In 1976, Newsweek famously anointed Diane von Furstenberg “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel.” Just six years after immigrating to New York from Belgium, von Furstenberg had sold more than five million of her signature wrap dresses, making hers a bona fide American success story. The dress came to symbolize power and independence for a generation of women. In the process, it helped establish its designer—a Jewish woman, née Diane Halfin, who married and divorced a prince but kept his name—as a global luxury-lifestyle powerhouse whose brand is sold in more than 70 countries. As she steps down from her position as chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in June, von Furstenberg is focusing on her new role as chair of the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty Museum, opening Wednesday. Here, she discusses the future of the museum with one of the top donors, her friend Mellody Hobson, an African-American businesswoman who is president of Ariel Investments and the former chairwoman of DreamWorks Animation.
MELLODY HOBSON: You’re a Belgian immigrant and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, so I imagine the Statue of Liberty has particular meaning for you. Can you tell me about that?
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: The first time I ever saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty was when I was a little girl. My parents were visiting New York and they sent me a postcard. So for me, she represented America. The first time I really saw her, I was 22 years old. I had just married Prince Egon von Furstenberg, and he was starting a bank job in New York. Egon flew over, but I chose to take the ship because I wanted to have some time to think about my future.
MH: What was your reaction to seeing her?
DVF: I was a privileged immigrant, but like anyone who leaves their homeland behind I carried my hopes and dreams. I had my son inside of me and my little dresses inside my luggage. I was going to try to sell them in America. We arrived at dawn. There was this big noise, and I looked up and there she was. That image is forever imprinted on my mind.
MH: How did you come to lead the Statue of Liberty Museum fund-raising campaign?
DVF: In 2013, I made a speech with the king of Belgium at the opening of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. That museum commemorates a shipping company that ferried millions of immigrants to America in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, including Albert Einstein. At the event I met Stephen Briganti, the president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, and from that time on he was courting me to join his board. I was honored at the Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards two years later.
MH: You were already pretty busy serving on the boards of the Shed and Vital Voices, not to mention being president and later chairwoman of the CFDA, and your day job as a designer. What convinced you to join?
DVF: I said, “If I go on another board, my husband, [Barry Diller], is going to divorce me.” However, Stephen wasn’t letting me off that easy. He showed me a copy of my book The Woman I Wanted to Be, in which he’d underlined something my mother, who spent 13 months at Auschwitz, once wrote to me: “God has saved my life so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch, my flag of freedom.” The symbolism of her words was uncanny.
MH: Wow. What was your first task?
DVF: They wanted me to raise $100 million for the Statue of Liberty Museum, which is being relocated from a cramped space inside her pedestal to a brand-new, 26,000-square-foot venue on Liberty Island. I don’t like to ask for money, but I said that I would try. With Edwin Schlossberg, the museum’s designer, I came up with the idea for an abstract “Stars and Stripes” mural for the entrance. The stripes are iron bars from the Statue of Liberty’s original armature created by Gustave Eiffel. And I asked the sculptor Anh Duong to design 50 stars to sell to donors.
MH: Why did you pick her? You know a lot of people in the art world.
DVF: Because she is a French-Vietnamese immigrant, she is my friend, and I love her work. So she designed these beautiful stars, and I started making calls. I have to say that this was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
“The first time I really saw the Statue of Liberty ... I had my son inside of me and my little dresses inside my luggage. I was going to try to sell them in America.”
MH: It wasn’t hard to convince people to pay $2 million for a star?
DVF: Well, I got it from you pretty fast! The first star I sold was to Michael Bloomberg. Mike’s the best person to start with because he always says yes. Then I went to Jeff Bezos, and he said, “I’m going to get one to honor my stepfather, who emigrated from Cuba.” From there I went to Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Disney, Coca-Cola, and other corporate partners.
MH: Why do you think it was so simple?
DVF: There’s something magical about the Statute of Liberty: She belongs to everybody. Why did you agree to participate?
MH: My husband, George [Lucas], and I wanted to be sure that there was a person of color on the wall, so we named ours for Muhammad Ali. We felt very strongly that there couldn’t be an American flag without all of us being represented.
DVF: That’s true. There’s also an Oprah star.
MH: Which is great. What values does the Statue of Liberty represent?
DVF: She reminds us about the power of friendship between nations—
DVF: Yes, but not their leaders, their people. The Statue of Liberty was given to us by the people of France to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution at a time when they were disappointed by their own political situation. The French Revolution started not long after the American Revolution, but the result was very different: the Terror, and then Napoléon and the Second Empire. So the French looked to America as this utopic democracy.
MH: In the context of the current debates about immigration and displaced people, how important do you think the Statue of Liberty is today?
DVF: I think she’s never been more relevant. Did you know, by the way, that the first model for the Statue of Liberty was actually an Arab girl? The French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi began work on a monument to commemorate the opening of Egypt’s Suez Canal, but the project fell through. He recycled his prototype later when the Statue of Liberty commission came along.
MH: How significant is it that the Statue of Liberty is a woman?
DVF: She has broken chains at her feet, but she is strong and she is the light. The message is important: Women’s voices can save humanity. Ironically, no women were invited to attend the statue’s opening in 1886. Suffragists chartered a boat to circle the island during the unveiling.
MH: What do you want people to take away from a visit to the museum?
DVF: The importance of liberty and the importance of freedom. The museum is directly across from Ellis Island, so it’s also about the importance of welcoming people.
MH: This project was an ambitious one, but you made it look so easy. For the woman who’s done it all, what’s next?
DVF: After coming to New York City, I was lucky and privileged to become the woman I wanted to be. Now that I’m older, I would like to spend the rest of my life using my voice, my knowledge, my connections—anything I have—to help all women become the women they want to be.
This article originally appears in the June/July 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands May 21.
Models: Akiima, Charlee Fraser, and Emmy Rappe; Hair: Michael Silva for R+Co; Makeup: Hung Vanngo; Manicures: Casey Herman for Chanel; von Furstenberg’s hair and makeup: Heidi Lee Crow.