In her recent memoir The Woman I Wanted To Be, Diane Von Furstenberg recounts the time in 1978 when she was on a flight from New York to Cleveland for a personal appearance to promote her iconic wrap dress. The plane was packed with businessmen and, except for herself and the flight attendants, there were few women passengers. That very morning, January 28th, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page feature on Von Furstenberg and her fashion empire. Her seat mate spent the first few minutes of the flight ogling her legs. Finally, in an attempt to get a conversation going he said, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing reading the Wall Street Journal?”
Her anecdote reminded me about the time in the mid-80s when I was at my neighborhood bookstore (remember those?). I had stacked The Economist and Vogue on the counter and the male cashier said, “Wow, I’ve never seen the same person buy these together!”
This was before there were a lot of role models showing that women could be investors, wealth managers, and yes, even tycoons. There was the usually unspoken belief that if a woman was interested in money she was either a gold digger or kinda butch. The dissonant idea that a woman could be equally interested in fashion and in investing was really out there.
It wasn’t that long ago that I encountered the same kind of sexist thinking—from women. I was working as the editor-in-chief of ELLE. When I was offered the job, after essentially doing it for the past six months anyway, I gladly accepted and began to negotiate my new salary, benefits and perks. You know how women are always being told that the reason we don’t earn as much as men is because we don’t negotiate? Yeah, well, in my experience that’s just another lame excuse for the sexism that’s baked into the corporate cake. I negotiated on every point. The only result was my boss implying it was unseemly for a woman to be aggressive about money.
There was also the belief that fashion was ‘a calling’ and to see it as a business, albeit a creative one, somehow brought your commitment to it into question. That shadow never fell on my various publishers or the sales and marketing teams or the CEO. No, just on the female “talent”.
That’s why women like Diane Von Furstenberg are so important. She leveraged a great name and juicy Rolodex into a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand. She followed her impulses and made some killer deals. (Like buying property in the Meatpacking District when it was still pretty dodgy for $5 million and selling it a few years later for $20 million.) And, best of all, she did it wearing a dress.
In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Margaret Thompson, wife of bootlegger Nucky, enters into a stock deal with Joe Kennedy (yes, gangster patriarch of that Kennedy clan). She tells him, “Here’s an experiment for you: Think about the things you want in life. And then picture yourself in a dress.”
It’s fitting then that Diane Von Furstenberg, named for the Roman Goddess of the moon and the hunt, would create a business empire whose motto is: Feel Like A Woman, Wear A Dress.