Shortly after the death of Karl Lagerfeld this year, Diane von Furstenberg watched a video clip of a television appearance they’d made together some 40 years earlier. It was hilarious, she said. But it made her realize something new about herself: “I realized that I say exactly the same things now as I did then,” she told me on a sunny afternoon in March. Things like: “I don’t consider myself a designer; I’m a woman who makes clothes for other women.”
Furstenberg doesn’t see her repetitiveness as a negative trait, though. On the contrary, it only confirms her steadfastness. At 72, her stories may wander, but they always return to the same point: “I’ve always been a feminist,” Furstenberg declared. “This what I’m trying to tell you.”
Furstenberg was born in Brussels, 18 months after her mother was liberated from Auschwitz. She was raised to be fearless and independent, carrying her mother’s determination with her as she went on to start her own business later in life. “My mother always told me that it was a privilege to be a woman,” she said. “When she talked about men, she always called them les pauvres. The poor ones, you know?”
In 2010, Furstenberg launched The DVF Awards with the goal of honoring women like her mother with the “strength to fight, the courage to survive, and the leadership to inspire.” Today marks the tenth annual DVF Awards, and this year’s honorees include professor Anita Hill; musical artist Katy Perry; Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project; Nadia Murad, co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with survivors of genocide and sexual violence; and Hadeel Mustafa Anabtawi, founder of The Alchemist Lab, an educational center for children in cities, remote villages, and refugee camps.
Professor Anita Hill is a particularly relevant name these days. During Paris Fashion Week in September, clothes were the last thing on anyone’s mind as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, claiming that Brett Kavanauh had sexually assaulted her. Americans were hurdled back to 1991, when Anita Hill testified against Judge Clarence Thomas. Would history repeat itself? (Yes.) The conduct of Joe Biden, who participated in Anita Hill’s hearing, has also recently come into question.
“It’s always the same story,” Furstenberg told me. A woman faces adversity, and then she rises to the challenge. But Furstenberg has no qualms saying this over and over again — and especially not when it involves past DVF Award recipients. Have you heard of Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, she asks me? She is an Indian social activist who, after experiencing sexual violence herself, went on to found an organization that has rescued, rehabilitated, and reintegrated thousands of victims of sex trafficking. Or what about Dr. Martine Rothblatt, who cofounded Sirius XM, but pivoted to biotech after her daughter was diagnosed with a lethal disease? Surely, you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, and Gabrielle Giffords.
Every year, Diane von Furstenberg and The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation grant each honoree $50,000 in order to further their work. Furstenberg’s additional goal, though, is to get these kinds of stories in front of young women like her teenage granddaughters, or the next generation.
What are her plans for the next ten years? “If I’m super, super, super, lucky, I’m at the end of my life in October — at best,” Furstenberg told me casually. (She meant statistically speaking; she shows no signs of slowing down.) “But the end of October is cool!” she continued. “It’s when nature looks its best; the foliage is red. I still have a lot of energy and a lot of things to do, but time is limited. So I’ve really been thinking: How am I going to stay relevant and be useful? How am I going to use my voice, my experience, my knowledge, and my connections? I became the woman I wanted to be. How do I help other women to do that?”
Despite Furstenberg’s propensity to repeat herself, she’s still got a lot of stories left to tell — including her own. And she doesn’t get tired of telling that one either, because after about an hour in the same room with her, she’ll make you believe you could be sitting in her seat, too. Her confidence is contagious.
“In my family, my son calls me the ‘goat,’” Furstenberg told me, raising an eyebrow. “You know, ‘greatest of all time.’ I didn’t know what it meant. I’m a Capricorn, so I thought he meant I was just a goat. And then last night, I couldn’t sleep because I was doing this and that. I called my son and I said: ‘You know what? I am a goat. And I’m enjoying being a goat.’”