The gloss profiles three visionaries – diane von furstenberg, miuccia prada and donatella versace – who have survived personal and professional battles to become the most influential women in fashion.
A PARK AVENUE PRINCESS TURNED DESIGNER
Before she was 30, Diane Von Furstenberg had married (and divorced) a prince, emigrated to the US from Europe, had two children, sold more than five million wrap dresses, established herself as a Studio 54 regular and met the man who would become husband number two. “By 29 I was on the cover of Newsweek,” she says. “I mean, it’s very important to start very young. And I don’t know why, it just happened. I got pregnant and everything happened.”
Born in Belgium in 1946 to a Romanian businessman father and a Greek Jewish mother, who had survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz, von Furstenberg, or Diane Simone Michelle Halfin as she was born, was always a determined force. “I believe that fear is not an option, so I always try to face it and not be afraid,” she asserts. “That’s really who I am. I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was in the camps. I think it must. And my children are like that, and my grandchildren are like that. So I think that it’s probably a little bit in our genes, and then certainly in our education.”
She left Brussels, where she was brought up, to go to university in Madrid and then later in Geneva, where she met Prince Egon zu Fürstenberg, a German prince who was also an heir to the Fiat fortune, in a nightclub. They married quickly, moved to a Park Avenue apartment in New York and had two children, a boy and girl, but von Furstenberg was adamant that she would not be a mere trophy wife. “I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I knew that I wanted to be independent and have a career. Suddenly I was married and pregnant and moving to America at the age of 22. So I made a few dresses in a factory in Italy to sell in America. I was always motivated by a desire to pay my own bills and to be independent.”
She was quickly embraced by the New York fashion set and Diana Vreeland, the indomitable editor of American Vogue, was an early fan. In 1972, two years after she launched her business, DVF came up with the wrap dress (around the same time, she separated from zu Fürstenberg: she kept his name but swapped zu for von and dropped the umlaut). One explanation for the design is that she saw Julie Nixon Eisenhower, President Nixon’s youngest daughter, wearing one of her wrap tops with one of her skirts and decided to combine the two in one. Another (more fun) story goes that she wanted to create a dress the wearer could get in and out of discreetly. “Well, if you’re trying to slip out without waking a sleeping man, zips are a nightmare,” she cheekily told a journalist in the 1980s. Either way the dress became a sensation – although slinky, it flatters the figure, streamlining bumps and highlighting the parts of the body most women like to show off: the chest, below the knee. It’s practical: you can choose a long or short sleeve, and it’s the type of dress that could easily take you from a business meeting in the midlands to a cocktail party in Paris – made of a fine jersey fabric, it doesn’t wrinkle so travels well. It’s a dress that straddles the divide between daytime and full-on glamour and it doesn’t date: over 40 years after its inception, it is as current as ever, worn by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, as well as legions of Irish women.
There was a period in the 1980s and 1990s when she moved away from fashion, towards publishing and interiors, and she had a series of international boyfriends. “I had fun with men,” she says. “I was a very, very big huntress.” Following the finalisation of her divorce in 1983, she returned to Europe. “I lived in Paris, and I was living with a writer. And I really didn’t do very much, except I read a lot, and I had this fantasy of having a literary salon. When you live with writers – when you live with an artist – you don’t do much except live their lives.” It didn’t last, however, and having moved back to New York, she reestablished her eponymous brand in 1997. In 2005 she received the highly regarded lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, an honour that is bestowed only on those who have reached the pinnacle of their career, and became president of that organisation the next year. In 2012, the designer, who is worth more than $1 billion, was the highest ranked woman in fashion on the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list.
Since 2001, she has been married to billionaire entertainment mogul Barry Diller. “I met Barry when I was 28 years old and he was 33,” she remembers. “And you know, it was real passion and completely unexpected … Five years later we separated. I wanted to live my independent life, we both did. But we were always in each other’s lives, in that we were always there for each other. Then 26 years later, we got married.” Diller is bisexual and when the pair wed, The New York Times remarked, “The marriage came after years of speculation about a relationship widely assumed to be platonic.” They maintain separate homes in New York but von Furstenberg is defiantly proud of her marriage. “I’m not conventional. I’ve never been conventional. Who wants to be conventional? … Everyone is so different and so unique, and it’s chemistry, whatever,” she says. “You can’t explain it. But there’s a true commitment … Originally we fell madly in love, and then I left. And then he was kind of always present. But now … now it’s very even. It’s very nice, our relationship. And he loves me so much. I can do no wrong.”
And it’s been that way since the 1970s: DVF doing no wrong in Diller’s eyes, and no wrong in the eyes of millions of loyal consumers.
“I believe that fear is not an option, so I always try to face it and not be afraid,”
A CEREBRAL FASHION STAR
Miuccia Prada bats away the suggestion that her involvement in the Italian Communist Party (the PC) in the early 1970s was particularly subversive. “In those days, if you weren’t stupid, you wanted to change society and you were left-wing,” she explained to a Le Monde journalist last year. “The PC was the ‘soft’ option. My friends were much more extremist and thought me conservative.” That said, an involvement in Communism (even if she admits to wearing Yves Saint Laurent on protests) and a PhD in political science don’t represent the traditional path to design success, but rather point to the conflicted aspirations of a young Prada, who was born into a wealthy Milanese family that had amassed their money from a luxury leather accessories business. “To want to be a fashion designer was really the worst thing that could happen to me,” she says, “I thought it was dumb and conservative … But my education at home pulled the other way, giving me a taste for beautiful things, an instinct for fashion. I adored that.”
After trying her hand at mime, which she studied at the famous Piccolo Teatro in Milan, she finally gave into that instinct for fashion and took over the family business and started designing bags in the late 1970s. “I never actually decided to become a designer,” she says now. “Eventually I found that I was one.” In 1978, aged 29, she met a Tuscan businessman, Patrizio Bertelli, at a leather fair and – after a hot-tempered argument about whether or not he was stealing her designs – he became her supplier. They quickly moved in together and went on to marry and have two sons – and create one of the most profitable fashion companies in the world, Bertelli looking after business and Prada in charge of design. (The arguments never abated and the pair has been known to stun staff with their spats, but the union is as strong as ever.)
Throughout the early 1980s, the Prada brand expanded, introducing shoes and opening a New York store. In 1985 Miuccia Prada created the nylon backpack, the discreet little tote that would become one of the most coveted and recognisable bags of the 1990s, and in 1988 she began designing womenswear. Prada was never going to come up with a mainstream aesthetic, and she is known to despair of the outré look many Italians favour. “I call that look ‘the desperation of the sexy’,” she says. “That’s what I say to the girls in our office when they arrive in the morning, with their high heels and their tummies exposed. ‘The more sexy you make yourself appear, the less you’ll have sex,’ I tell them. To look sexy once in a while, fine, but not like this, from morning to night.” Instead, over the coming years, she created clothes that projected a grown-up assuredness through exquisite streamlined tailoring and quality fabrics. She represented a new restraint, something absolutely opposed to the OTT look that had ruled the 1980s catwalks, but also quite separate to the stark minimalism that had taken its place.
By the mid-1990s, Prada had made it: she had been featured in the international editions of Vogue, won two Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, started her diffusion line, Miu Miu, and in 1995, Uma Thurman, fresh from the success of Pulp Fiction, wore Prada to the Oscars. The dress, a simple silk lavender gown with opalescent sequins, was a massive hit, and marks the moment the Prada brand began to be appreciated as much for its clothes as its accessories. The following year a Prada flagship was opened on Madison Avenue in New York. Prada became, and continues to be, the brand that says: I’m interested in fashion but I am not frivolous. Serious-minded types like Stephanie Flanders, economics editor at the BBC, and Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis often wear Prada on air.
Ever the reluctant designer, Miuccia Prada has always been reticent about celebrating her phenomenal success but in 2012, on the eve of a major exhibition celebrating her work alongside that of Elsa Schiaparelli at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, she said: “Now I’m comfortable because I see that my work is an instrument for so many other things and that people love fashion in general. It’s a popular medium. So through the brand – through being known because of the clothes – I can do things that I couldn’t do otherwise.”
By which, she means support art and architecture. In 1995, Prada, along with her husband, established the Fondazione Prada in Venice, a not-for-profit organisation that stages exhibitions by some of the most important figures in contemporary art, including Sam Taylor-Wood, Anish Kapoor and Marc Quinn, and attracts thousands of visitors a month. The foundation recently opened a new Milan space, a custom-built gallery that long-time Prada collaborator architect Rem Koolhas designed. This interest and passion for art and architecture seems to be what sustains the intellectual Prada. “Fashion moves so fast,” she says. “I work on waves which break really quickly. You can catch them, or you miss them in no time at all. Architecture stretches out over many years, giving me a sense of the long term which I need to understand the world.” And to the oft-asked question: is fashion art? “I do commercial work,” says the billionaire designer. “If I was only creative, I would become an artist. A designer can be very creative, but art is something that stands by itself, and fashion is something you sell.”
And – with more than 300 stores worldwide – Prada sells and sells and sells …
“’The more sexy you make yourself appear, the less you’ll have sex,’ I tell them.”
A SISTER WHO FOUND HER STRENGTH
Donatella Versace’s older brother Gianni persuaded her to dye her hair platinum blonde when she was just eleven years old, and she’s been embodying the Versace aesthetic of high glamour ever since. Growing up in Reggio Calabria in the southernmost tip of Italy, the Versace siblings were inspired by their dressmaker mother, and Gianni and Donatella were exceptionally close despite a nine-year age gap. Donatella would accompany Gianni to nightclubs when she was just a young teenager and when 32-year-old Gianni established his own brand in 1978, he made his younger sister his muse.
In the 1980s, he gave her her own line, Versus, and Donatella brought a knack for PR to the Versace empire, making it one of the starriest brands in the world, known for its symbiotic relationship with the top supermodels of the time. She married an American model, Paul Beck (they later divorced), and had two children, Allegra and Daniel.
Then in 1997, Gianni Versace was murdered in Miami in a seemingly motiveless attack. Eleven-year-old Allegra Versace inherited half the business, valued at around half a billion dollars at the time. Donatella, who had been vice-president of the company, along with her other brother Santo, was in control of the other half but she says, “I wanted nothing to do with fashion anymore, because of the pain of losing my brother – I thought fashion would not exist without him. Then I thought, Gianni wouldn’t like this. He would love me to continue his job and continue to fight for the Versace brand to survive. That made me find the strength to go on.”
She became creative director of the label but she struggled with the Versace iconography and was unclear as to how to shape the brand’s distinctive aesthetic. (Her personal image never wavered: peroxide hair, pneumatic lips, deep tan and teeny waist. “My own look makes people think I’m tough but when they get to know me I’m very different. It’s like armour that was useful to me in the first years after Gianni’s death. It was difficult to live that pain in public – and to be compared to him when he was the genius and I was only ever the accessory. It was hard to hear people constantly say ‘Will she make it?’ I don’t mean to sound like a martyr – just to make the point that I used my personal image to hide all these emotions.”) For many years, she eschewed the trademark Versace prints (“I had to get away from that. If I do prints, everyone will compare me to Gianni”) and moved the brand away from the extravagant couture market towards homewares, accessories and hotels. There were extreme struggles – the Versace brand haemorrhaged money, her daughter Allegra developed an eating disorder, and it was only after an intervention by Elton John that she faced up to her problems with cocaine, a drug she had been addicted to for 18 years, and one that made her irrational and manic – but she made her way through. “I’ve always been hard on myself,” she says. “I still am. In order to be responsible you need some discipline in your life. For a while I lost mine. But I’ve got it back now.”
She relaunched Versus and installed British designer Christopher Kane at the helm (he has since parted ways with the brand). The success of Versus and the mutually supportive relationship she had with Kane instilled her with a new confidence but it was a 2011 collaboration with H&M that truly put her demons to rest. The collection comprised versions of garments that she and her brother had designed over the years, and she says H&M were “amazing. Everything I asked for, the packaging, the metalwork, the prints, they agreed and they did it so well. Even me, from far away, I was thinking, ‘Is that the original?’” And she was bolstered by the response from the thousands of young fans, people who weren’t able to afford the main line. “I had 15-year-olds asking to have their pictures taken with me. That’s when I realised this brand still means something. It sounds stupid, but before that I wasn’t so sure.”
She began presenting couture collections again last year and she shows at the Ritz in Paris, the place she last saw Gianni alive. After 15 years, and the H&M collaboration, she has allowed herself to draw inspiration from her brother’s most famous work. Speaking at the Oxford Union last year, she said: “At the beginning, after my brother’s terrible death, all the iconography was like a sanctuary, so special, it felt untouchable, I had to find my own voice. It was only after his death that I realised how difficult the job was. With him it had been exciting and easy but all of a sudden it was completely different. You also have to remember that it was the end of the 1990s … We all moved away from the bling we were famous for – it was too sexy, not in line with the general mood – but now, certainly in 2012, it’s back. People are having fun with fashion again, so I had to find the courage to look at the past in a new perspective. Suddenly when I looked at his last collection, of 1997, I started not to be afraid any more.”
And fearlessness is a wonderful feather in the cap of a woman already brimming with talent, wit and determination. Gianni Versace founded the brand; now Donatella has found the courage to grant it an indestructible legacy.
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