Diane Von Furstenberg’s ‘Woman in Charge’ Documentary Proves Her Life Story Is Her Greatest Design

In 1882, the German philosopher Frederic Nietzche encouraged his readers—and later, scores of liberal arts majors who chain-smoked American Spirits and thought they were Ethan Hawke—to “become who you are.” About 100 years later, Diane von Furstenberg told the women those Ethan Hawke-adjacent dudes were chasing that they could become something far better: the women they wanted to be.

That insistence on self-creation is the throughline of the new documentary Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge. Directed by Trish Dalton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the film debuts June 25 on Hulu, and follows the wrap dress creator through her Jewish childhood in postwar Europe, her marriage to a German prince, her ascent of New York society, and the many obstacles—divorce, drugs, financial failure, and chronic illness—that she spelunked over, all while wearing high heels.

Because of its premise, the movie could have tilted into inspiration porn. Instead, it becomes a fascinating push-and-pull between the urge to dismantle systems of power and the canny ways some women are allowed to tinker with those systems from within. Can you destroy a glass ceiling with a glass slipper? Von Furstenberg would say yes. Viewers might have a different take—or be inspired to grab the slipper and continue the annihilation.

DVF reflects on her life in Woman in Charge.

Courtesy of Disney


Nine months before von Furstenberg’s birth in 1946 Belgium, her mother, Liliane—still emaciated from the horrors of Auschwitz, where she had been held prisoner—was told she could never carry a child to term. Underestimated even in utero, von Furstenberg arrived on New Year’s Eve and quickly became a bright, opinionated, and creative child, and “a total loser” at school.

“Everyone else was blonde, blue-eyed, straight hair. Here’s this Jewish girl with black curly hair, darker eyes, darker skin,” says the Oscar-winning Obaid-Chinoy. “When you’re an outsider, and you follow your Yellow Brick Road to the center of power, the choices you make and what you do with that power define who you are.”

The designer met her first husband, the aristocrat Prince Egon von Furstenberg, at the University of Geneva. “He was the first person to ever believe in me,” she says in the film. He was also the first person to bring her into a German family castle. Von Furstenberg looks back on the experience with wry humor, saying, “I thought, maybe they’ll poison me.”

They didn’t, but his family’s patronage allowed the von Furstenbergs to move to New York, where—after interning for a fabric manufacturer in Italy and a modeling agent in Paris—the young Diane began to make her own dresses. In 1974, she created her wrap dress, a garment that does exactly what it says it will—wraps around the entire body. Its slogan was, “Feel like a woman, wear a dress,” and one of its first patrons was then-Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. She was followed by millions of “real” women, including Oprah Winfrey, who admits in the documentary, “I saved up all my money from my first reporting job to buy one.”

Though the silhouette is now commonplace, the original ’70s DVF dress marked “a kind of liberation at a time when high fashion was inaccessible to the working-class woman,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “She made it accessible. She gave women permission to wear a dress at a time when women were told to dress more like men if they wanted to be taken seriously.” Some 20 years later, Obaid-Chinoy bought her own wrap dress from a Massachusetts thrift store in college and felt the fashion magic herself.

Von Furstenberg turned that magic into an empire, netting $159 million in sales by 1979—a figure that would be nearly $1 billion today. After her divorce from the Prince, she also raised her two children as a single mother, founded a publishing house in Paris, licensed away and then bought back her business, and wrote two books telling her story. “Every woman who’s a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, a working woman, or a woman juggling her children will have some of the same conversations in their head that Diane was having,” says co-director Dalton.

Producer Fabiola Beracasa Beckman adds that though the movie—and von Furstenberg—are laser-focused on the importance of women’s rights and female financial empowerment, men can and should be active viewers, too. “I have sons, so I think about this a lot,” she says. “The patriarchy has served men in many ways and given them many advantages, but it’s also incredibly damaging. It’s created this [world] where men can only express themselves through anger or violence. Men and boys should be able to access the spectrum of their emotions and feel comfortable doing so. And if men weren’t so confined to the patriarchy, they’d enjoy themselves more!”

All genders will likely enjoy themselves during the parts of the film where von Furstenberg talks about her many celebrity lovers, including a failed threesome between Mick Jagger and David Bowie—DVF turned them both down. (In one of the movie’s most endearingly silly moments, her granddaughter Talita says, “Telling them ‘no’ was kind of epic!”)

DVF and her granddaughter, Talita.

Courtesy of Disney

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When asked what surprised them about spending time with DVF, the production team says the threesome is at the bottom of the list. “She’s lived a life!” exclaims Beckman. Instead, co-producer Tracy Aftergood says, “Making the movie, I realized that women cannot have it all, at least not all at once. It can lead to resentment, burnout and not doing our best. DVF is so brave because she acknowledges that.”

Indeed, some moments in the film seem to wink at the notion that one can “have it all” as an entrepreneur, a sex symbol, and a human rights activist. When Gloria Steinem notes, “It wasn’t that Diane von Furstenberg was getting invited to the club. She was creating the club,” it bookends the film’s peek into DVF’s amazing escapades at Studio 54—a club that almost nobody could get into, but that helped cement von Furstenberg herself as a society star.

Aftergood says the dichotomy is intentional. “Diane said to me, ‘You’re a young woman, you’re an old woman, you’re a pretty woman, you’re an unattractive woman. You’re always some kind of woman that isn’t the right kind of woman. So, who cares?’ She’s a social butterfly; she’s an activist; she’s a businesswoman; she’s a princess; she’s the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who married a German. She’s all the contradictions! By saying it, that allows us as women to expand into the breadth of what we are capable of doing.”

And look, von Furstenberg is no Rory Gilmore. For starters, she’s real. But also, she’s eminently capable of succeeding on her own terms, without invisible assists from charming men at every turn. Still, the film could’ve delved a bit more into the shadows between its central thesis—that DVF is an iconic example of female power and independence—and the financial reality that von Furstenberg’s undeniable beauty and sex appeal was part of her success. Photos of a young Diane bear an eerie resemblance to Emily Ratajkowski, another woman of undeniable brains, style, and agency whose appeal to the male gaze was central to her crucial early fame. Being gorgeous isn’t lazy, and it certainly isn’t wrong. But ignoring the very real advantages that come from male desire and female admiration feels frustrating.

To many, though, Diane’s inner beauty is the sun, and her outer beauty is just a flashlight. And fair enough—the woman is a cancer survivor, an entrepreneur, a party queen, a style icon, a human rights champion, and an all-around force to be reckoned with. Obaid-Chinoy wants to ensure that last part isn’t lost on me before we finish our conversation.

“What is so, so important is that she chose what to do with her privilege,” she says. “She asked, ‘How can I make sure that the position I am in helps other people?’ There are a lot of contradictions in who she is. But she never wanted this movie to be about her life. She said, ‘If it helps the mission to empower women, then do it.’”

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