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From wrap dress to riches

  • Story Highlights
  • Young and pregnant Belgian designer Diane Halfin moved to New York in 1969
  • She married Egon von Furstenberg and launched her famous wrap dress
  • Millions were sold and soon the DVF brand appeared on perfume, home wares
  • DVF says: "If I have any mission in life... it is to empower women"
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By Hilary Whiteman
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Wearing a floaty, flowery dress doesn't convey the traditional image of power, yet when it's designed by Diane von Furstenberg, somehow, inexplicably, it does.

It's not just about dresses. Diane von Furstenberg aims to empower women with confidence.

It's not just about dresses. Diane von Furstenberg aims to empower women with confidence.

The Belgian designer, now long-time New Yorker, was peddling her own brand of 'girl power' long before Posh, Baby and Sporty, et. al. were spicing up anything.

Diane Halfin was 22 when she arrived in the United States. It was 1969. She was young, pregnant, devoid of any real design experience and yet to sell a single dress.

On paper, it sounds like a hard-luck story. In reality, she was the beautiful daughter of wealthy parents, the product of boarding schools in Lausanne, Switzerland and Oxford, England, followed by a year studying Spanish at the University of Madrid.

She was well-connected, hugely ambitious and soon to be married to a prince. Egon von Furstenberg was a Swiss-born aristocrat whose name opened doors. Their marriage lasted just three years. Video Watch Revealed: Diane von Furstenberg »

"Yes, of course the fact that I was a woman in my early 20s and that I looked cute and that I had a lot of drive and that on top of it all, I was a princess, all of that helped," Diane von Furstenberg told CNN from her office in New York, her face repeated on authentic Andy Warhol prints behind her on the wall.

"But none of these ingredients alone would have been enough," she continued. "What really made me very successful is that I had created a product that women wanted, and that made sense, and that was in demand."

That product was the wrap dress, a simple stretch of jersey fabric that ties around the waist. Diane von Furstenberg sold her first dress during New York Fashion Week in 1970. By 1975, she was making 15,000 dresses a week and millions of dollars in sales.

It wasn't just the wrap dress Diane von Furstenberg was selling; her image and lifestyle came as part of the package, first by accident, then by design.

"The first time I took a picture of myself for my first ad was because I had no money for hiring a model," Von Furstenberg said. "I sat on a white cube and a friend of mine took a picture, and then I looked at the picture and thought 'oh the cube is too white' and I wrote on it 'Feel like a woman, wear a dress' and that photograph stayed with me for decades."

Emboldened by her success in fashion, Diane von Furstenberg launched a perfume "Tatiana," and then a range of cosmetics. Her name and image became so synonymous with style and strong sales that she signed a number of licensing deals that saw the DVF brand stamped on everything from sheets and towels to curtains and rugs.

Diane Von Furstenberg's golden touch hasn't always been foolproof. In 1978 she sold her entire inventory of wrap dresses after steep discounting at New York retailers prompted fashion bible "Women's Wear Daily" to declare that the trend for wrap dresses was over.

Reluctantly, Von Furstenberg sold her remaining inventory to pay off her debts and focused on expanding her other ventures. By 1980, DVF had seventeen licenses.

"Everything was a license," Von Furstenberg told CNN. "Different companies were handling things and the spirit of the brand disappeared."

"I was very frustrated because I had originally created something wonderful that I was very proud of. [But] it had disappeared and I realized that a lot of my own identity had gone with it. So I became very insecure. And I don't like feeling insecure, it's not a fun thing."

For a woman who's passionate about empowering women, an admission of insecurity from Diane von Furstenberg is surprising, and one guesses quite rare.

She's a strong woman, a fighter, who's staged successive comebacks after knocks in her professional and personal life.

Fourteen years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. The source was traced back to tiny cancerous cells at the base of her tongue and soft palate.

"I was shocked, but I had to deal with it," Von Furstenberg said. "Parallel to the [radiation] treatment I did a lot of yoga. I was very lucky, I was extremely lucky because it went away."

"I think that in life you just have to deal with what you have to deal with, and you take it straight on and you do what you have to do and you have no choice," she added.

A few years later, in 1997, almost 20 years after she sold her first dress, Von Furstenberg noticed that the wrap dress was slowly reappearing. Like most out-of-favor fashion trends, the clothes were coming out of the closet and back onto the street.

It was the green light for Diane von Furstenberg to resume production of the dress that catapulted her to worldwide fame in the 1970s.

She's resigned to the fact that she'll always be regarded first and the foremost as the designer of the wrap dress, despite the varied nature of her collections. Video See video of the launch of DVF's "La Petite Valise" collection in Florence »

"I mean the wrap dress is a tiny part of what I do, but yet, it will always be part of what I do," Von Furstenberg said.

Along with her work as a fashion designer, Von Furstenberg is also President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a position she accepted in 2006.

She also campaigns for the empowerment of women through the non-governmental organization Vital Voices, and last month took her message to the Women's Forum, a global meeting modeled on the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

"If I have any mission in life as a designer, or even as a woman, or as a mother, as a friend, it is to empower women. To make women feel confident, so that they trust themselves, their judgment, their power, their capacity."

By the end of the year, there'll be 29 Diane von Furstenberg boutiques in major city centers around the world, with the three newest set to open before the end of year.

"I'm very happy with where the brand is now," Von Furstenberg told CNN. "There's a spirit behind the brand and that is really something that I'm so proud of and that I really want to capture."

"So in a sense I have begun now, the new moment, the period of my life where I'm really kind of preparing the legacy so that maybe the spirit of the brand and the brand will last after me."

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Cue a cheer from the legions of DVF fans around the world. Are you one of them? If so, we want to hear from you.

Why did you buy your dress and what does it mean to you? "Sound off" below or Email us a picture or go to CNN's facebook page -- facebook.com/cnnintl

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