70-year-young fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, known for the bestselling dress in the world (the wrap dress), definitely would have made Forbes 30 Under 30 if the list had existed 40 years ago. On Wednesday evening she joined Instagram’s fashion doyenne Eva Chen at New York City’s The Wing for an intimate chat with 500 women who belonged to the members-only club. And I, a 26-year-old woman, was one of them.
“I think the best thing of my 20s was being young and stupid,” Chen said at the beginning of the talk. “No, I wasn’t stupid,” von Furstenberg deadpanned. “Everything I did, I did before I was 29.” von Furstenberg elaborated: “Between the age of 22 and 29, I got pregnant first, married second, had two children, moved to America, started a dress business, became hugely successful, hugely successful, hugely successful. I was on the cover of Newsweek, on the cover of Interview. I brought my husband to the country. I separated from my husband. And I bought an apartment on Fifth Avenue. All that before 29. Everything I did after that was just repetition, and not as good.”
And with that out of the way, von Furstenberg began doling out her life tips to an eager audience wanting to emulate her well-heeled footsteps—these are the gems from that night.
Disclaimer: von Furstenberg is an extraordinary designer, philanthropist, and businesswoman, but she also used to be a royal princess. That doesn’t take away from her achievements—it only means that you should be aware that her life is particularly charmed. But who’s to say yours can’t be?
Von Furstenberg began the discussion with a story about her mother, who was a 22-year-old Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1944. When she was captured by the Gestapo, she was shipped to three concentration camps, including Auschwitz. “When [my mother] was liberated, she weighed 49 pounds, which is less than bones are supposed to be,” von Furstenberg added. When her mother died, von Furstenberg found a piece of paper that her mother had scrawled on after liberation, writing her name, address, and state of health.
“Even though she could not move and weighed 49 pounds, she wrote [that her state of health was] excellent,” von Furstenberg said while the audience chuckled. “She told me that fear was not option.” From early on, von Furstenberg explained, her mother told her to be responsible for herself, and to be independent.
“The most important relationship in your life is [with] yourself. If you have that, any other relationship is a plus, not a must.”
Von Furstenberg recalls that as a young girl in Belgium, she looked nothing like everyone else—she was darker and had curly hair, while everyone else was pale and blonde. But she found the mirror to be a source of strength. “When I turned my head, [the girl looking back at me] turned her head, too,” she told us. It was then, she said, she realized that she already had the strength within herself.
“The most important relationship in your life is yourself,” she added. “If you have that, any other relationship is a plus, not a must.” The audience roared with applause. “Sometimes you have to be nice to yourself. Sometimes you have to be hard with yourself,” she added.
“It doesn’t matter how people look at you,” she said, in response to Chen’s question about where she gets her confidence. “Sometimes people look at you and think you’re at the top, and you know you’re not because you know you have problems, and sometimes people think you are at the bottom, but you already know that you’re going up.”
Does von Furstenberg meditate, the wellness practice du jour? Well, not always—not when she feels like she lacks clarity in her life. Her most meditative state, she says, is when she is swimming or hiking. “You need to have time for yourself,” she said. And even von Furstenberg has moments of doubts that require “me” time: “Today I like myself again,” she told us, mentioning that she had felt like she was in a deep haze recently.
“My son tells me all the time: you’re so delusional,” she said. “There’s a little bit of good to be delusional.” She caveats that you have to be honest, though: “Don’t lie. Don’t lie. Make it a practice not to lie,” she repeated. Instead, von Furstenberg suggests finding “intelligent ways of telling the truth.” The audience laughed when she said this, but von Furstenberg was serious: “You know, you can practice ways to tell the truth in better ways.”
So how do you say no to social obligations you don’t want to attend? “I wish I could but I can’t,” she advises. “What if there’s a bomb while you’re with them and you’ll be associated with them in your death?” That’s von Furstenberg’s media savvy way of thinking—don’t hang out with people not because they’re toxic, but because you don’t want their reputation to affect yours.
“Live your dream, try to find work that you want to do where you think you have talent. It’s important to make sure that you bring something new and fresh and that you’re pragmatic. Believe in what you do.”
This was specifically addressed to fashion industry aspirants, but this advice applies to anyone. Later in the Q&A portion of the talk, when an immigration lawyer asked how to help more fashion designers, von Furstenberg offered to set her up with the designers at the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), of which she is president. Casual—but that’s the point. “I’m at a point where I have the influence and connections to change someone’s life with one email,” von Furstenberg explains.
When von Furstenberg first moved to the United States, she was a young glamorous socialite who was married to a German prince. (Yes.) “But I wanted to very much be independent,” she said. When fashion editors interviewed her, she claimed that they had preconceived notions of what she, a young European princess with a dress collection, would be.
“When I read the articles, I said, ‘What? Who is this?’” She realized that she had to be provocative—“to speak, to not let them have an opinion of their own.” At least by being quoted for being provocative, she said, the words would be her own.
“You just need one person to be good to you and to give you that chance,” Chen added, speaking directly to a young woman starting her career in the fashion industry. “Their shitty-ness reflects personal shitty-ness and nothing about you. Insecurity manifests by pushing outward.” von Furstenberg completely agreed. She noted that Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, for example, known for her icy demeanor, is just shy. “That cold look is just because she’s shy.”
And everyone in that room wanted to be von Furstenberg.