This Day in Jewish HIstory

1946: An Ex-serene Highness and Fashion Guru Is Born

Of humble birth, Diane von Furstenberg would marry a German prince, and made it big – in fashion, where she invented the sexy wrap dress.

Diane von Furstenberg at 40th anniversary of Ralph Lauren, New York, Sept. 8, 2007.
Christopher Peterson

December 31, 1946, is the birthdate of fashion magnate and ex-princess Diane von Furstenberg. From humble beginnings in Belgium shortly after World War II, as the daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz, von Furstenberg grew up to marry a German prince, and to found a fashion empire that has fallen and risen several times. Today, at age 69, she is back at the top of her game. And just in case business does fall off again, she happens to be married now to media tycoon Barry Diller.

Diane Simone Michelle Halfin was born in Brussels. Her father was Lipa (Leon) Halfin, a businessman who had emigrated to Belgium from Kishinev, Bessarabia (today, Chisinau, Moldova) in 1929, and survived World War II in Switzerland.

Her mother, the former Liliane (Lily) Nahmias, was a Greek-born Jew, also an immigrant to Belgium, where she was arrested by the Nazi SS while serving in the Resistance in 1944. Lily was imprisoned in both Ravensbruck and Auschwitz, and survived.

Diane attended boarding schools in England, Spain and Switzerland, and then Madrid University and the University of Geneva, from which she graduated with a business degree.

Prince Egon and Black Panthers

At 18, she met German Prince Egon of Fuerstenberg, whose father was a descendant of Charlemagne, and mother a scion of the Agnelli family, which founded the auto manufacturer Fiat. When Diane became pregnant, she and Egon decided to marry, in 1969, which made her Her Serene Highness Princess Diane von Furstenberg (she had to drop the title when she remarried). Egon’s father boycotted the ceremony, as he objected to his son marrying a Jew.

In the years after graduating business school, Diane apprenticed under both a fashion photographer and an Italian textile manufacturer. After their marriage, Egon took a banking job in New York, where Diane began taking some of her own fashion designs around to people in the industry.

By 1972, with the help of a $30,000 loan from her father, she began producing them. People like Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland gave her favorable press, and her “Angela” sweater dress – named for Black Panther militant Angela Davis – and a wrap shirt did well. The breakthrough, however, came with the wrap dress, for which she had the inspiration when she saw Julie Nixon, the president’s daughter, on TV wearing one of her wrap shirts with an A-line skirt. 

“If a simple little top could do so much for a woman,” von Furstenberg recalled in a recent memoir, “what if she extended it to the knee and turned it into a dress?”

Thus was born the idea for the DVF knitted-jersey “wrap dress,” which in the 40-odd intervening years, has sold an estimated 10 million units.

Party girl

Despite the early success, by the early 1980s, von Furstenberg, now divorced from the prince (who died in 2004), saw her empire in deep debt, and beyond rescue. These were the years when she became known for her appearances at New York’s Studio 54, and for her partying lifestyle, which included bedding Ryan O’Neal, Warren Beatty and Omar Sharif, according to her memoir.

Von Furstenberg’s first comeback came in 1992, when she took to hawking a new line of clothing, Silk Assets, directly on the then-new QVC network. In her first hour on the air, she sold $1.3 million in silk scarves and separates, and in short time, her appearances generated $40 million in sales.

In 1997, von Furstenberg bought back the licenses for her line, and relaunched as DVF. She started with rebranding the sexy wrap dress – so easy to slip out of – for a new generation of young women.

DVF now markets four clothing lines, plus fragrances, leather goods, jewelry, you name it, and has some 85 shops worldwide, as well as a TV reality show.

In 2001, she and longtime best friend Barry Diller – founder of Fox Broadcasting, onetime owner of QVC, and current chairman of Internet company IAC/InterActiveCorp – married (the New York Times referred to it as a “merger”). Together, they established a family philanthropy, which, among many other gifts, has given $20 million to the High Line park in Manhattan, near where each has their corporate headquarters.