AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Diane Von Furstenberg was a young socialite when she first started showing her designs to New York boutiques and magazine editors in the late 1960s. But the dresses she created weren't very expensive and they definitely weren't couture.
DIANE FURSTENBERG: It's a dress that was practical and pretty and sexy. Somebody said to me that it's a dress that you get the men with it, but he doesn't mind taking you to his mother.
CORNISH: It was the wrap dress, made of gentle jersey, gorgeously patterned with a deep V-neck and light belt. It sold by the millions. And Von Furstenberg has been idolized by women ever since. But in her new memoir, "The Woman I Wanted To Be," Von Furstenberg says she idolized her mother. She was a Belgian Holocaust survivor named Lili, who rarely spoke to her daughter about her time in Nazi conversation camps.
VON FURSTENBERG: She had tattooed numbers on her arm, but she had it removed because people kept on looking at it. And when she did talk about it she protected me. So she would only talk about, you know, the good souvenir, if I can say. She talked about the friendships she had and she didn't want to burden me with the heaviness of it all.
CORNISH: What kind of woman was she?
VON FURSTENBERG: My mother was very minute, she was small and very slender, but she was probably the strongest person I had ever met. I mean, she - she was very strict, she was - today one would say maybe she was a tiger mom, but I'm glad she was like that because she built my character.
CORNISH: You describe some pretty intense teasing on her part, I mean, she wasn't just strict but you talked about her having this joke about having found you as an abandoned child.
VON FURSTENBERG: In the garbage.
CORNISH: In the garbage. You write over this very lightly. But...
VON FURSTENBERG: Well, you know, I never questioned my mother, I just tried always to make it easier for her because even though she wouldn't show me her scars, you know, she was wounded. And I knew that. And therefore I was a good little girl and tried to please her at all costs, and so I never ever questioned anything about her.
CORNISH: She's one of the - a key examples of the kind of woman you wanted to be. There are also moments in the book where you talk about the kind of woman you did not want to be. And in that I'm thinking about this cover story that ran about you and your first husband, the late, Egon Von Furstenberg, in New York Magazine. And that the time this profile kind of created this image of you two being this very cosmopolitan worldly couple, but you wrote that you didn't want to be a European Park Avenue princess with a pretend decadent life.
VON FURSTENBERG: Right. No, it's just that, you know, we were very young (unintelligible) and good-looking and he was a prince and I was a princess and when I actually read the article it was a cover story and it says the couple that has everything is everything enough. Somehow when I read that I just thought, you know, that's not really who I am and therefore I can't really be a couple. I have to be me and that in a sense made us separate. I don't know if it's the only reason, probably not, but it was kind of the turning point. But we stayed very, very good friends. It's just that I did not want to be married.
CORNISH: Was part of it also the image of being dependent on someone? It seems like that runs counter to the lessons your mom would have imparted to you.
VON FURSTENBERG: Yeah, well I never wanted to be depended on anyone, whether it was my father or my husband. You know when I was a little - a young girl, I did not really know what I wanted to do. But I did know the kind of woman I wanted to be. And I wanted to be an independent woman, a woman who is in the driving seat, who is in charge of her own life. And that clearly means also being financially independent. So that's really what I wanted to be and I became that Woman. I was lucky that I became that woman very, very early in life, you know, in my late 20s and that's that.
CORNISH: You mentioned how your business really took off and of course you landed the cover of Newsweek before the age of 30. And at the time you seemed comfortable and in the book you describe yourself as, you know, a tycoon. But you were reluctant to call yourself a designer until really much later. When did that change for you and what was the reluctance?
VON FURSTENBERG: Well it's not reluctance, its humility, you know, I worked in this mill for this Italian man who taught me everything and then I made a few samples and then I brought them to America. You know, I made easy little dresses that's what I did - I didn't think I was actually designing them. And I didn't think I was making a fashion statement. Yet this year I celebrated the 40 anniversary of my famous wrap dress. And I sold millions of them and generations and generations of women have worn it. So all of a sudden it just hit me, I say maybe I did not want to make a fashion statement, yet I did. And it was actually more than just a fashion statement, it turned out that it was a sociological. So I guess then now I am accepting it.
CORNISH: It also in some ways is tied to the sexual revolution right? It suggest that doesn't have any snaps or zippers or...
VON FURSTENBERG: That's right. You can take it out and slip in and out of it with out making no noise.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Was that the intent as well and what did your mother think of that?
VON FURSTENBERG: None of it was the intent but it was a reality.
CORNISH: You know, you once said that you were a prisoner of the wrap dress. Can you remember the moment when you forgave it? When you really embraced it the way you are now?
VON FURSTENBERG: No, it's not that I was a prisoner, it's just that I took it for granted, that little dress. Even though it paid for all my bills, it paid for my children's education, it paid for my houses, it paid for everything, my fame, my success. But I mean the moment this year I decided that I was going to honor it, I looked at it in a completely different way and I looked at it not just what it had done for me but what, you know, its place in society and how incredible and rare that is that a dress lives that long. So now I'm totally proud of it.
CORNISH: In the end do you feel your mother's influence and sensibility kind of hanging over this success? I mean, do you feel like this is part of her legacy to you?
VON FURSTENBERG: I am totally. I mean she used to say that I was her torch of freedom and I feel it, you know, I feel that I carry in my hand the flame. The flame of freedom, the flame of something that was taken away from her and she did survive it and she wasn't supposed to have a child and I was born. So my birth was a miracle. So it is to some degree my duty to honor my mother and honor her sufferings with a lot of joie de vivre because in the end, life had won.
CORNISH: Well Diane Von Furstenberg, thank you so much for speaking with us and best of luck on this next chapter.
VON FURSTENBERG: Thank you.
CORNISH: Diane Von Furstenberg, her memoir, "The Woman I Wanted To Be," is out next week.
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