Authors: Gioia Diliberto
Her dreams became focused on Diane.
Don’t be just a wife; you can do more,
Lily insisted. She was strict, far stricter than Leon, who traveled constantly for business and wasn’t around to discipline the children. Indeed, her child-rearing methods could be harsh. “She was a tiger mom,” says Diane. To cure Diane of her fear of the dark, for example, Lily once locked her in a closet. Diane was terrified, but it worked: she never feared the dark again.
Lily pushed Diane toward independence, and the little girl loved “the illusion” of having her own separate life. “When I was eight years old my mother put me on a train by myself to go to Paris, where I was met by my aunt Mathilde,” Diane wrote. “I loved the adventure.”
Girls who grow up to be famous rarely begin life in sweet docility. Diane didn’t want to please. She wanted to rule. “I still feel sorry for children. . . . I have the absolute opposite of Peter Pan syndrome,” she told Fern Mallis in a 2012 interview at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. She was frustrated being so small and powerless, so fully dependent on adults who were deeply flawed. She knew she was stronger than her mother, which contributed to her feeling of preternatural maturity.
She couldn’t wait to start her
life, and she spent a lot of time fantasizing about what she would do when she was free and what kind of woman she would be—she would re-create herself as beautiful, independent, and confident, what she would later call the DVF woman.
Every day Diane took tram number four to the center of Brussels with her best friend, Mireille Dutry, one of the delicate blondes in her class. Their favorite game was “pretending we were princesses,” says Mireille. “We called each other Princess. Princess Diane, Princess Mireille. At the same time, of course, we were shooting water pistols at each other on the way to school.”
Ever since Disney released the animated
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
in 1937, the company has been trading on little girls’ fantasies of growing up to marry a prince. For European girls who’d been raised in societies that actually had monarchies, that fantasy was even more powerful. “It would be something you could really aspire to,” says Myriam Wittamer, another childhood friend of Diane’s.
As one of the best-known women entrepreneurs in Brussels, Tinou Dutry, Mireille’s mother, ran a successful exporting business with her husband. She led the kind of purposeful life that Lily wanted for Diane and that Diane wanted for herself. Auburn-haired, beautiful, and impeccably dressed in fitted suits, Madame Dutry clicked briskly through her
apartment on the highest heels, impressing Diane with her glamour and confidence. Diane was “totally sure” that she wanted to be exactly like her when she grew up.
The Dutrys often traveled for their business, and Mireille and her sister were raised by maids, a situation that opened up opportunities for the children and their friends to get into mischief. Diane and Mireille “were two devils,” says Mireille.
From her bedroom in the family’s penthouse apartment on avenue de l’Orée, Mireille could see across the rooftops into Diane’s bedroom on avenue Armand Huysmans, and they developed a system for signaling with lights when someone approached on the streets below. A boyfriend meant three flashes; two flashes meant “Beware, your parents are nearby, and if there’s a boy in your house, you better get rid of him,” says Mireille.
As Diane moved closer to adolescence, the strains in her parents’ marriage became more pronounced. Leon never really understood the full psychological and emotional consequences of Lily’s wartime experience. For her part, Lily came to believe that men were weaker than women, less astute and shrewd.
(poor things), she called them, with a mixture of contempt and pity. Diane absorbed this attitude, and it fueled her sense of self as strong and powerful, the equal or better of any man.
When the Halfins traveled, they flew on separate planes, so as not to orphan their children in the event of a crash. On one trip to New York, Lily found herself seated next to a handsome Swiss businessman, Hans Muller, and they struck up a conversation. He was ten years younger than Lily, divorced and the father of a young son, Martin. He became her lover.
“I’m sure it was a more playful relationship [than she had with Leon] because it didn’t come right after the war,” says Tatiana. “Maybe Hans gave her the chance not to be seen as a victim, to have fun, to travel. He was younger, hotter.” Still, Lily was never wholly committed to the relationship, Tatiana says. “She always had one foot out, you know. Hans never became integrated into the family as a stepfather or a stepgrandparent.”
Martin Muller disputes this version of his father’s relationship with Lily. Though it might have cooled a bit by the time Lily’s grandchildren came along, it was “during the years they lived together a very passionate, de facto marriage,” he says.
Hans Muller had grown up in Alsace. His Christian father had died when he was a baby, and he’d been raised by his Jewish mother. Before World War II they’d crossed the border into neutral Switzerland, where they remained. Hans married a Swiss woman, who gave birth to Martin in 1953. At age three, the little boy was horribly injured in a car accident and hospitalized for several months. During that time, his mother met and fell in love with an American man and moved with him to the United States. “I never saw my mother again,” says Martin, who is now a gallery owner and book publisher in San Francisco.
Hans traveled even more than Leon Halfin. His work bartering commodities took him around the world. “By his early thirties my father had been to just about every country on the globe,” says Martin.
At the height of the Cold War, Hans grew rich structuring extraordinarily complex deals in Eastern bloc countries that were closed to most Westerners. He would sell Colombian coffee and Israeli bananas, say, to the Czechoslovakian government, which would pay him in typewriters and bicycles. Then he’d sell the typewriters to Sears & Roebuck in the United States and the bicycles to China.
When Diane was thirteen, Lily arranged to send her to boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, which was near Geneva, where Hans lived. By now, Lily was spending a great deal of time in the large apartment Hans shared with Martin and the child’s nanny, Gilberte, in Champel, a posh section of Geneva noted for its parks and expensive homes. Leon didn’t want Diane to go to boarding school, but she was thrilled to be getting out of Brussels, which she found excruciatingly boring. She hoped something exciting would happen to her once she left home.
Lily delivered Diane to her new school, the Pensionnat Cuche, on a sunny September day. After dropping off Diane’s luggage in her room,
they went into town for tea. “You will become a woman soon,” Lily said, looking intently at her daughter.
Diane blushed to her ears. “Don’t worry, I know everything,” she stammered.
Lily smiled. “Remember, we all do the same things. We work, we eat, we cry, we make love. What makes you different is how you do it.”
It was typical of Lily not to deliver the clichéd parental lecture about how boys only had one thing on their minds and don’t respect girls who are “easy.” “I loved her for saying that to me, for trusting me, for telling me that all that mattered was that I take responsibility for myself, and if I could do that, my life would be about more than the things I did; it would be about how I did them,” Diane recalled.
The Pensionnat Cuche was the start of Diane’s transformation, of her becoming the confident, independent woman she’d dreamed of becoming as a child. Just being on her own, away from her family, gave her a feeling of strength and freedom that imparted a mature, assured cast to her face and manner. When she returned to Brussels for the Christmas holiday, her brother went to the airport with Lily to pick her up. “I didn’t recognize Diane, she was so profoundly changed,” Philippe recalls. “She may have cut her hair. But it was more than that. She looked completely different. She was not the same person in my eyes.”
After Diane had been at boarding school for two years, Leon insisted she return to Brussels. “My mother wanted me to be exposed to [the wider world], but my father didn’t understand why I wanted to go to boarding school,” says Diane. Their marriage was dissolving, and they fought constantly. Tensions between Leon and Lily that had been there from the start, including Leon’s workaholism and Lily’s depression, came to a head over her affair with Hans Muller. There was much to keep the couple together: their children, of course, and their shared experience of the Holocaust. But “my grandparents were trying to run from their pain instead of connecting through it,” says Tatiana. “I was never there when they were together, but it didn’t seem like they were a good match. I
think Leon had the emotional depth, but I don’t think he had the intellectual or poetic depth” to satisfy Lily.
Diane sided with her mother and didn’t speak to her father for long periods. Lily wanted her freedom and independence, and Diane felt she deserved it. But Philippe, then nine, was devastated. “The divorce was war. It was really tough, and it broke the family apart,” he says.
At fifteen in 1962 and eager to improve her English, Diane enrolled in Stroud Court, a girls’ boarding school in Oxfordshire, England. Though essentially a finishing school, Stroud Court offered its students a solid, general education. Diane read the canon of English writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde and John Keats, and the great Russian writers, including Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. “Growing up I was interested in literature more than anything,” Diane once told a reporter. “But when I asked somebody, ‘What can you do if you like books?’, they said you could be a librarian. The librarian in my school had big thick glasses and bad breath, and I didn’t think I wanted to be a librarian.”
In her spare time, Diane explored the English countryside with its lyrical, rolling hills and romantic, twisting rivers. Her interest in nature, which had begun in Brussels during her long walks with Mireille in the Bois de la Cambre, grew into a passion. It was the start of an aesthetic awakening, the beginning of her understanding of art and design, of texture, light, and pattern. She lovingly recorded her experiences in journals and photographs, a habit she has kept to this day.
At the time, Diane had no idea that she would become a designer, but many of her early prints were inspired by the animals, trees, and flowers she saw as a schoolgirl in England. Her signature style of vividly colored bold prints derived from hints of nature—the bark of a tree, the shape of a leaf, the stones of an old garden wall, water rippling through a river.
Her forays in nature opened her heart to beauty, and her reading of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” led her to think about its larger meaning. In papers for English class, she explored beauty as a defense against death and the passage of time. To love beauty, whether in the form of an
antique urn or an exquisite dress, is to be connected to a long, rich history of beautiful things and the people who cherished them.
She also discovered physical love. Her first year at Stroud, she lost her virginity with a Persian boy named Sohrab who was studying architecture at Oxford. After she’d slept with Sobrab, she wrote to a boy she’d dated in Brussels but refused to sleep with because “at fifteen I was too young,” telling him that she’d finally had sex.
Diane also had an affair with a lesbian friend named Deanna. “She was very shy and masculine, and she intrigued me,” says Diane. “I was in love with her.”
During Diane’s time at Stroud Court, London was undergoing a transformation. On periodic trips to the city, Diane and her friends shopped on King’s Road, the nerve center of swinging London, where electric-guitar sounds pounded from the boutiques and the salesgirls aspired to look like Jean Shrimpton, a willowy, doe-eyed cover model with long, straight hair, white lipstick, and black, feathery lashes. Mod fashion was part of the excitement of the age, along with the pill and rock music, and it gave the boarding school girls entrée to a new world of sex, glamour, and celebrity. Just by wearing vinyl go-go boots and microminis they felt like they were almost dating Paul McCartney.
It also gave Diane a vivid glimpse of the symbolic power of fashion, of how clothes are always more than clothes—how they offer clues to personality and character, to cultural and social currents. Most of all, clothes reflect the wearer’s sense of self. It was an insight Diane would later exploit to great effect.
Historically, women’s fashion had been a story of shackles and pain: hoops; bustles; voluminous, filth-gathering skirts; enormous, feather-bedecked hats; and corsets that distorted and squeezed the body to near suffocation. Fashion depended on the wealth of fathers and husbands and the aid of armies of servants. It symbolized the helplessness of women and the constriction of their lives. Who could think clearly under a hat that looked like a catering tray and weighed as much as a baby? A woman
in billowing skirts couldn’t even get into a carriage by herself, let alone enjoy relatively spontaneous sex. As Jean Cocteau once noted, with so many layers of complicated clothing, getting undressed for a tryst had to be planned like moving house.
At the turn of the century, Paul Poiret designed clothes that didn’t require disfiguring corsets. Then, after World War I, Coco Chanel created a style of casual elegance epitomized by easy-to-wear jersey suits and “little nothing” dresses that still define how women want to look. With one brief throwback to the Belle Epoque—Dior’s 1947 “New Look” that returned women to full skirts and structured bodices—fashion since 1920 has been a celebration of modern women, of their freedom, sexuality, power, and beauty.
The clothes of the 1960s, when Diane came of age, signaled the triumph of youth—from Mary Quant’s minis, Ossie Clark’s hippie-chic frocks, and Zandra Rhodes’s flamboyant colors, to the hard-edged, space-age shapes of Courrèges and Paco Rabanne. For Diane and her friends these clothes were a rebellion against the correct formality of their mothers, who still wore gloves and hats, stiff suits, girdles, and pointy bras.