Pedigreed saleswoman Fashion: Diane von Furstenberg married a prince, but she never settled for the socialite's life. Instead she built her own empire by selling a dress.

December 13, 1998|By Loretta Grantham | Loretta Grantham,Cox News Service

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - She's slouched way down like a kid bored in class, nearly sliding right onto the floor.

This plopped-on-the-sofa posture is surprisingly bourgeois for Diane von Furstenberg - princess, world traveler, '70s wrap-dress creator and bearer of one of the most recognized names on the planet.

This is her very last chat - done, kaput, finito - on a wearying two-week jaunt to promote her autobiography, "Diane: A Signature Life," released this month. And she's been back to her hotel just long enough to change into a white cotton Jil Sander shirt ("It's tailored like a man's, but it's cut for a woman") and Romeo Gigli striped leggings. She wears a large, rectangular diamond on her right hand. ("I like it," she jokes, "because it looks like Barbie's ring.") And there are still little round dents on her earlobes, a telltale sign of clip earrings just removed. Ahhhhh.

She resembles one of those Palm Beachers shopping at the farmers' market on Saturday mornings - untucked, not much makeup or jewelry, but still something that whispers rich.

"I did three television interviews this morning, and then I spoke at the Miami Book Fair - a big crowd, about 400 people," she says, fiddling with the cap from her Aquafina water bottle. "So, yes, I've done the dog-and-pony show."

The author yawns, then sits up straight. Time to focus.

We're in the lobby of the Marlin hotel, all stainless steel and

South Beach slick. The silver sofas have big rubber wheels that look as if they've been swiped from an industrial cart. (The hotel ++ is owned by her buddy Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records - as in U2 and Bob Marley. DVF, you see, knows everybody.)

She says the book is more business memoir than autobiography. But "A Signature Life" provides enough dish that even daughter Tatiana found it revealing.

"I want it to be inspiring for women," von Furstenberg says. "Besides, the heroine is my mother."

Von Furstenberg's mom, Lily Halfin, is a Holocaust survivor who gave birth to her only daughter in 1947, just 18 months after being freed from a concentration camp. Her dad, Leon Halfin, spent the war in Switzerland and married his wife in Belgium, where he prospered in electronics. Six years later, the couple had a son, Philippe.

"My childhood was perfectly happy, but I didn't particularly enjoy being a child," recalls von Furstenberg, 51. "I never played with toys or dolls, and I loved when people thought I was older than I really was."

And now?

She pauses. "Yes, I think I would still consider it a compliment."

But this grandma-to-be (her daughter-in-law, the jet-setter Alexandra Miller, is due in the spring) is nobody's bootee-knitter. Even in the sunlight, which can be unforgiving, von Furstenberg looks regal. Her fingernails are short and natural, but her toenails are bright red. Plenty of spunk remains.

In short, here's how von Furstenberg married a prince and landed in the States:

Leaves Brussels at 13 for boarding schools in Switzerland and England.

Five years later, studies economics at the University of Geneva, where she meets European aristocrat Prince Eduard Egon von und zu Furstenberg at a nightclub. Isn't enthralled at first, but finds herself attracted to his "helplessness" when their car gets stuck in the snow. ("I love vulnerability in men.")

L Egon heads to New York for training at Chase Manhattan Bank.

Her mom gives her a plane ticket to visit him in America on her 21st birthday, and Egon introduces the slim brunette to fashion dominatrix and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.

The couple marry July 1969 in Paris, DVF three months pregnant. Lily Halfin "liked Egon very much." Egon's German relatives, however, were outraged. His father attended the wedding but skipped the reception. (Later, with her logo attached to more XTC than $1 billion worth of merchandise, his family grew to accept her as "the smart Jew," von Furstenberg has said.)

They return to New York, and their first child, Alexandre, is born six months later.

"Although I was an inexperienced young girl, I was also a $H European princess and embraced by the city," von Furstenberg recalls. "It opened doors."

Her daughter, Tatiana, came along in 1970, and just two years later, the von Furstenbergs were on the cover of Town & Country as "the couple who conquered New York."

But DVF made a name for herself after showing Vreeland a few dress designs she'd been peddling around town in a suitcase. One was a snug jersey knit deal that wrapped and tied on the side. Conservative yet sexy. And perfect on just about any figure.

The "wrap dress" would become the defining frock of the decade, worn by suburban matrons, socialites and secretaries alike.

(Trivia: She planned to call her fashion company Diane Furstenberg, but jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, a friend of Egon's, said the von added "so much.")

On March 22, 1976, the cover of Newsweek featured a victorious, wrap-dressed von Furstenberg, hands on her hips. She hadn't even hit 30.

Enough names, enough dates. What are the trappings of a charmed life? What lipstick, for instance, does she wear?

Von Furstenberg is amazingly accommodating, spilling her purse.

Out falls a silver tube of MAC "3-D." A Swiss Army knife "that I never use," she says (although she carried a switchblade in her early New York years "that I only peeled apples with"). Some keys. A wallet with the corner of a $50 bill sticking out. A cell phone. Sunglasses. And two Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pens in black.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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