♪ [Phonograph record crackling] ♪ Rubenstein: This is my kitchen table and also my filing system.
♪ Over much of the past 3 decades, I've been an investor...
The highest calling of mankind, I've often thought, is private equity.
and then I started interviewing.
I watch your interviews because I know how to do some interviewing.
I've learned from doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top... Bezos: I asked him how much he wanted.
He said, "250."
I said, "Fine."
I didn't negotiate with him, and I did no due diligence.
Rubenstein: I have something I'd like to sell.
and how they stay there.
You don't feel inadequate now because being only the second wealthiest man in the world, is that right?
[Laughter] Diane von Furstenberg may be best known to women around the world as the creator of the iconic wrap dress, but in addition to running her fashion company, she's been deeply involved in philanthropy.
With her husband Barry Diller, she helped to create the High Line and also Little Island on the West Side of New York.
She also now leading the effort to raise money for the Ellis Island Foundation.
I had a chance to sit down with her recently to talk about her extraordinary life and her dedication to philanthropy and to her family.
So let me ask you about something I can say I'm not an expert on, which is fashion.
Nobody's ever considered me a fashion plate.
You invented something called the wrap dress about 40-plus years ago...
Von Furstenberg: Oh, yeah, almost 50 years.
Rubenstein: and it's one of the most famous designs in the last 50 years, and women are still wearing it, so tell me, were you surprised that after almost 50 years, women are still wearing the same design-- obviously different dress, but same design-- as something that was popular almost 50 years ago?
Von Furstenberg: Yeah.
I mean, it's-- You know, people say I created the wrap dress, which is true, but really, the wrap dress created me because, because of that dress, I became the woman I wanted to be.
I became independent.
By being independent, it paid for my children education.
It paid for my house in the country, paid for my apartment, so it made me free, and it made me liberated, and it was the time of the women's liberation, so and, because it was a dress, the more confident I became and the more confident-- I was passing on this confidence to other women through this little dress that I would go around and wrap around women's bodies, and so in a sense, now that I look back, now that I'm an older woman and so on, I look back, it's almost like I was a conduit, you know?
I was a conduit for confidence for many generation of women.
Rubenstein: So how long did it take to develop the wrap dress?
Was it something that came to you like that, or was it many years?
How did it develop?
Von Furstenberg: When I was 20, I went out of college, and I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to be a woman in charge, so how?
Which door was going to be my door?
So I thought, "Maybe fashion," so at first, I worked in Paris for fashion photographer's agent, and that got me.
I discovered the world of fashion, and then I met the father of a friend of the brother of my boyfriend, whatever, in Italy, and he said, "You know, you should come and discover the other side of fashion where we make fashion," so then I discovered, you know, all about printing, you know, how you buy artwork and how you put it in repeat and how you print it, and you work with the colorist and learn how to do a color palette, so it was really a craft, and so I didn't think that any of this was gonna be useful to me at all, but it was very interesting.
I then went to America for the first time to visit my boyfriend.
My mother gave me a ticket to go to New York and visit him, and I discovered New York, and I couldn't believe it.
I was 19-- Yeah.
I mean, I couldn't believe how-- I said, "I have to come back here," and also while I was in New York-- Because my boyfriend then was a young, very attractive prince, so he was very much, you know, in demand in New York.
He was very good-looking, and, because he was in demand and I came as his girlfriend, all the designer wanted to lend me clothes and blah, blah, blah, and so while I was here-- I mean, I stayed about a month, I think-- I discovered so much.
I discovered New York.
I discovered all these young designers, and when I went back, all I could think about is, "How do I get back to New York?
How do I get back to New York?"
and when I went back to work in the factory, all of a sudden, I looked at everything there, and I said, "Oh, there is my door.
There's an opportunity.
"Let me try to make some easy, easy, little dresses that I can then go and sell in America," and that's how I started, so I would stay late at night with a pattern maker and make some samples and so on.
Rubenstein: For those who are watching who may not be fashion experts, what, exactly, is a wrap dress?
You know, what was so unique about it?
Von Furstenberg: You wrap your body... Rubenstein: OK.
Von Furstenberg: so it started from these little sweaters that ballerinas wear, you know, when they get cold, and it wrap-- it's like a kimono, right, a Japanese kimono, but it's very tight, and because it was jersey, you wrap it very tight.
Von Furstenberg: That was the difference, and it was just a wrap dress, and it was printed because I was in this print factory, so it was a wrapped-- First, it was a wrap top with a wrap--with a skirt, and it did really well, and then I said, "Oh, I've got to turn it into a dress," and then it became a dress, and before I knew, at the age of 26, I was making 25,000 wrap dresses a week.
Rubenstein: And you became very famous.
Von Furstenberg: And I became very famous.
Rubenstein: There's a story that "Newsweek" was gonna put Gerald Ford, President of the United States, on the cover and they bumped him for you.
Von Furstenberg: For winning his primary, yes, but then I discovered that it was the month of March, and the month of March is usually when they want subscription renewals, and so they would think that maybe I would be a more attractive cover than-- Rubenstein: An attractive woman on the cover might be better.
OK, so let's go back a moment.
You grew up in what country?
Von Furstenberg: Belgium.
Rubenstein: And your mother was a survivor of Auschwitz.
Is that right?
Von Furstenberg: Yeah.
Rubenstein: And how did she survive Auschwitz?
She weighed only 59 pounds when she came out.
Von Furstenberg: 49.
Von Furstenberg: How do you survive?
I don't know.
I don't know.
I mean, very, very, very few people survived.
She was 22.
I mean, she got arrested, she was 21.
She stayed 14 months, and she really got arrested very late.
It was May '44, and but she worked while she was there.
She worked at the Krupp factory, so, you know, when you were working, they wouldn't kill you, so that's the first thing, and then after that, there was the famous death march, and they went, and they walked to another camp--Ravensbruck.
A lot of people died on the march.
She thought she was gonna die on the march, but she didn't, and then after that as they were losing the war, they pushed back more, and then she ended up in another camp, and then one day, the Germans had gone.
Then the Russians came and raped every girl, and then after that, the Americans arrived.
Rubenstein: Now, your mother had a tattoo at Auschwitz.
Von Furstenberg: Two.
Rubenstein: Two, so did you ever ask her when you were little what that was?
Von Furstenberg: Oh, yeah.
Everybody asked her, and then she had it removed.
She had one number and then crossed and another number.
I mean, for me, it was-- you know, it wasn't odd because I'd always seen it like that.
I knew she had been to the camp.
I mean, you know, there was a little talk about it, but she shielded me from it all without making it a big mystery.
Rubenstein: So you come to New York.
You're the Queen of New York because you're-- or the Princess of New York because you're very young.
You're in your 20s.
You made a lot of money by any normal standards, and you're the queen of the fashion world, I'd say, right, so how do you top that?
Von Furstenberg: There's no such thing as going to the top, top, top and continuing to go to the top.
Also, I think it's really important, I always make a point to tell people that sometimes when you are at the very top, that that time I was on the cover of "Newsweek" and then on the front page of the "Wall Street Journal" and everybody was buying my dresses and I was acclaimed as the big success, I myself already knew that things weren't so easy because, in a way, I had saturated the market, you know, so-- Rubenstein: Right, so everybody had a wrap dress, and nobody needed to buy another wrap dress.
Von Furstenberg: That's right.
Everybody had many wrap dresses.
Rubenstein: OK, so did your business go down after a while?
Von Furstenberg: Yes.
Then I licensed it, you know, and then I li-- You know, I mean, life is, like-- It's, you know, you go as you go, so I licensed my dress business to a company that I thought had more experience than I did, and they continued to develop it, and I decided, "Now I'm gonna be Estee Lauder," and I started a cosmetic company.
Rubenstein: But while you were doing that, you led the very interesting life of a socialite in the Seventies in New York.
You're meeting with Andy Warhol and other people.
What was that life like?
Everybody famous who was young was a friend of yours, it sounds like.
Von Furstenberg: Well, New York City in the Seventies was many things.
For one thing, it was very dirty.
It was very dangerous, and it was very cheap, and, therefore, a lot of artists were here.
It was a very exciting time.
It was a time that people wanted freedom.
We thought-- Our generation thought we invented freedom, which, of course, we didn't, and it was fun, and there were a lot of creative people, and Andy Warhol was everywhere, and there was a lot of other people, and it was fun, but, I mean, it's always fun when you're young.
Rubenstein: So Andy Warhol said, "Hey, I'll paint the picture of you"?
Was that happening a lot?
Von Furstenberg: Andy Warhol did my first portrait one night very late, but he was looking for a white wall because he would take a Polaroid, and then he would use the Polaroid and paint from there, and but he needed a white wall, and in my home, they had no while walls, so we went to the kitchen, and because the white wall in my kitchen was so tiny, I lifted my arm, and that was the first time he painted me, and then he painted me later for a show that he was planning to do in the Eighties called "Beauties."
Rubenstein: And did he give you the paintings, or he-- Von Furstenberg: He gave me-- OK.
The first one, he gave me one.
I bought two.
The second time, he gave me one.
I bought none, and when he died, I bought them all.
Rubenstein: So let me ask you-- Your business is moving forward.
You're in the cosmetics business.
You're getting in other businesses-- fragrance and other things.
Life sounds like it's great.
Everything is going well.
Did at some point all the businesses go down and after a while, it wasn't so good?
Von Furstenberg: There always are ups and down and ups and down.
I had the first phase of my life is very much American dream, OK?
I lived a true American dream, really.
I was young.
I was inexperienced, and I became very successful.
After that, you know, I had difficulties, I had da-da, and then finally, I ended up selling the cosmetic, and then, of course, by then, my children are teenagers, so they went to boarding school.
At that time I decided.
I went back to Europe.
I lived in Paris for a few years, and then I came back here, and then by then, my brand was really-- Wow.
It was, like, bad.
It was in discount stores, and everybody had done everything, and that was difficult.
That was a difficult time for me to see because everything until then was great and wonderful.
Even when it wasn't great and wonderful, it was still exciting, but then coming back, I mean, and seeing the brand and the people who were in charge of the brand and they didn't care, I mean, there was no spirit.
There was no messaging.
There was no nothing.
That was really difficult, and--I don't know if it's as a result of that-- but at the same time, I also had a cancer.
I had a cancer at the bottom, at the base of my tongue, and I think it has something to do with the fact that I couldn't express myself.
Anyway, so I dealt with that, and I also then dealt with taking back my name and starting again.
Rubenstein: You started all over, a company now, I guess, known as DVF, your initials, right, and so that company then began to recreate some of the things you'd done before, including the wrap dress, and it turned out the wrap dress was more popular than even had been before, practically, so was that a surprise to you that the wrap dress was still so popular?
Von Furstenberg: You know, when it's your life, I mean, you know, it's just one day after another day after another day.
It's only when you look back that you are surprised or when you look back that you have time to say, "Ooh, that was great."
When you're living it, you just, you know, survive.
I mean, you know, young woman, two children, I separated so quickly from my husband, and then, you know, it's a lot to do running a company, you know, so I didn't have the time to think, "Am I surprise?
Am I what?"
Rubenstein: What does DVF now do?
Von Furstenberg: Well, actually, DVF has been many, many, many products over the years.
After COVID and after all of the change, you know, COVID was also a moment of resetting, right, so I-- I don't want to take adv-- I can't say take advantage of something as negative as COVID, but we were forced to look at the business model and reset the business model.
Rubenstein: Because under COVID, people weren't going out in fashions, right?
They weren't wearing fancy clothes.
Von Furstenberg: But also, stores were closed.
We had to close, so, I mean, it's a lot of different things at the same time, and, of course, the business online, and so it was a moment to reset.
Rubenstein: So how is the business today?
Von Furstenberg: Well, it's being reset, and it's actually very interesting.
You know, I'm a very positive person.
My mother-- My mother was a survivor, right, so, as a survivor, life is what matters, right?
As a daughter of a survivor, the minute I was born-- I mean, she wasn't supposed to survive.
I wasn't supposed to be born, and yet I was born, so I realized that the moment of my birth was already a victory, so anything that happened after that was a plus.
Rubenstein; So the company you run today is a privately owned company.
Von Furstenberg: Mm-hmm.
Rubenstein: Have you ever thought of taking your company public?
Von Furstenberg: No, but, you know, right now, it was important for me-- Now is the legacy moment of my life, right?
Now is the time that you look back at your life, and I'm happy to see that somehow it's coherent.
I was born on New Year's Eve, so every year, I make resolution, so I divide my life in 3 columns.
One is my family, one is my business and my brand, and one is me, so looking back now on my life, I look at my family-- you know, my two children, my 5 grandchildren-- and I'm very proud of them.
I'm very proud of who they are.
I'm proud of the people they are.
I'm proud that they are not banal.
They are fun.
They're generous, and they care.
Then there's my brand, so there also I had to reset the brand and make sure it was close because sometimes when you grow, you lose your initial spirit, your initial reason to be, and then the third part, me, is about the impact, is about today using all the things I have-- my voice, my experiences, my knowledge, my memories, my experiences, my resources-- and using that in order to make other women be the woman they want to be.
Rubenstein: Do you think people who are CEOs should speak out on public issues if they think that something bad is happening or something good is happening?
Do you like to speak out on public issues?
Von Furstenberg: I like to speak in general.
I speak to myself, and I like to speak, and I like to use-- Yeah.
I do believe-- I think words are very powerful, and I think that if you have a voice, you should speak, yes.
Rubenstein: So from reading your books-- and you've written 8 books, I think it is; that's a lot of books-- you said in one of the books that what you wanted to do was to live a man's life in a woman's body.
What you meant by that was what?
Von Furstenberg: Oh, and by that mean that I wanted to be able to do everything a man does and yet enjoying being a woman, yeah.
Rubenstein: Because men could start businesses and can do other things that women traditionally didn't do.
Von Furstenberg: Yeah, so men can call a woman and, I mean, do all kinds of things, so why can't a woman do that?
That was the most important thing for me, to be a liberated woman, but I was part of that generation.
Rubenstein: As a feminist, you were an admirer of Gloria Steinem.
Von Furstenberg: Yes.
Gloria Steinem for me, as a feminist, she was my idol.
She was my idol.
Now she's a friend, and but-- and I remember she created that magazine called "Ms.," M-S, and which means we're not either Miss or Mrs., and I remember when I separated and eventually divorced from my husband the prince, I joked, and I said, "I gave up the title of Princess for the title of Ms." Rubenstein: So you and your husband separated.
Ultimately, you divorced...
Von Furstenberg: That was a long time ago.
Rubenstein: long time ago, and you married Barry Diller.
Von Furstenberg: After I separated from the father of my children, I met Barry, and we fell in love, and we were together for 5 years, but I guess that, again, it was the Seventies, and it was important for me to experience, and so we separated, and, you know, I lived my life, but Barry and I, we kept very close-- I also kept very close to my first husband-- and somehow Barry and I, I think we both knew somehow at some point we would end up together, and then about 20 years ago-- yeah, 20 years ago-- we got married.
Rubenstein: OK, and both of you together have been extremely successful in the business world and also in the philanthropy world.
Let me ask you about your philanthropy for a moment.
You and your husband helped to create the High Line, which is something in New York, the West Side of New York, where it was gonna be taken down.
These are old rail lines that were gonna be taken down under, I think, Mayor Giuliani, and then you convinced Mayor Bloomberg that you can make a artistic kind of place out of it and a place that people can walk and have an enjoyable time.
Is that more or less right?
Von Furstenberg: Well, when I started the company again in--when was that?--OK, '97, I said, "Why am I renting those expensive offices uptown?
"Let me buy a little building downtown," and I came in this neighborhood, Meatpack, and full of butchers-- there were only butchers-- and I bought a little carriage house, and I decided to make that my showroom and my office, and everybody said, "What are you doing there?
"Who wants to go and work there?
It smells so bad, blah, blah, blah," but I did it, anyway, and then when you move to a new neighborhood, you meet your neighbors, and I met these two young guys who had a dream, and the dream was to transform this elevated railroad-- railway that went from Gansevoort all the way to Javits Center-- it was abandoned-- and to turn it into a park, and it was going to be knocked down.
Anyway, those two guys had this dream, and they saw my studio, and they said, "Do you mind?
Do you think you could do-- we could do a fundraising in your studio?"
and that's how my relationship with the neighborhood and with the High Line started.
For one thing, we made the-- we turned this neighborhood into a historical preservation.
Then somehow we turned, convinced.
We turn around the High Line, and it was very difficult because all the developers wanted the real estate.
Those same developers, by the way, now are so proud to be on the High Line.
The High Line became the number-one destination for tourists.
Rubenstein: You are now involved in helping to repair the Ellis Island buildings.
Is that right?
Von Furstenberg: Well, yes.
First, I was among the board of the foundation of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the first thing I did was raise money to create the museum for the Statue of Liberty, so I got very close to her, Lady Liberty.
I didn't want to do it.
I really didn't want to.
I said, "If I go on another board, my husband will be so upset," and then he read my book, the man who wanted to get me, and in my book, he read that my mother had written me a note saying, "God saved me so that I can give you life.
"By giving you life, you gave me my life back.
You are, therefore, my torch of freedom," so he underlined that, and he said, "You see?
You got to come and help the Statue of Liberty."
Rubenstein: So the hardest thing in life, I've often said, is to be happy, but you seem like a very happy person.
Von Furstenberg: It's like nature.
Nothing ever stops, so you could be super happy one minute, and then something happens, so it's just living.
It's the joy of life.
Rubenstein: For any young woman that's watching this, wants to be the next Diane von Furstenberg, what would you recommend?
Von Furstenberg: I think the most important thing in life is the relationship you have with yourself.
Once you have a good relationship with yourself, any other relationship is a plus and not a must, and the second advice is to be as true to yourself as you possibly can, and it's not easy, and you have to accept and own things you may not like, but the more you could be you, the happier you will be.