Diane Von Furstenberg hopes to strike gold again with 'sock' dress

April 08, 1992|By Mary Gottschalk | Mary Gottschalk,Knight-Ridder News Service

Diane von Furstenberg is hoping to sock it to the fashion industry. Again.

Two decades and a title ago, the then-Princess von Furstenberg started selling what was quickly dubbed "the little wrap dress," priced around $55. Other designers pooh-poohed her, but women didn't. By 1976 the price was in the $75 to $90 range, women were buying 15,000 of the brightly patterned cotton jersey dresses a week and Ms. von Furstenberg was on the cover of Newsweek.

Now Ms. von Furstenberg's latest designs, including what she's calling the sock dress, are arriving in stores across the country. Prices will range from $120 to $170.

There are several designs in the line, almost all variations on her original wrap theme, but it is the intriguing sock dress that is most likely to cause consumer interest.

It's really one piece that "you wear like a sock; you walk into it when you put it on," says Ms. von Furstenberg, explaining why she dubbed it the sock dress.

The dress looks like a three-piece ensemble comprised of a straight skirt, tank top and wrap blouse in bright, tricolor combinations of reds and oranges or purples and blues. Sizes are 4 to 14; materials vary from stretch wovens with Lycra to sand-washed silk, rayon and linen.

The dress line also includes one combining a black-and-white-striped wrap top with a black skirt, some gingham combinations with tops and bottoms in different size checks, floral prints and, for summer, halter-top versions.

"They're fabulous," says Christy Clark, merchandise vice president for dresses and women's suits at Macy's. "They definitely fill a void in modern career dressing. They will appeal to the sportswear customer who doesn't normally go to dresses. Also, the prices . . . represent a value. Women don't like to pay more than $200 for a dress, and these are well under that."

Can Ms. von Furstenberg strike gold in the garment business a second time?

Consumers will make the final decision, but Ms. von Furstenberg had a sense of deja vu when she sold 27 of her new dresses in two hours at a recent personal appearance at a Macy's in Stamford, Conn.

The designer sees more similarities than differences between her designs of 1972 and 1992. "It's basically the same idea," she says. "It's meant to be functional, practical, pretty, easy and sexy. More women are working today, and they are more career-oriented. The skirt is stretch woven so it looks proper, but you could go home riding a bicycle because of the stretch.

"They don't look good on a hanger," she warns, adding, "but they look good on a woman. They adapt to your personality."

Ms. Von Furstenberg's original wrap was much the same: limp on the hanger, flattering on the body. "It was a fail-proof dress, there was nobody that couldn't wear it. I loved it," recalls Addie Kopp, who bought the dress for her Addie Raymond stores in San Jose, Calif. "People collected them. I'll bet there are still women wearing them today."

Now retired and making retail choices as a shopper, Ms. Kopp says, "I know I'll be looking at them."

Ms. von Furstenberg was surprised by her initial success.

"I was never interested in becoming a designer."

The wrap dress, which actually started off as a wrap top in 1971 and evolved into a dress the following year, was a design Ms. von Furstenberg whipped up for herself. "It's basically a dress without buttons or zippers -- that's the idea. Wraps are traditional in China and India."

With advice and encouragement from the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who featured a wrap dress in Vogue, Ms. von Furstenberg borrowed $30,000 from her father and launched her business.

As her design career was on the upswing, her 1967 marriage to Prince Egon von Furstenberg was on the downswing. The fairy-tale romance of a handsome prince marrying a beautiful commoner made them the couple of the hour when they moved from Europe to New York in 1970. Their every move was chronicled in society and gossip columns, culminating in a 1973 New York magazine cover story on their lifestyle that included candid comments on their sex life, implying liaisons on the side. It was hardly a surprise when they separated soon afterward.

"Strangely, my private life has been so entwined with what I did," Ms. von Furstenberg says. "It happened by accident, but the personalization helped sales. It was a strange destiny.

"Still, I raised my children and the result is better than splendid, and I have managed to have a private life. I guess I talk very candidly, but nobody is without flaws and insecurities."

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