A Book Review
on The Woman I Wanted to Be
by Diane von Furstenberg
As far back as my teen years I remember being in awe of fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg and her likeness to my mother. She was born in Belgium the day before New Year’s Day of 1947 and sworn in as an American citizen the summer of 2002 while the ash from 9/11 was still settling and being swept off the streets of New York City. Prior to that she had held a green card for 30 years so her naturalization of citizenship to the United States was a hard won victory among many in her life. Her natural beauty never betrayed the confidence of a struggle for independence and freedom in nearly every sector of her life. She attained her goal after many years of doing everything her way and the American way, without compromising her artistic individuality or being available to her family.
What most impressed me about her life story are the circumstances she was born out of and how her life and her mother’s became a personal triumph. Even from the beginning, when she was born to Lily (a Belgium native- who had somehow survived the Holocaust right out of Auschwitz) her life was a miracle. Lily was engaged to be married to Diane’s father, Leon Halfin, before being separated from him and was carried off in a train to Auschwitz. Like many other Jewish captives, even though she had no idea whether she would ever see them again, she wrote a note to her parents and threw it off the train. Many Jews did not survive their notes. A photograph of it is in a picture section of Diane’s book and it is very touching to read in French or in English, as Diane wrote a translation of it in her book. Before she was reunited with her fiancé and married, Lily had lost all her body weight down to her bones. Diane was born not long after, within eighteen months of her release from the concentration camp.
Without telling you all the details of the book I do want to say how enlightening I found Diane’s very engaging narrative and how her determination matched that of her mother. Early on her mother quoted, “Fear is not an option.” This theme runs throughout her book and is a focal point in her life along with loving relationships and the empowerment she gathered in her chosen field of fashion. The truest and strongest mentor of her life was Angelo Ferretti, an Italian textile tycoon who hired her as a debutant. She wrote, “I don’t know what my future would have been without the generosity and support of Ferretti.”
Although Diane eventually got heavily into branding and diversification in her offerings to the public her signature fashion piece started out with the wrap dress she created and it has been her most lucrative and longest lasting item. Her most recent re-launch centers on this very same concept in dresses and it will certainly be her signature look and legacy when others are still searching for their niche.
In the 70s, where she quoted, ” Life was fun if you were young, pretty and successful”, she took off on her basic concept, traveling the United States, promoting her line and gathering momentum by diversifying into other fashion products. Tatiana perfume was the first touted designer fragrance, named after her daughter and was an unforgettable scent. It was popular for decades. There was also make-up and she personally did make-overs on women when she traveled from mall to mall. When QVC and HSN became popular she revitalized her line and jumped right into the shopping phenomenon which is still going strong after more than two decades. She was among the pioneers who made it happen.
An obvious turning point in her early life was when she landed a prince in marriage- Egon von Fürstenberg, and her love for him stayed steadfast even though she changed through the years in artistic growth and personal exploration. The Prince was another spring board in life which she was not able to hang onto but no fault is laid any where in the book and even though I don’t personally agree with the more free wheeling type of life she embraced in his stead, I do admire a lot of the things she wrote in her book about what she learned about life and love. Her words about her mother in her later years and about all her loved ones show that she did the best of her ability in trying to do right by everyone and still hang onto her personal goals and dreams.
On the subject of aging beauty she is quite honest and courageous in saying, “It is no longer about looking beautiful but about feeling beautiful and fulfilled.” A good deal of what she has written shows that she has embraced the proper priorities and it well showed when she spoke to a High School Graduating class quoting Margaret Thatcher. It was rephrased from the example on my October 10, 2012 entry, titled, A quote from The Iron Lady:
Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your character.
Watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
From page 39 she says, To inspire others to take their lives in their hands, be their best friends and go for it fearlessly. Also, she wrote, Love is about relationships but the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. That one really resonated for me.
In giving advice on page 57 she wrote, Lies are toxic. They are the beginning of misunderstandings, complications and unhappiness. To practice truth is not always easy but as with all practices it becomes a matter of habit. Truth is cathartic. Truth… simplifies life and love.
When recollecting her bittersweet relationship to the father of her children she wrote, Parting ways does not mean erasing someone entirely from your life. A relationship can evolve and be nurtured but in a different way. Not an easy task but as anything meaningful, well worth it.
The most telling part of the book is when she was approached in more recent years with getting her financial picture in order by her son. It is not easy to be reproached by your child, especially when one feels that they have done well in raising their offspring. With Diane, she weathers the criticism like a pro and admits that in business she did… “All of this without a business plan, without any market analysis, without a focus group, without a publicist without an advertising or branding agency.” She relied on her artistic skills alone and let the business run itself. Many people do this and are successful. I have myself always quoted: Do what you know how to do best. The money will follow. I also ran my own business for seven years without a business plan and it worked because I was doing what I knew best. A business plan puts extra focus on progress and I have learned without it that you can only go so far. I found that out and so did Diane. The business work is always best in the hands of the experts.
A lot of history, love, advice and determination shows in Diane’s story which shines like a diamond. The Woman I Wanted to Be will enthrall you if you are looking for a realistic but adventurous fairy tale. Diane’s legacy will be not only her wrap dress but her extraordinarily romantic life.