Authors: Gioia Diliberto
Since the start of Diane’s career almost a half century ago, American fashion has changed immensely. Marketing, something for which she has a natural gift, has become increasingly important as the focus of the industry has shifted away from the intricacies of craft, of construction and fit. In this sense, fashion has moved closer to Diane’s idea of affordable, wearable clothes that delight as much for the intangible qualities they evoke as for their components of style. She overrode her own insecurities with tough determination. “What I think I’m really selling is confidence,” she often says. For Diane, an all-enabling belief in oneself is a woman’s best asset, more alluring even than the perfect little dress.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, WHEN I
first approached Diane about writing this book, her reaction was “Let’s wait until I’m dead.” She worried that a biography published during her lifetime would literally kill
her—a superstitious fear, certainly, but one based on personal experience. The European writer she’d lived with in Paris had written a biography of the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, and soon after it was published, Moravia dropped dead. (He was eighty-two.)
Nevertheless, Diane and I continued to correspond, and gradually she warmed to the idea of my writing about her. Finally, she decided not to stand in my way. She introduced me to her family and friends and encouraged them to talk to me. Though Diane has had no control over this book and did not read it in advance, no subject was off-limits. “I have no secrets,” she says.
secrets. One recent morning, as soon as she sat down to talk to me in her office following a photo shoot to promote her new E! reality show,
House of DVF,
she removed the hairpiece she’d worn for the pictures and flung it onto the table.
It’s hard to imagine the earnest bohemian I saw on the rue de Seine in the mid-eighties, or the intimidatingly glamorous businesswoman I ran into on Madison Avenue five years later, having the insouciance to be so open. But Diane has come a long way in twenty-five years. Like only a handful of fashion figures, she has succeeded in imposing her vision on the culture—a view of women that joins feminist ideals of independence and achievement to old-world notions about sex and femininity. She told Kathy Landau, her onetime vice president of design, that she knew she wanted to be famous at age twelve—from then on, everything she did funneled toward that end. Her career represents an iconic success for a modern woman and a case study in how to catch your dreams—even while sleeping around and smoking a lot of pot. Diane had no unique talent, no formal training, and no college degree. She rose to the top of American life on sheer will and hard work—okay, also with a little help from two wealthy husbands and some well-connected friends.
Indeed, Diane has an astonishing array of influential and powerful friends from the worlds of politics, business, publishing, theater, Hollywood, fashion, and philanthropy. It would be easy to attribute her cultivation
of life’s top achievers to opportunism. On the other hand, it’s hard to find anyone who says an unkind word about her.
“Feline,” the adjective most used by reporters to describe Diane, implies cunning as well as sleekness. Speaking in a vaguely foreign accent, her voice has a sensual purr, yet her manner in person is candid and humorous. “I always seem to be at a turning point,” she said to me while perusing entries from her old diaries. “And I’m always getting my period.”
Diane is unselfconscious and does not embarrass easily. Few people would choose the journalist who held them up to ridicule in a major magazine to cowrite their memoirs, as Diane did with Linda Bird Francke. Nor would many people send to acquaintances photos of themselves with a swollen and black-and-blue face, as Diane did several years ago following a skiing accident.
Walking through the woods at Cloudwalk, her Connecticut property, recently, Diane was dressed in black leggings shot with holes and a pair of black Uggs, while a gaggle of little white dogs yapped around her. Her phone buzzed every few minutes, but she ignored it to focus on our conversation. Diane’s talk ranged from the origin of Cloudwalk’s name—possibly a reference to the ethereal clouds over a volcano in Bali, a favorite destination of the estate’s original owner—to the book she’s reading (a new biography of Coco Chanel), to her children and grandchildren, to a long-ago love affair that ended badly.
Among the five houses at Cloudwalk, Diane installs her guests in the original dwelling, a four-bedroom home with a big, Martha Stewart kitchen, a cozy living room with a fireplace, bookshelves, and comfy furniture that Diane says hasn’t been re-covered in forty years. In good weather, meals prepared by Lourdes, the cook, are served on the terrace by the pool.
Diane herself sleeps in what was once the tobacco barn and is now a dramatic studio/boudoir with vaulted ceilings, treasures from her travels, and an immense table that looks like it was carved from a giant tree.
“Like Tolstoy, I love huge desks,” says Diane, whose New York office also holds an exceptionally long table.
The basement of the building houses Diane’s vast archive, a half century of fashion and personal history—racks of dresses, stacks of plastic bins holding fabric swatches, diaries, and letters—all meticulously organized by Diane’s longtime archivist, an Italian linguist, who, as a student in the 70s, worked as Diane’s au pair.
Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped
traces her life in detail to 2001, the year Diane married Diller. As the title attests, I’ve been most interested in exploring the forces and people that shaped Diane. I cover the last fourteen years—which have been well documented by the fashion press—more glancingly in the epilogue.
This is the story of how Diane became DVF. It begins in Brussels with a young woman who survived against all odds to become Diane’s mother.
ifteen days after being freed from the Neustadt concentration camp at the end of World War II, Lily Nahmias arrived home in Brussels, stumbling off a train in scuffed soldier’s boots, her emaciated body hidden under the olive-drab uniform a GI had given her to cover her rags. When her fiancé, Leon Halfin, saw Lily, then twenty-two, he couldn’t believe she was the same woman he’d fallen in love with two years before. She sensed Leon’s revulsion at her ravaged appearance—though he never said anything—and offered to release him from his promise to marry her. But Leon, an electronics salesman ten years Lily’s senior, was a man of honor, and the marriage went ahead as planned. When Lily gave birth to a perfect little girl on New Year’s Eve, 1946, she felt reborn herself. And for Leon, who’d lost most of his family in the war, the birth “turned life into gold. It started all my good luck,” he later said. The new parents named their daughter Diane Simone Michelle. She was their miracle baby, their revenge on the sorrow and horror of the past.
With Diane’s birth, the beautiful life Lily had envisioned once again
seemed within reach. She’d been born in Salonika, Greece, in 1922 and had emigrated with her parents and two older sisters to Brussels when she was seven. Her father, Moise, worked for Maison Dorée, the most luxurious textile shop in the city—a relative of Lily’s mother, Diamante, owned the shop. The family lived in bourgeois comfort at 45 rue de la Madeleine in a posh part of town. Lily was completing high school at the Lycée Dachsbeck in May 1940 when the Germans occupied the city.
Lily, her mother’s sister, Line, and Line’s husband, Simon Haim, owner of the Maison Dorée, joined the exodus of Belgian Jews to Toulouse in the unoccupied part of France. One day, Simon Haim brought Lily to a meeting with an exuberant, dark-haired Russian émigré, Leon Halfin, who was acting as a broker to exchange money for the refugees. Leon had arrived in Brussels in 1929 at seventeen. He had planned to become a textile engineer, but when his father’s textile business in Kishinev went bankrupt, he gave up his dream of attending university. He went to work, eventually finding a job with Tungsram, the Hungarian manufacturer of vacuum tubing and lightbulbs.
Leon was living in a hotel in Toulouse, hustling work while waiting out the occupation. He and Lily struck up a friendship. Then word came from Brussels that it was safe to return—the Germans weren’t mistreating anyone—and so everyone packed their bags and went home.
Soon after, the Germans ordered all the Jews in Brussels to register at Gestapo headquarters on avenue Louise. On December 19, 1940, Mosche Nahmias dutifully recorded the birth dates and other biographical information about himself, his wife, and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Lily, in the Gestapo register. By this time, Lily’s eldest sister, Juliette, was married and living with her husband, Darius Levi, and their small son above the lingerie shop they owned at 15 rue Haute. Another sister, Mathilde, lived in Paris with her Spanish husband.
The stories of German tolerance that had drawn the Nahmiases back to Brussels quickly proved unfounded. German soldiers patrolled the streets, checking identity papers, sometimes pulling on the yellow Stars
of David Jews were required to buy for five francs and wear at all times. If the cloth stars had been loosely basted instead of sewn on and came off easily, the soldiers would issue fines to the offenders and sometimes arrest them. Jews disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Jewish musicians, doctors, teachers, judges, and salesmen lost their jobs.
Because of the German race laws, Lily was not allowed to attend university, as she had hoped. Instead, she enrolled at a trade school in Brussels and trained to become a modiste, a ladies hat maker. By now Leon Halfin had left Tungsram and fled to Switzerland. “My father was not the sort of person who could hide in someone’s house and wait for the war to be over. So he took the risk of fleeing,” says Philippe Halfin, Diane’s brother.
Leon packed a few clothes and stashed a trove of gold coins in his socks. Diane still has them, and when she feels anxious—before a fashion opening, say—she tapes one into each of her shoes. Leon traveled with a Christian girlfriend named Renée. At the Swiss border, police confiscated his money (it was returned to him when he left the country after the war) and kept him under surveillance as a Jewish refugee. Within no time Renée eloped with a Swiss policeman, and Leon began to think of the pretty girl he’d met in Toulouse. He wrote Lily a letter, which reached her by chance.
Before the war, she had been the adored baby in the family, so sheltered that her parents would not let her leave the house to go shopping without a chaperone. But when the family returned from Toulouse, her parents sent Lily to live with a Christian couple in Auderghem, outside Brussels. They probably did not know that the husband and wife were resistance workers for whom Lily acted as a courier, delivering false identity papers to Jews trying to escape Brussels. One day, when she was making her rounds on her bicycle, Lily decided to visit her family home on rue de la Madeleine. As soon as she entered the building, she had a feeling of lightness, as if the roof had been removed. Her parents
were gone and the apartment was empty, all of the furniture and valuables stolen.
The Nazis had driven the Nahmiases out. One night a few weeks earlier, a pounding on the door of their apartment came so loudly that Lily’s parents could feel it in their stomachs. A swarm of Nazis rushed in, knocking over lamps and tables, rummaging through drawers and cupboards, and stashing silverware in their pockets. The couple was forced to move in with their daughter Juliette on rue Haute, adjacent to the commercial district, which had been designated the Jewish zone. Cold with panic, Lily fled the building, glancing in the mailbox on her way out. It held a single letter—Leon’s.
Within no time, hundreds of pages flew back and forth between the young lovers. For Lily, life in Brussels had become a shimmer of fear, with the only moments of calm provided by Leon’s letters. He poured out his heart to her:
This will be over soon; we will get through it and be together.
In one letter, Leon proposed marriage; in her response, Lily accepted. Diane still has the letters, marked with a thick blue vertical line in the margin, indicating that they had been cleared by the censors.
Since they’d been born in Salonika under Turkish rule, and since Turkey was neutral in the war, Diamante and Moshe Nahmias held a measure of protection—the Germans weren’t arresting Jews with Turkish passports. But Lily had been born while Salonika was under the rule of Greece, which was now at war with Germany. Late on the night of May 5, 1944, during a routine roundup, Brussels police wearing swastika armbands nabbed Lily in the apartment where she’d been living. In subsequent days she managed to write a couple of notes to her parents, which somehow reached them. “I think a lot about you. That’s what makes me courageous,” she had scrawled on a piece of cardboard. “I love you so much. Excuse me if I’ve ever given you any trouble.”
The same day of Lily’s arrest, Diamante and Moshe Nahmias were sent to an internment camp in a former old-age home in Scheut, a suburb of Brussels, where they were imprisoned with other Jews whose Turkish passports,
wealth, high status, or friendship with the Belgian queen Elisabeth dissuaded the Nazis from deporting them to concentration camps. They remained there until November 1944, after the liberation of Belgium.
Meanwhile, Juliette and her husband had gone into hiding at the home of Christian friends. They notified Leon in Switzerland of Lily’s arrest, writing in code: Lily has been hospitalized, and we are praying for her.
The bare facts of Lily’s arrest and imprisonment were recorded by the Nazis in meticulous ledgers that have been preserved at the Musée Juif de Belgique in Brussels. She remained in prison in the town of Malines for ten days, leaving on May 17, 1944, on Convoy 25, the second-to-last to transport Jews out of Belgium to German concentration camps. It carried 507 men, women, and children; Lily was prisoner number 407. Her postage-stamp-sized picture, pasted in the Nazi record book with pictures of 25,000 other deported Belgians, shows a lovely young woman with light, wavy hair dressed in a fitted coat and scarf. Throughout her life, the first thing people noticed about Lily was her smile, dazzlingly warm and bright. In almost every picture that survives of her she is smiling. Not in this one.