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The Next Generation
The Los Angeles Times(April 23, 1998)
THE NEXT GENERATION
The Next Generation Diane Von Furstenberg has revived her famous wrap dress--and brought on board her famous daughter-in-law. Together they're proving that two's a company.
Amid the glasses of champagne on trays and the racks of print dresses and a gaggle of shoppers wandering the brightly lit floor of Bloomingdale's, two women are immediately recognizable. It's not because both are wearing some version of the dress on the rack. It's because both women have had their faces plastered across magazine pages.
One is fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, creator of the iconographic '70s wrap dress now enjoying a revival. Her place in pop culture was assured when she posed in her dress for the cover of Newsweek some 20 years ago, triumphantly, coolly, hands on cantilevered hips.
The other is her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Miller Von Furstenberg--the '90s exemplar of the young socialite ("such a silly word," she says later), a photographic staple of society and fashion magazines.
They stand surrounded by reconstituted wrap dresses. The elder Von Furstenberg , a pro at these publicity tours, chats with women who come by, fussing over them as they try on versions of the dress, renowned for its ability to flatter a variety of body types. Some things are different from 20 years ago.
There's a strapping blond guy who's eyeing a dress for the nights he wears drag. An up-and-coming actress who was probably a child when the dress came out the first time has just bought several to wear on a promotional tour for her new movie.
"She's in 'Godzee-ya,' " says the multi-lingual, Belgian-born Von Furstenberg excitedly.
"It's 'God-ZILLA,' " corrects her chuckling daughter, Tatiana, a 27-year-old writer living in Silver Lake, who is wearing a vintage edition of one of her mother's dresses.
Alexandra Von Furstenberg, whose shopping habitat is more often a Manhattan designer studio than the Beverly Center store where she now finds herself, is one of several people Diane credits with urging her to reinvent the wrap dress. Alexandra will face a flock of salespeople the next day for a kind of "pep rally" for the clothes at Bloomingdale's in Century City.
"It's 9 in the morning, and you're standing in front of 40 people who don't know you, and they're staring at you," Alexandra says. "It's hard."
But it's business. And the two Von Furstenbergs are a fusion made in commercial heaven. At 51, Diane is the savvy, personable businesswoman who essentially sold off her name at the end of the '70s and went to France in the '80s to start a publishing house. She returned this decade, first hawking a dress line on cable shopping shows, then reacquiring her name to revive the wrap dress and launch a new design collection. With her figure still lean and her face pleasantly aged, she seems to promise that true style is lifelong.
Alexandra--called "Alex"--holds the title of creative director but few of 25-year-old Diane Von Furstenberg Studio's momentous decisions rest on her size 2 shoulders. (A CEO has been hired and so has a head designer.) Although she offers design advice and works on every fitting, what she particularly brings to the wrap dress road show is a frisson of celebrity, wealth and well-bred style.
What Alex seems to promise is the notion that even a woman who wore a Karl Lagerfeld couture wedding dress could want a $190 dress with a security tag on it.
The daughters of billionaire duty-free tycoon Robert Miller, Alexandra and her sister, Marie-Chantal, are known as "the Miller girls," two of the reigning style icons of the fashion world. Marie-Chantal married Crown Prince Pavlos, the son of a deposed Greek king, just months before Alexandra married Diane's son, Alexandre,the prince of an extinct country (Furstenberg) in a 1995 New York society wedding extravaganza. (A third and oldest sister, Pia, not a magazine darling like her sisters, is nonetheless married to a Getty.)
Why Alexandra, 25, works at all is a question she seems surprised to be asked. Work, she says, is something she will do, even after she has children.
"It gives me pleasure, satisfaction," says Alexandra, who dropped out of Brown University after two years of studying art history and costume design. "It's something I really enjoy."
Alexandra, who grew up in Hong Kong, learned French living in Paris and makes her home on the Upper Eastside of New York, has spent the past eight months traveling on promotional tour for the dresses to places she had never been before--like Cleveland. And Dallas.
"I wanted to go so much. I watched 'Dallas' growing up. I wanted to see what it was all about."
Shoppers sometimes come clutching magazine photos of her, which she willingly autographs.
"I do get sick of being photographed sometimes, but I always think to myself, 'You're in your 20s, it's the best time to be photographed,' " she says with a little laugh.
The day after the Bloomingdale's event, she is seated on a couch in the spacious, art-filled Beverly Hills home of media mogul Barry Diller, Diane Von Furstenberg's longtime sort-of companion. (Von Furstenberg is, of course, long divorced from Egon Von Furstenberg, the father of her children.)
Diller gave Alex and her financial fund manager husband a wedding gift of a jar of earth--along with a check for a new house. They haven't decided yet where that house will be. It won't be in L.A., where they lived for the first year of marriage. The young bride missed the energy of New York and felt out of place in a city so devoted to the entertainment industry.
"After awhile I knew too much about television," she says. "Everyone is talking about this show and that show."
Honey-colored in hair and skin, Alex wears little jewelry, and takes off her diamond engagement ring before public appearances. There's very little flashy about her look, expensive though it is. A cursory glance might not reveal that the platforms she wore the night before were Prada or that the chunky watch on her arm is a $5,000 Cartier Pasha watch (a gift from Cartier for posing for one of their books).
She and Marie-Chantal made the rounds of the European couture shows this past winter, but Alexandra says she didn't order any of the clothes.
"If they're given to me as a gift, fine. I don't have that money in cash to buy a dress."
"They're just more inspirational and theatrical," she says. "I'm not going to go out in a ball gown that costs $35,000."
Alex is gracious but not particularly expansive--nearly the opposite of her loquacious mother-in-law. She comes across as a combination of rich-girl reserved and deer-caught-in-the-headlights frightened at being trapped with an inquisitive reporter.
"I get shy," she says softly. "People perceive it as being cold and aloof, but it's actually insecurity."
She won't hazard a guess as to why people are fascinated by her and her sister.
"We're not movie stars, we're not English royalty," Alex says. "We are both princesses, yes. But we're not in a ruling monarchy. So, I don't know, I think it's a different kind of thing."
When she lived in Los Ang
eles, she got a job assisting Tracey Ross at her trendy boutique in Sunset Plaza.
"She had a really great work ethic," recalls Ross. "I mean, the woman could buy and sell me. But she wanted to have her own self-worth. She wasn't like, 'OK, Daddy, give me money so I can open my own store.' She wanted to see what retail was like."
When she returned to New York she went to see her mother-in-law for career advice and ended up tending to the designer's archives of artwork and prints. Six months after she started, she became creative director for her mother-in-law.
"I'm very close to her," says Alex, who has known the Von Furstenbergs since she was a teen. "I think because it was never forced. No one ever smashed us together and said that we had to be friends. It developed over a matter of years."
They disagree occasionally over a strap here or there or whether to use leather in a wrap dress.
"I said it's too thick a fabric to work," says Alex.
Later, Diane Von Furstenberg hears this and shrugs. "But we're making it anyway--not the wrap dress but two other dresses."
Neither woman started out thinking she would work together with the other.
"I can't imagine you work with your mother-in-law," Diane says ruefully. "I was obsessed with cleaning the archives and going through the old prints and works of art. I said, 'You could be really helpful at doing that. It will give you something to do. You come when you want.' At the same time, we were thinking about the line and I said, 'If I do that, then it will be something new and maybe you can get involved in that.' And that's how it happened."
But why the promotion to creative director?
"Well, she's family," Diane says blithely. "I didn't think about it. It just happened."
Still, Alex left her mother-in-law impressed. "She surprised me, every day, on every level."
Diane recognizes Alex's public relations cache--"There always are these people who intrigue. My son, Alexandre, said, 'You won't believe it, my wife is a star! They stop her in the street.' "
But she hopes she's not using Alex for it. "I don't want to think that I'm exploitative. And yet my entire life has been a self-promotion, so to speak." She adds quickly, "But not just self-promotion."
She is sitting on the sunny patio of Diller's house. She has long been connected to Diller but never married to him.
"Barry? Barry's like my husband. Barry has been in my life, and I've been in his for 23 years."
She glosses over questions about what kind of relationship it is. "We are very, very intimate. We are in each other's lives. We are family. I mean, this is my house. My children are his children."
The wrap dress she came to town to promote is just a jumping-off point to other things Diane Von Furstenberg wants to do. Mentally, it's clear that she's already left the wrap dress behind. A new fall collection was displayed in a kind of open house this month in New York. She sounds as if she wants to have a style empire much the way Diller has a media kingdom.
"Right now, I have one goal--to take my brand and turn it into a global brand in the three businesses I've been involved with at times--fashion, beauty, the home."
She finds herself in a reflective mood these days since she's been working with a ghostwriter on her autobiography, due out in late fall. She serves up a kind of spiritual philosophy of dressing: "The world is one big world--urban or country. Age--it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter where you live. In the end, you are in the fitting room. All women are the same. You have the same insecurities, the same desires."