NEW YORK, United States — When Diane von Fürstenberg started her business making jersey dresses in New York in 1972 she was operating alone, living in a new city and had two young children. As she recounts, it was tough, and she turned to her family for support. “I was very young when I started to work and I was lucky my mother was around and I had a lot of help. There was no choice for me but to build a business and support my family.” Von Furstenberg thought it was essential for women to have a career alongside their more traditional roles.
“It is very important for a woman to have a family and equally important to have an identity outside of the home,” she says. She made it clear to her children that having a career was non-negotiable (when many women gave up work once they had children). “Very early on, I explained it to them — they went to school, I went to work. We each had our own obligations, our responsibilities and when we met at night, we would exchange our experiences.”
But Von Furstenberg did not try to obscure her gender to win people over. “I never underplayed the fact that I was a woman — being a woman is a strength. I design clothes for women and I understand women. I have just been true to that and I have always gone for it. You have to be willing to take risks and to make mistakes, because that is where your lessons come from.”
Now that her brand generates estimated annual revenues of $500 million and employs hundreds of people, the majority of whom are women, Von Furstenberg has created policies that enable working mothers to better manage the demands of career and family. “We have a flexible culture. Some of the women who work for me are moms who have flexibility, so they might work from home on Fridays or come in and leave at different times based on their schedule.”
But for Von Furstenberg, the fearless attitude instilled by her own mother — who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp — and a good dose of self-belief are also essential ingredients to success. “You have to believe in yourself, or no one else is going to. That means taking on bigger roles and going after them. My mother always taught me that fear is not an option and it turned out to be very good career advice. Know what you want and go for it!”
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market. Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.