Authors: Gioia Diliberto
Her chief talent, though, had little to do with the nitty-gritty of designing, of mastering technique and conjuring innovative shapes. “My strengths have always been in the marketing of an idea,” Diane said. “I’m involved with an attitude. I think of what women want to wear.”
Lugging her Vuitton suitcase full of samples, Diane made the rounds of New York retailers. She had three styles—a T-shirt dress, a shirtdress, and a long, tented dress. These were “classic dress bodies that had been around for a long time, but no one had really played them,” says Richard Conrad, who became Diane’s partner in 1972. “They fit almost everyone, and when you put them in a fabric [like Ferretti’s] that no else could make, you had winners.”
Still, the clothes took a while to catch on. Some store executives refused to even meet Diane. Others looked at her samples without buying anything. One exception was Ron Ruskin, the executive vice president of Best and Co. Diane “just showed up” at his office one day, Ruskin recalls. “No appointment. My secretary buzzed me and said, ‘There’s a woman here who’s hugely pregnant, and she has some samples she wants to show you.’ They were unique. Different from what we had. More European, dressy. I was impressed, so I sent for our buyer. She was impressed, too, and we placed an order.”
Diane’s son, Alexandre, was born by cesarean section on January 25, 1970, after Diane had been in labor sixteen hours. The night before,
Diane and Egon had gone dancing at one of the popular new discos. The jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane remembers that she was wearing a dress covered in glittering paillettes, and that he “was dancing madly with her. Maybe that’s what brought on her labor.”
With a nanny to care for her son, Diane occupied herself with launching her business and getting back in shape so she’d look the part of a glamorous princess. She later admitted that she wasn’t very maternal when her children were born. Instead of enjoying them, she was obsessed with losing her pregnancy weight so she’d fit into her jeans.
In the minds of many of the von Furstenbergs’ Park Avenue acquaintances, Diane’s little dress operation was a hobby, not a real business.
Isn’t it nice that Egon’s wife has something to do during the day? Aren’t her little dresses sweet?
But Diane clung to her work as a lifeline. “I was racked with insecurity,” she wrote. “I had no identity of my own. No one really knew who I was, not even me. The person who went to parties was Princess von Furstenberg, a character who’d stepped out of a fairy tale. It was just as much a fairy tale to me.”
Soon after Alexandre’s birth, Diane’s first shipment from Ferretti’s factory arrived at Kennedy Airport. At the customs warehouse she discovered that the fabric content listed on each garment had been written in Italian. So Diane sat on the floor of the icy warehouse for hours, crossing out the Italian on the labels and rewriting the fabric content in English.
With a few small accounts to keep her going, Diane traveled on her youth fare card to Italy to oversee production of her next batch of fashion. Ferretti was supplying her with the materials and labor on long-term credit. She paid him back as the clothes sold, but her orders during those first seasons were small, and she was never sure Ferretti would actually fill them. His factories were busy churning out mountains of T-shirts and other items, and Diane had to beg and use every wile in her arsenal to persuade Ferretti to stop his machines to make her clothes.
In New York, Diane hauled her samples from store to store in search of more accounts. Her dining room served as her office, with a big black
phone and order books from Woolworth’s on the table and clothes hung over the backs of chairs.
In March, Diane got an appointment with Diana Vreeland, the influential
editor. She had been to Mrs. Vreeland’s office once before, when she’d first come to New York to stay with Egon and thought she might like to be a model. The Empress of Fashion had made it clear that Diane wasn’t modeling material. Since then, Diane had seen Mrs. Vreeland at parties in Manhattan, and now she stood nervously in her red lacquered office, the scent of Rigaud candles filling the air. A group of editors surrounded a model who was trying on a series of outfits. To one side stood Vreeland herself, a tall, beaked crane of a woman with rouged ears, Vaselined eyebrows, and a severe black bob so rock hard with hair spray that it was said to “clink” whenever a waiter bumped it with a tin tray. Vreeland’s voice was as magnetic as her person, a gravelly bourbon-and-cigarette mix that shocked and delighted with its Delphic pronouncements: “Pink is the navy blue of India.” “Blue jeans are the most beautiful thing since the gondola.” “The bikini is the most important thing since the atom bomb.”
It was hard to know if Vreeland was ridiculous or a genius; perhaps she was a little of both. She exemplified what was fun and exhilarating about Fashion and also what was silly. She was affected and imperious to the point of freakishness. Many people were terrified of her. Not Diane.
She arrived with a beat-up suitcase holding wrinkled dresses. “We had the model try on Diane’s clothes,” recalls Grace Mirabella, an assistant to Vreeland who would soon succeed her in
’s top job. “It was the first time I’d seen them, and they were just nifty,” a favorite
adjective. “They were so simple and right for the moment.”
“Terrific, terrific, terrific,” pronounced Vreeland before disappearing out the door.
Vreeland loved “body-celebrating fashion . . . that worked with the dynamic, active [figure], and she continued to venerate it throughout her time at the magazine,” wrote biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.
Diane’s fashion fit this aesthetic. But not all of
’s editors were impressed. Several of them thought Diane’s clothes were unexceptional, not particularly well made or inventive. Still, as Diane was packing up to leave that day, one editor, Kezia Keeble, took pity on her and advised her to show during New York Fashion Week, the biannual event that allowed designers to display their wares for buyers and the media. Fearing that the sharks on Seventh Avenue “would eat me up,” the scared newcomer avoided the Garment District, where most designers showed their work (Fashion Week had not yet been organized at one central location). Instead, as Keeble advised, Diane took a small showroom in the more comfortable territory of Midtown, at the Gotham Hotel on Fifth Avenue at Forty-Sixth Street.
She hired a model, Jane Forth—a pale, skinny teenager who was part of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and would soon be on the cover of
as “the new now face”—and got on the phone to buyers. She wasn’t shy about using her title. “This is Princess von Furstenberg,” she’d say. “I’ve designed a collection of dresses in Italy I’d like to show you.” She also organized a small fashion show in the Gotham Hotel’s banquet room with students from a modeling school she found through the Yellow Pages. Someone had given her a bouquet of tulips, so she gave each girl a tulip to carry.
Some of the buyers came to Diane’s showroom because they’d read about her in the society columns and they were curious. Many of them left without buying anything. Diane’s first sale that week was to Sara Fredericks, a dress shop in New Jersey. Soon after, Fred and Gayle Hayman, pioneers of Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and owners of the swank boutique Giorgio Beverly Hills, bought sixty dresses. They sold them to actresses such as Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen, who were photographed wearing them to Hollywood parties, which generated a flurry of important early publicity for the young designer.
Diane’s clothes had the soft, sensual feel of silk slips yet looked polished enough for a date or a job interview. Diane had seen something new
on the streets of New York, in the way women wore their miniskirts and flirty boots, their tight, skimpy shorts and long, swinging hair. She had captured the sexy exuberance in the air and reflected it back to the world in printed jersey.
The collection Diane showed at the Gotham Hotel set the tone for all that was to come: easy, flattering clothes at affordable prices. There were three basic looks: pants with tunics, floor-length dresses, and shirtdresses that tied at the waist. Most were prints, either blurry flowers on dark backgrounds or paisleys. Many of the tunics had hoods, a precursor to the hoodie, which would become an iconic garment of hip-hop culture. Everything was priced between $24 and $100, $570 in today’s dollars.
The clothes sold well, and the reorder rate was high. Though Diane’s business was not yet making money, she was on track to turn a profit. What’s more, she had the support of Diana Vreeland, “who was really crazy about Diane’s clothes and had the authority to put her on the map,” says Gloria Schiff.
“I think your clothes are absolutely smashing,” Vreeland wrote Diane on April 9, 1970. “I think the fabrics, the prints, the cut are all great. We hope to do something very nice for you.”
To appear in
which at that time published two issues a month, meant instant exposure to America’s most fashion-conscious women and all the nation’s important retailers. In 1970 the editors suggested a date to run a picture of a Diane outfit, but she pushed for an alternative date that would better suit the schedule of deliveries from Ferretti’s factory.
Grace Mirabella was stunned. “‘Don’t put me in
’ wasn’t something we were used to hearing very often,” she recalls. “In the end, Diane had to go along with what we wanted to do, but she was stern about it for a long time.”
One of Diane’s outfits—a long, hooded cape with a matching tunic and pants—appeared in
on July 1, 1970, in an article titled “You’re Going to Love the Way You Look in the New Fashion.” Four months later, on November 1, the magazine featured one of Diane’s outfits that
sold for one hundred dollars—a pale violet flowered cotton tunic with elasticized waist and cuffs over matching pants—in an article titled “More Dash Than Cash.” Two weeks later Diane was in
again. In a feature on accessories, a model wore one of her panne velvet dresses.
Around the same time,
Women’s Wear Daily
anointed Diane “New York’s newest designer,” a key affirmation from the feisty tabloid that covered the fashion industry and from its powerful publisher, John Fairchild.
Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, Fairchild had the virile elegance of a matinee idol and, in fact, had posed for recruitment posters during a stint in the army. His polished, to-the-manner-born looks, however, belied his toughness and aggressive, scoop-obsessed journalistic style. His father, Louis, had inherited the paper from
father, but until John came along,
was a staid, black-and-white broadsheet that covered everything from the Paris collections to the zipper business in an earnest, colorless style.
John Fairchild changed all that. With a talent for cattiness that comes so naturally to those in Fashion, he began gleefully panning collections, breaking release dates on sketches of clothes, and reporting whatever scurrilous gossip about designers he heard. He stopped at nothing to get a story. Sometimes he disguised reporters as messengers. Other times he had them stand in the windows of buildings opposite couture houses in Paris to get the dirt on the designers’ inner sanctums.
Thanks to these tactics and his cultivation of sources, often disgruntled underlings at the top houses, he had his share of fashion scoops. While
’s European bureau chief in 1957, he got ahold of Givenchy’s tradition-smashing sack dress weeks before it was shown to buyers and splashed it on the publication’s front page.
Fairchild reveled in his power to make or break designers and to set trends. He could be capricious and vindictive and occasionally reckless, sometimes publishing unfounded rumors as fact. But
also wrote about fashion incisively, often with literary flair and acerbic wit. Fairchild himself wrote a column posing as the fictitious Hungarian countess Louise
J. Esterhazy, a name he borrowed from Comte d’Esterhazy, one of Marie-Antoinette’s best friends. He made fashion provocative and new. He wrote about the intersection of fashion, the arts, politics, and society at a time when the mainstream newspapers and the business press did not cover fashion seriously and when the fashion magazines devoted themselves to puffery and fantasy.
Fairchild was largely responsible for creating the cult of the celebrity designer. He covered designers like movie stars, running pictures of them at glamorous parties and writing about their homes and love lives. But he doesn’t think he or
had much impact on Diane’s career, because the newspaper didn’t give major play to mid-priced clothes. “We were sort of stuck in the rut of very, very, very, very High Fashion,” he says today.
Still, Diane and all designers—high and low—were helped by Fairchild’s elevation of fashion in the culture at large. What’s more, Fairchild liked and admired Diane. “She has a lot of guts. Diane’s tough but not ruthless. She’s daring and naughty, and her clothes, too, had that naughty European look,” he says. That didn’t stop
from poking fun at her or dissing her collections from time to time. Yet, overall, the newspaper and its sister publication, the oversized monthly magazine
launched in 1972, gave her positive coverage.
DIANE’S ASSORTMENT OF KNEE-LENGTH
shirtdresses, pants with tunics, and floor-length dresses was one of the few fashion success stories of the 1970 season, which had virtually been ruined by John Fairchild’s militant promotion of the midi—or longuette, as he dubbed it—mid-calf-length skirts, dresses, and coats.
Miniskirts were still the cornerstone of many of America’s most popular dress and sportswear collections, but Fairchild was sick to death of them. Skirts had been steadily rising since the mid-sixties and by 1970 had gone about as far up the thigh as they could go. Instead of promoting practical knee-lengths, however, Fairchild decided to push the midi,
a dowdy look hitherto associated with Amish women and turn-of-the-twentieth-century suffragettes. Starting in January, in stories, gossip columns, and pictures,
had relentlessly plugged the longuette. At the time, the nation was suffering a recession. Many clothing manufacturers had gone out of business, and retailers were skittish about taking gambles on clothes that might not sell. They relied on
to tell them what women wanted, and so they stacked their racks with midis. That season Diane, too, produced a midi—in brown, blue, and red velvet—and
quoted her saying, “Longuette is the length of today.”