminist author and leader Gloria Steinem, Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards, and singer/actress Janelle Monae. “Fashion is a reflection of our time,” she explains. “The women’s march was a very major thing … there’s really a sense of activism that has happened. So it was natural to give them this award.”
The designer calls this time in her life and career her “third act.”
“I always used to say that life has three moments,” she says, sitting in her downtown office on a recent afternoon. “One is development, until about (age) 30. One is enjoyment, and then the third, the last season of your life, is somehow about fulfillment.”
She says she’d been preparing for the milestone of turning 70 — which she reached on New Year’s Eve — for about a year, asking herself, “What kind of senior citizen do I want to be? How do I stay relevant?”
What she decided, she says, was to use her voice to focus on women from the inside, rather than the outside. “All my life was about creating a product, fashion, something (women) could use to be the woman they want to be, and now in my third act I want to use my voice to help women be the woman they want to be, but from the inside,” she says. “Because it doesn’t matter how successful and powerful women are … sometimes you wake up in the morning and you feel like a total loser. I know I do.”
When the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation came calling, von Furstenberg says, she thought, “‘Oh my God, my husband is going to divorce me if I join one more board.’” She also professes to not enjoy asking people for money.
But then, as she recounted to guests last week at a sunset event on Liberty Island, she read about the statue’s story, and found herself riveted. As for the foundation, they were looking for “a woman who spoke French,” quips president Stephen Briganti. He says the Belgian-born von Furstenberg was also perfect because she herself arrived as an aspiring designer in America — those jersey dresses in her trunks — by boat, catching sight of Lady Liberty as she arrived. (Unlike most immigrants, though, she had just married an actual prince.)
Von Furstenberg says her new project was also inspired by her late mother. As she recounts in her 2014 memoir, “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” the designer’s mother served in the Resistance in Belgium during World War II, was arrested in May 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. She was one of the very few who survived — the camp was liberated by the Soviets in January 1945 — and when she made it back to Belgium she wrote on a form that she was “in excellent health” even though, her daughter says, she weighed about 50 pounds.
“My mother always said God saved her so she could give me life,” she says. “And she used to add, ‘You are my torch of freedom.’ So it’s kind of the end of a cycle.”