DVF eyes the Mainland

Diane Von Furstenberg by Li Songsong (left) and Hai Bo (right)
Images courtesy of Pace Gallery, Beijing

During New York Fashion Week I was able to speak exclusively with designer Diane Von Furstenberg about her latest exhibition which opens in Beijing this Saturday. Read on to find out more…

Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg has been given many titles in her life – mother, working girl (via Dolly Parton’s song of the same name), princess and president (of the Council of Fashion Designers of America). While she may never be America’s first lady in the political sense, she comes close in the sartorial stakes.

“Look at this picture,” she says getting up off the couch in her private office at her headquarters in the Meatpacking District of New York.

“This is Mrs Obama’s Christmas card and look at what she is wearing. It’s a reissue of the first wrap dress I designed 37 years ago and now here is the current  president’s wife wearing it in 2010. It goes to show how it’s still relevant.”

While von Furstenberg has achieved many things in her life, her iconic wrap dress is one of her greatest fashion accomplishments and has become a uniform for women around the world. As such, it is the subject of a new exhibition that is opening in Beijing this weekend, after successful tenures in Moscow and San Paulo.

Journey of a Dress, which will be shown in the Pace Gallery in the 798 Art District, combines the designer’s love for art and fashion. It will feature about 60 looks spanning four decades of her career, along with items from her personal archives such as photos, clippings, illustrations and fabrics. Also on display will be a selection of art works by her friends and some of the 20th century’s most successful artists, including Francesco Clemente, Francois-Marie Banier and Anh Duong, as well as photographers Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovitz and Francesco Scavullo. And yes, one of her famous Warhols (one sits behind the aforementioned couch in her office) will also be on display.

“There will be four sections divided into themes – the American Dream, Studio 54, Femme Fatale and Working Girl. It’s all of the facets of the clothes I make. It’s designed as a narrative that tells the story of the brand and how our look has evolved,” she says.

“The set-up is also unique. If you stand at one end of the gallery and look in one direction you see all my designs. From the other end, all you see is the art. At the back we will also have a 3-D wall playing the video of our recent autumn-winter show.”

Von Furstenberg has also commissioned four prominent Chinese artists to create original works for the exhibition, including conceptual artist Zhang Huan, photographer Hai Bo, painter Li Songsong and multimedia artist Yi Zhou. While she hasn’t seen any of the final pieces in person, highlights include the 3-D animated video portrait by Yi Zhou, which depicts von Furstenberg in a dreamlike sequence, blowing female icons from her mouth such as Audrey Hepburn, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Obama and even Wonder Woman.

“Doing this in China is important on many levels. First of all, I want to be known in China. My book is being translated into Chinese and it’s also a great exhibition to be shown in countries that have changed so much in the past 30 years. I have shops in Shanghai and Beijing already with more coming. Overall, we want to open 15 stores,” she says.

To coincide with the exhibition launch, she is also hosting an exclusive Red Ball in Shanghai a few days before with the help of friend and fellow “working girl” Hung Huang, a television host, writer and publisher sometimes described as China’s answer to Oprah Winfrey.

“I first went to China in 1990 and since then it is always changing. There are so many talents in China; they need some polishing, but they are there. We would love to set up something similar to the CFDA in China. It’s also exciting because women there are so strong and that’s what I believe in,” she says.

While her China plans are keeping von Furstenberg busy, her true passion is her role as an advocate for women’s rights. Now in its second year, the newly established DVF Awards recognise outstanding female leaders around the world, with winners receiving a US$50,000 endowment to help advance their cause. This year’s recipients include Sohini Chakraborty, an Indian woman who teaches abused women to regain their self-confidence through dance and cultural expression, and American Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped at the age of 14.

“These women like Elizabeth are such an example and inspiration for survival. They all remind me of my mother and what she went through during her life.

“I feel as I get older my mission in life is to empower women. I do it through fashion, through mentoring and philanthropy but it is all the same thing. My family thinks I do too much,” she says.

Hopefully, her load will lighten thanks to new creative director Yves Mispelaere, who joined the team last year. He brings with him experience from brands such as Valentino, Chloe and Prada and is designing his third collection for DVF.

“I wanted to expand into accessories but I wanted to give the job to someone who could understand everything I had done in my past. Yves is perfect.  It’s funny because he says that everything he has done up to now was so he could get to this role with my brand. I feel good because I can let him do his thing. I am still involved but I know that I will be less with him,” she says.

Together they have launched the Diane Vintage collection, which features her vintage prints on a range of affordable accessories including iPad cases, wallets, totes, hats and so on. More lines are planned for the future, which will no doubt keep von Furstenberg busy until she is ready to pass the torch to the next generation – including one of her granddaughters.

“What I now realise is that it’s definitely a brand that has  with a legacy. I have children and grandchildren, so I hope to leave something behind that they can take on. One of my  granddaughter is going to work with us,” she says with a smile.

Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress; April 3-May 14; Pace Gallery, 798 Art District, Beijing.

(Published in the SCMP, Wednesday March 30, 2011)