Wrap dress creator Diane von Furstenberg in her New York City office.
Diane von Furstenberg’s much-ballyhooed design—the wrap dress—undeniably boasts a storied, Hollywood-worthy past. Cybill Shepherd wore it in 1976’s Taxi Driver; Michelle Obama wore it for the 2009 White House Christmas card. Sartorially, it’s the ideal combination of feminism and femininity, and four decades after its debut, women from 17 to 70 continue to clamor for it as a foundation of a stylish wardrobe.
So it’s fitting that, this month, she kicks off a yearlong 40th-anniversary celebration of that renowned design with “Journey of a Dress,” which opens January 11 in Los Angeles' historic May Company building on Wilshire Boulevard (notable as the future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures when it opens in 2017).
Von Furstenberg’s own backstory has always seemed nothing less than cinematic: from her Belgian childhood to her short-lived marriage to a German prince, from her high-wattage, Studio 54–era fame to a now-legendary ’90s comeback that launched a global empire—fold in the second marriage to a media mogul, and it’s a tale that rivals any script that gets green-lighted these days. And to what does she credit such a life? “Really, I owe everything to that dress,” von Furstenberg says.
Jerry Hall struts down the runway in a 1975 DVF fashion show at The Pierre hotel in NYC wearing an early version of the wrap dress.
It was in 1974 that DVF debuted her wrap dress, a sophisticated swish of graphic-print jersey that was equal parts modern, elegant, and powerful, and in doing so spawned a fashion revolution, gifting women who were storming the gates of the male-dominated workplace with a sartorial choice that made them feel both sexy and confident. “It all happened so fast,” von Furstenberg says of the explosive success of her design, which landed her on the cover of Newsweek in 1976; she was just 29.
“I was 21 and an intern for this man [Angelo Ferretti] who used to yell at everybody, but he was a genius,” she says. “He taught me about printing, about pattern and color. I learned so much from him.” In 1972, armed with a suitcase of designs, von Furstenberg arrived in New York, though it would be another two years before the wrap’s debut would truly catapult her career. “It was based on the idea of what I saw ballerinas wearing, little wrap tops with a matching skirt, though the shape was hardly revolutionary,” she says. “The shape had existed for years, but no one had done it in a printed jersey. The fabric molded to the body, and the print gave it so much movement. Everyone went crazy for it.”
Previous iterations of “Journey of a Dress” have appeared in Moscow, Sao Paulo, and Beijing, but this is a new production, von Furstenberg says, a 9,000-square-foot retrospective that features a wide variety of wrap dresses designed over a 40-year period. Producing the exhibit, von Furstenberg notes, has after all these years allowed her to step back and examine what the wrap dress has truly meant, both for herself and for the legions of women who have loved it. “It sounds incredible, but I was never really that impressed by what happened with the dress; I think I took it for granted,” she says. “And 40 years later I’m looking back and realizing how special it was and how unique the dress remains. Now I’m fully embracing it.”