If You Thought You Knew Diane von Furstenberg, Think Again


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Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy made her name as a documentarian by being unafraid to tackle challenging topics, from honor killings in Pakistan to the rise of the Taliban. So you might not expect her latest subject to be Diane von Furstenberg, the designer best known for her flirty, trend-proof wrap dress and glamorous lifestyle.

But for Obaid-Chinoy, Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge, which she co-directed with Trish Dalton and which premieres tomorrow on Hulu, wasn’t as much of a pivot as you might think. Von Furstenberg’s story, she says, “is very much in the same vein as so many of the others that I’ve done. It’s about a woman who’s faced with extraordinary circumstances and how she rises to the occasion.”

a brunette woman sitting on a couch with camera equipment around her


Diane von Furstenberg during the filming of the documentary.

Obaid-Chinoy and her subject have been friendly for a decade, after von Furstenberg presented her with an award for her 2012 film Saving Face, about acid attacks on women in Pakistan. They had even talked about ideas for a documentary on one of her DVF Awards recipients. “But I went back to her and said, ‘Diane, people really just want to hear your story.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to tell my story.’”

A few years later, however, the designer decided she was on board. And so was a chorus of talking heads, from Oprah Winfrey to Hillary Clinton to Marc Jacobs, who weigh in throughout the film. (“Let’s just say that there was nobody that we asked who said no,” Obaid-Chinoy laughs.)

three women standing around a mood board


Von Furstenberg in her design studio.

The documentary unearths details of DVF’s life story that the public might not know as well as her runway designs and boldfaced appearances in the society pages. Von Furstenberg’s mother was a Holocaust survivor who, after being released from Auschwitz weighing only 44 pounds, was told by her doctor that she could never have children. Eighteen months later, von Furstenberg came into the world, her very existence an act of defiance. “Just the fact that I was born,” she says in the documentary, “was a victory.”

“We showed this film in a small private screening the other day,” says Obaid-Chinoy, “and someone said to us, ‘Is there something that hasn’t happened to Diane?’ She has led a life of so many ups and downs and twists and turns. So much has been thrown at her,” from her bout with cancer and her ex-husband Egon von Furstenberg’s battle with HIV to her daughter’s struggle with a neuromuscular disease and her mother’s mental-health challenges. You get the sense that, in contrast to so many overly focus-grouped designers, nothing is off the table.

diane von furstenberg woman in charge the story of the iconic trailblazer known by her initials dvf worldwide child of a holocaust survivor, princess by marriage, and founder of a fashion brand featuring interviews with oprah winfrey, marc jacobs, hillary clinton and more courtesy of disneydiane von furstenberg


“I don’t think that people realize how she was born out of the ashes of World War II. How she was an immigrant to America,” adds Obaid-Chinoy. “Even though she had married a prince, she came to America with a suitcase full of dresses and ideas about how she wanted to be an independent person.”

Von Furstenberg’s story is an idiosyncratic one, but its contours feel universal. “If you chart the arc of her life, you can literally see the gains that women have made,” Obaid-Chinoy says. In the film, Fran Lebowitz points out that women in fashion were typically models, not designers, back then, and that it was still unusual for a woman to be the head of a fashion business. When she started DVF, a woman still needed a man’s co-signature to sign up for a credit card.

“Her story is emblematic of a woman opening doors for other women,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “Gloria Steinem says in the film that Diane changed the nature of the room that she was in. She wasn’t trying to fit in and play the game the way it was being played. She changed that completely.” In the mid-1970s, von Furstenberg went on a mall tour to, yes, promote her fashion line, but also to talk to women about feminism and the importance of not depending on men.

Later, as women poured into the workforce, she remained someone they could look to as a beacon. Post-divorce, she was a single mother navigating the world of business and the sexism that came with it. And then when her fashion brand hit turbulence, she reinvented herself as a QVC goddess, making her one of the first Establishment designers to align herself with the network.

two women posing with filmmaking equipment


Filmmakers Trish Dalton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

One of the most affecting parts of the documentary is the opening scene, which underscores von Furstenberg’s refreshing take on aging. She’s curled up in her sink, face against the mirror, proudly examining her skin. “I’ve always been attracted [to] wrinkles,” she says. “You shouldn’t say how old you are, you should say how long you have lived.”

“For me personally, it was liberating,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “I choose not to dye my hair. I fully embrace the fact that I’m a woman in my forties. And she reinforced for me: Why do you have to place these unrealistic expectations on yourself about your age? Trish and I, when we were working on the film, were like, This is an incredible way of looking at yourself. This is a message that women and girls need to hear.” Adds Dalton, “But also, she’s obviously very sexy. She’s seductive. You look at the movie and, like, she’s gorgeous. So that is part of it too.”

Next up, Obaid-Chinoy will become the first female director to helm a Star Wars movie with New Jedi Order. But it’s hard to imagine a narrative more thrillingly out-of-this-world than this one: a woman proudly aging, and loving every minute of it.

Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge releases on Hulu on June 25th.

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