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Documentary unspools the story behind Diane von Furstenberg's iconic wrap dress

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. When Diane Von Furstenberg was born, her mother declared, you are my torch of freedom. Just a year before, in 1945, Diane's mother Lily had survived the Nazi concentration camps. Diane Von Furstenberg, simply known by many as DVF, would go on to become one of the most well-known fashion designers of our time after she designed the wrap dress, which has endured for more than 50 years as a symbol of women's empowerment and liberation. The story of the wrap dress goes like this. One day, Von Furstenberg saw former President Richard Nixon's daughter on television, wearing one of her wrap tops along with a skirt. She thought, what if the two pieces could turn into one? The rest is history.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: WOMAN IN CHARGE")

GIOIA DILIBERT: The wrap dress was the go-to garment. Everybody I knew had one. It seemed to epitomize a modern, independent, sexy woman who could have it all.

OPRAH WINFREY: I remember being a young reporter saving up for a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress. It was such a status symbol to have one of those dresses.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN: This dress empowered a giant swathe of women who could actually afford to wear it, which, you know, let's be honest, is not true of most high fashion, right? Like, most high fashion kind of exists over here. And Diane's dress exists in the middle of the history of women's rights and women in the workforce, and women kind of finding their own voice.

MOSLEY: That was Gioia Dilibert - who wrote a book about Von Furstenberg - Oprah Winfrey and Vanessa Friedman, talking about the wrap dress in the new Hulu documentary, "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge." It's about Diane Von Furstenberg's early life, how her mom raised her after surviving the Holocaust, and how Diane began working in fashion, and how she came to own her own fashion company. The documentary is directed by two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, whose work highlights gender inequality. Her 2012 win for the documentary "Saving Face" is about acid attacks on women and their struggle for healing and justice, and made her Pakistan's first Oscar winner. Obaid-Chinoy's 2015 documentary, "A Girl In The River," explored an attempted honor killing of a young Pakistani woman who married a man her family had not chosen. After the film's release, Pakistan's Parliament passed a law criminalizing honor killings. Obaid-Chinoy is also the director of an upcoming "Star Wars" film, making her the first woman and first person of color to direct the franchise. Her documentary about Diane Von Furstenberg will stream on Hulu on June 25.

Joining me today are both Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Diane Von Furstenberg. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: Thank you. We're happy to be here.

SHARMEEN OBAID-CHINOY: Thank you.

MOSLEY: I want to go back to this moment 50 years ago with the creation of the wrap dress because of what it signified. I think, Diane, you've said that it's the dress that the guys like and the mothers don't mind.

FURSTENBERG: I didn't say that. I mean, that's - somebody once said that, and I like that. It's the dress that is sexy enough to seduce a guy and his mother won't mind.

MOSLEY: You liked it so much, yes, you started saying it.

FURSTENBERG: I liked the fact that it was both sexy and proper at the same time.

MOSLEY: Why do you think that dress is so timeless?

FURSTENBERG: I have absolutely no idea. It's, you know, the shape of a wrap, obviously, is a very old traditional shape. It's like a robe, or it's like a toga or a kimono. But what was different about my way of wrapping a dress is that it was a jersey fabric, and therefore, it was - it molded the body.

And I printed on it. And and my choice of prints are very feline-looking, even if they're not feline motif, but they have a movement that somehow is flattering to the body.

MOSLEY: Like a dancer.

FURSTENBERG: Yeah. And but also the print molds it. And somehow the woman puts it on and she gets noticed, and it gives life to her body language. And for me, the things that make women beautiful is eye contact, smile, and body language.

MOSLEY: Well, the catchphrase for the dress at the time when it came out was, feel like a woman, wear a dress, which is a very specific type of liberating message for women. Take us to that time period, because at the time, access to power required almost acting like a man, dressing in a power suit, and your message was for women to own their femininity. Who were the women that you were looking up to at that time?

FURSTENBERG: Of course, I love Gloria Steinem, and I love the freedom of that time. The women's liberation, all of that, spoke to me, sang to me. And it's what my mother always believed in. And then even when I went in boarding school, my head mistress in Switzerland had fought for the rights to vote. So I was bred in that spirit. And when I did the dress, it was an accident. You know, I was working in that factory, that man had a printing factory. By accident, he invented this jersey fabric. So then we printed on that fabric. And then we thought, olh, that would make a nice little polo.

And then the polo became a dress. And then I thought, oh, we should do a wrap-top, like the ballerinas. And then the wrap became a dress. So it was circumstances and because it was a dress, gave freedom and confidence to millions of women behind me.

MOSLEY: It came out right at the right time in the right moment with the right messaging and the right look.

FURSTENBERG: Oh, the right messaging, yes. So I went. I came to New York with a suitcase full of sample and a baby in my stomach, and I had the baby. And immediately after Egon knew Diana Vreeland...

MOSLEY: Who was your husband at the time, who was a prince from Germany.

FURSTENBERG: Egon Furstenberg - and we had met in college. And he introduced me to Diana Vreeland, who was a very intimidating head of Vogue magazine, editor-in-chief. And I went to visit her and they rolled me in her office and they put a rolling rag. I took my dresses out. She comes in, she looks at them. And before I know I'm out of the room and not knowing what had happened to me.

And her assistant said to me, I think she liked it, and I'm sure she will help you. I said, what do I do next? And she said, Well, soon is Market Week. I said, what is Market Week? And she said, Market Week is that time of the year when buyers come from all over the country to choose and buy the product for the next season. So what you should do is you should take a room in a hotel. You should list yourself in something called the fashion calendar, and then take a small ad in Women's Wear Daily. And I called a friend of mine, who was a photographer, would he take a picture of me? I went, take a picture of me. I sat on this big white cube with my very first dress, shirt jersey dress.

And when the picture came out, the cube, the white cube, was taking too much real estate. So I on the photograph, the print that I had, I wrote. It just came to me without even thinking - feel like a woman, wear a dress, and I signed my name.

MOSLEY: Was it just stream of consciousness for you or.

FURSTENBERG: Totally. The whole thing was stream of consciousness.

MOSLEY: There was this moment when the popularity of your wrap dress was so intense that the market got saturated, and you woke up one day and all of your dresses were on sale. Looking back, what was the mistake?

FURSTENBERG: Oh, you know, I had a salesman who wanted more wrap dresses, more wrap dresses. And I knew because I would go around, and I knew that. I mean, when every woman in America has two, three, four, five, sometimes 20 of the same dresses, at some point, it was going to saturate. And it did. And that's it. I learned.

MOSLEY: Sharmeen, what did chronicling Diane's life teach you about failure, about reinvention? So much of the documentary does take us to those places.

OBAID-CHINOY: It taught me that if you're following your own Yellow Brick Road, that you are bound to fall, and that you just have to pick yourself up and open another door. You know, my career has been following my own Yellow Brick Road. I was born and raised in Pakistan, and I came to America as a college student and started my career here with the New York Times and started making documentary films, and I never thought that I would, you know, use film to change legislation or win Academy Awards. I've fallen down many times and picked myself up and tried to find my sort of own door. And many of the doors that have been opened for me have been opened for me by other women, which has also been a valuable lesson. Diane has opened doors for women, and somebody opened a door for Diane. And I think that as I look back at my career and I look at what I'm about to do next, It's always been women who have left the door open for me. And I think that those parallels between what I've learned in Diane's life has equipped me to soldier on into this big world of Hollywood that I'm entering.

MOSLEY: Now, if I have this correctly, the two of you got together to do an entirely different film, but somewhere along the way, the focus turned to you, Diane. Sharmeen, what was your knowledge of Diane before you said, yes?

OBAID-CHINOY: You know, of course, I had known Diane for the better part of a decade, and I had bought my first wrap dress when I was in college. And I knew of Diane's work with Vital Voices and the work that she had done to advance the voices of women. And I immediately wanted to do this film because For me, it's an anthem of freedom. It is the story of a woman who has charted her own life. And she has taken all the adversity that has been thrown her way and turned it into something positive. There is so much learning that we can take from Diane's life.

MOSLEY: You mentioned how you bought your first DVF dress in college. Do you remember what you bought it for?

OBAID-CHINOY: I actually bought it for a sorority party (laughter) when I was in college. I bought it from a thrift store. Northampton, Mass., had a thrift store, and that's where I went to get it. So I have that very distinct memory of the wrap dress. You know, Diane speaks a lot about the impact that her mother had on her life. And my mother was 17 when she got married, and she had me when she was 18, and she very quickly had five children after that. And she always told me that I had to make sure that I would have a career, that I had to be financially independent, that I needed to have my own voice. And she made sure that each one of her daughters went to college, got a job, and had their own lives.

And I think that has played such an important role in who we are today and where my voice is today because my mother didn't give me an option not to have a voice. You know, I always had to be independent.

FURSTENBERG: Yeah, me, too, I must say. I mean, I remember my mother used to sometimes she would pick me up at school, and we would go to a tea room. You know, we call that a tea room, a patisserie, with her friends, and we would have, you know, tea and cakes.

MOSLEY: And this was in Belgium. Yeah.

FURSTENBERG: In Belgium, in Brussels. And she would say, go around. Go leave. Go around the block. I mean, you know, she - wherever I was, she always pushed me to be away. For example, also, the first time, you know, I felt in charge is when she put me alone in a train at age 8 or 9 years old from Brussels to go to Paris to visit my aunt. And at the time, it was, you know, a five-hour train ride. And I - inside me, I was a little - tiny little bit fearful. But the excitement of being alone and going on an adventure alone, you know, was way bigger than the worries.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Diane Von Furstenberg and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about their new documentary, which chronicles Von Furstenberg's life and career as a fashion designer, philanthropist and author. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO SONG, "GRRRLS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today, we're talking with Diane Von Furstenberg and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about their new documentary, "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman In Charge." The documentary explores Von Furstenberg's life and her impact on the fashion industry. Obaid-Chinoy is a two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker who's known for her work in films that highlight gender inequality against women. Diane, this is a retrospective, filmed over a year, and the two of you went to some really great places and also some really hard places. It really does show that to understand you, we have to understand your mother.

FURSTENBERG: I saw the documentary for the first time, really, last night at the opening of Tribeca. And this morning when I woke up, I realized that this movie may be about me, but it is really about my mother. It is really about this woman who even though she was a prisoner of war in the absolutely worst circumstances, refused to be a victim, refused to die and survived. And once she survived, in spite of not being able to have a child, she had me and then my brother, and she did everything so that to encourage us not to be a victim, not to be afraid, fear was not an option, and she wanted us to have big lives. And because of her, there's 13 people. You know, she had two children. Each of the children had four children then our grandchildren. So we are now 13 - a dynasty of 13 behind her. And we carry her flag, her flag of freedom.

MOSLEY: This story about your mother, what she went through - doctors told your mom that it was risky for her to try for a baby. She weighed just around 49 pounds when she got out of the concentration camp. How did you process those stories in the moment? And when did you come to the understanding of what she was trying to do for you?

FURSTENBERG: No, I didn't. I mean, I just - that was my universe. That was my mother. I mean, there's no - what I realized, really, about our family - because now it's not just my mother, but it's all the seeds that she put in us - that none of us is a victim no matter what happens. And that is actually the best gift that a parent can give you, is to teach you not to be afraid and to navigate whatever happens to you.

MOSLEY: There's this really powerful moment in the documentary because you tell your mother's story today with such ease. It's seamlessly a part of who you are. We learn that it wasn't always this way. You kind of had to come into it. There was this moment many years ago where you were getting an award from the Anti-Defamation League. And when you went to accept it, you told the crowd about your mother and what she went through. And as you spoke, you were actually in shock that this was pouring out of you.

FURSTENBERG: Yes, yeah. No, no, I remember. I went to accept this award and I didn't want to go. And my assistant said, oh, you have to go. These women buy your dresses. So I'm just saying that to explain the state of mind. I wasn't into it. And then I listened to the program - and the Anti-Defamation League is a wonderful, wonderful organization that does great work - and so I got into it. And then at the end, I was getting the award. And I went onstage, and I heard myself say something that not only I had never said, but I had never thought.

And that was, you all know me because of my dresses. But what you don't know is 18 months before I was born, my mother was in Auschwitz. And I heard myself say that and I was in shock. I don't like, you know, to show emotions. And I started to tremble. And I remember I walked home. And that's when I realized that, actually, I had a responsibility to talk about that. And so, yes, that was a revelation. Even though I knew my mother had been in the camps - when I was a little girl, she had two, you know, tattooed numbers on her arm, which she had removed. So I knew it, but it was kind of in the background. And it was never, you know, something too heavy because my mother didn't want us to have that weight. And yes, so I was 33, actually, that day of the Anti-Defamation League.

MOSLEY: It's so amazing how our parents' stories, as we get older and we step into different versions of ourselves, it carries deeper meaning. Do you see it that way? Is that - as you carry your mother's story, does it serve even bigger - bigger revelations come to you as you think about it, as you age?

FURSTENBERG: Of course. And also, you know, when my mother - I mean, to have a strong mother - if you have a strong mother, it's a good thing because the chances are it will make you strong. But when you have a strong mother, you have to keep distances because her strength can be overpowering. And I know that as a daughter, and I know that as a mother and even as a grandmother. So but of course, then when your mother is no longer there - when my mother died 24 years ago, then I had - you know, I didn't have to push her strength away. You know, I had an open corridor. And then I could give her so much more credit. And I could - and I kept on - I mean, I always quote her. She was so annoying because she would always give advice to everyone, all of my friends.

MOSLEY: Did she have quotes that she would just recite?

FURSTENBERG: Yes, and now I repeat them. And, you know, she - I'm a hundred times worse than she was. So...

MOSLEY: Yeah, you have a lot of one-liners. You have a lot of quotes that you give that are inspirational.

FURSTENBERG: I love words. And I give a huge importance to words. And that's also something that I learned from my mother. She would say, you know, words have energy and words have power. I remember I used to say at one point, oh, it's divine, it's divine, and she would get so upset. What do you mean divine? That's not what divine means, you know? So yes, paying attention to words is important to me.

MOSLEY: Our guests today are Diane von Furstenberg and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, my guests are Diane von Furstenberg and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Their documentary, "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman In Charge," is about Diane's life and the iconic wrap dress she designed in the '70s, which became a cultural phenomenon. One now hangs in the Smithsonian.

Obaid-Chinoy is a two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker, who's known for films that highlight gender inequality against women. Her 2012 documentary, "Saving Face," is about acid attacks on women and their struggle for healing and justice and made her Pakistan's first Oscar winner. Obaid-Chinoy is also the director of an upcoming "Star Wars" film, making her the first woman and first person of color to direct the franchise.

Diane, you talk quite extensively about your marriage to German Prince Egon von Furstenberg. You've said most fairy tales end with the girl marrying the prince, but for you, that's where your story began. Was it just natural at such a young age to have this understanding of yourself, or did you grow into that outlook? You all later divorced. But instead of being this jealous wife or victim, you flipped it.

FURSTENBERG: Yeah. You know, once in my heart, always in my heart. There's no one in the world that I could say, oh, I don't speak to him or her anymore. And then when you deal with people that I was involved romantically, then, of course, I mean, I always stay in good terms. I mean, sometimes it takes a long time because sometimes they're not happy that you left them, but I work at it. And eventually, you know, they - I stay in their lives.

And as it relates to Egon, I mean, Egon gave me - he was the first person to believe in me. He made me a princess. He gave me two children. He insisted upon having these children. And he pushed me and encouraged me to work. So I owe him so much. I just - there was one point that I no longer wanted to be part of a couple, for whatever reason - things that I did not necessarily endorse, but I don't judge.

And we stayed very good friends. He used to come every - you know, every end of a day to see the kids, have drinks with my mother. I mean, we stayed friends, and we loved each other. It was - he became like a brother to me. And when he died, I was with him in the room and the children. And I love him to this day.

MOSLEY: You mention motherhood, and both of you are mothers. There's no doubt, as we see in this documentary, ambition and drive and mission-driven work - it does have an impact on that role of motherhood. I'm a mother, too. We know the way that mothers are perceived in society and what society says a mother should be. And I want to ask this question to both of you guys. Diane, how do you feel like you managed that or juggled that? And when you look at this retrospective of your life and you see the relationship between your children and some of the things that they say, like, you weren't always there, or they became closer to you as you got older...

FURSTENBERG: But, I mean...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

FURSTENBERG: I did - I had this conversation with my daughter today on the phone. And she did - and I said - well, I mean, she wouldn't actually - I said, would you have liked to have another mother? And this is the mother I was. I was the best I could. And I was a lot more there than they thought I was. And - but the result - I mean, the result is extraordinary - and not only who they became but the children that they later had.

And I don't think there's anyone who has the relationship my - my children are now 52 and 53 or 53 and 54. And, I mean, they both call. We speak at least twice a day, every day. So - and because they're my friends. I mean, they are. I was barely an adult when they were born. And if I need anything, it's them that I call. And so we have - I mean, I was the best mother I could have been, and voila. And, I mean, your children are supposed to feel that way...

MOSLEY: Yeah (laughter).

FURSTENBERG: ...Even though I didn't feel like that to my mother, but also the most important things you can give your children and teach their children is to be independent because that is the biggest gift you can give them. Nothing is worse than make - raising people, children who become needy and dependent. You...

MOSLEY: What were the ways that you - or you did that for your children?

FURSTENBERG: Me?

MOSLEY: Yes.

FURSTENBERG: So my children - I used to say, you have to be responsible. You know, I could die. And I remember one day I told them that. They were - may have been - I don't know - 4 and 5. And they looked at me. I said, I don't intend to, but things can happen, and you have to learn how to be responsible for yourself.

OBAID-CHINOY: You know, my father died when he was fairly young, and I was in my late 20s. And he always said, be independent. And I remember when I was 17 years old and I had written this article in the newspaper and that had drawn this ire of a lot of people. And they had spray-painted my name and my family's name with, like, unspeakable profanities on our main gate and around our neighborhood in order to shame us.

And my father said that - I thought he was going to ground me, to be honest. But instead of that, he said to me, if you speak the truth, I will stand with you, and so will the world. And he was telling me, be independent. You know, someone will step in to help. Don't shy away from it. Don't stay in sort of - you know, don't stay in a cover. Like, go out. Explore your dreams. Be yourself. Be independent. And I think that was such a valuable lesson at the age of 17 to know that, you know, someone was telling you that consistently. And I think that empowered me to follow my dreams.

MOSLEY: Sharmeen, you, as a documentary filmmaker, have spent quite a bit of time documenting stories in your home country of Pakistan. And when did you know or come to understand that storytelling was your calling?

OBAID-CHINOY: I think I was always a storyteller. I'm the eldest of six children. And my mother was always dividing her time with her children. And I was that annoying child who would ask far too many questions. And I think I was 14 when my mother told me that I needed to start badgering someone else. And so she recommended that I start writing and putting these questions out to the universe. And so I wrote this letter to the editor of an English-language newspaper in Pakistan. And I said, hi, I'd like to start writing for the newspaper. And by the time I was 17, I was doing investigative reporting. And I think that from print, there was a natural trajection to filmmaking.

MOSLEY: Your work has had such an impact, Sharmeen, in Pakistan. You are now, like, a household name in Pakistan. And the lives of many women who live there - they're still struggling with many things, still struggling with this idea of honor killings. I just want to know, how does it feel, though, to know that you are making this change and you're - where you're from, and what has been some of the response since Parliament passed that law criminalizing honor killings?

OBAID-CHINOY: You know, as a filmmaker, there can be no greater joy than knowing that something that you've created impacts legislation and is able to change the lives of hundreds and thousands of women. You know, we - once "A Girl In The River" came out, we screened it in small towns and villages on a mobile cinema, and we pushed it through colleges in order to create advocacy and to change the way people saw that law. I think that It has made a small dent in the perception of what honor killing is in the country. But I think more importantly, what it has done is it has shown that film has the ability to change the way people see things, and it has the ability to change people's lives.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Diane Von Furstenberg and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy about their new documentary, "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman In Charge." What new things did you learn about yourself, Sharmeen, in the making of this documentary?

OBAID-CHINOY: Many things (laughter).I learned many things about myself. You know, I have always been somebody who's embraced age. I have a lot of gray hair for someone who's 45 years old. I don't dye. And the opening of the film with Diane in the sink, talking about the map of her life really resonates with me because I think that women need to see age and experience age in a totally different way. We need to change the narrative around ageism and how we perceive ourselves, and to look at the lines on our face as the map of our life and our experiences and to frame it that way is empowering. And when Diane said that, I was like, yeah, exactly. That is what I'm doing. This is the map of my life, and I am going to embrace it. And I hope that younger women today reframe the conversation in this context.

MOSLEY: You know, when I saw that in the documentary, now every time I'm looking at myself in the mirror, I'm seeing it a little bit differently. I'm thinking about what she said - thinking about what you said, Diane.

FURSTENBERG: But having said that, now that I watched the way I look, I said, Oh, my God, I look so terrible.

MOSLEY: (Laughter) No, really?

FURSTENBERG: Yeah. But no, I don't know if I said that already, but in the mirror, I find strength in my own eye contact. The eye contact is so important with yourself, you know? Because that's how I get my strength.

MOSLEY: You know, when you look at yourself in the mirror, Diane, and you've always looked how you looked. You've just gotten older. Have you ever felt pressure in an industry like fashion to alter yourself - plastic surgery, Botox, those types of things?

FURSTENBERG: I don't want to lose myself. OK, do I want to improve myself? Sure, and - if I can. But I am very afraid of of losing myself.

MOSLEY: How hard is it in an industry that is always pushing being youthful, being young. That is where your power lies - to really be standing in this place where you're saying, no, my power actually lies in the years that I've lived?

FURSTENBERG: No, first of all, I never wanted to be a girl. I always wanted to be a woman. When I was growing up, I admired women like Jeanne Moreau. You know, I always liked faces that looked like they had lived. So I still do like that. I don't want to look like a doll. I don't want to look like I'm upholstered. I want to look - I mean, wrinkles are the expression of your life. So, you know, it's - and I don't take those things industry one, society wants. I never thought like that. I never thought like that. What does it mean, society wants? What is society? What does it mean? I never - that has never entered my preoccupation ever. But I do believe in being a good human being. I believe in kindness, I believe in empathy. I believe in courage, I believe - but I don't believe in the rules of society.

MOSLEY: Diane Von Furstenberg and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, I really thank you for this documentary and thank you for this conversation.

FURSTENBERG: Thank you very much.

OBAID-CHINOY: Thank you so much.

MOSLEY: Diane Von Furstenberg and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, talking with us about their new documentary, "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman In Charge." After a short break, book critic Maureen Corrigan shares part one of her summer book recommendations, and TV critic David Bianculli reviews the drama series "Kafka." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.