When Diane von Furstenberg first created her fabulous wrap dress it played to the louche sensibilities of 1970s New York. Forty years later, the child of a Holocaust survivor remains just as committed to making women feel great.
As the spilt champagne dries on the latest round of fashion weeks, one thing stood out. The difference between male and female designers is as acute as ever. While Phoebe Philo, the talent behind Celine, rarely gives interviews and finished her Paris spring 2012 show with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it wave from the back of the stage, Karl Lagerfeld crowned Chanel's collection with a hearty stroll down the catwalk.
The men peacock when it comes to flogging their brand; the likes of Philo and Gucci's Frida Gianni cut a restrained figure.
But a high profile isn't the only difference. "Look," says Diane von Furstenberg. She's taking a break from swimming off the Croatian coast to discuss her fashion empire, reported to be worth NZ$400 million. "Women design clothes for women to wear. Men design costumes."
In the case of DVF, as she's colloquially known, women also design homeware lines and perfumes - her new fragrance "Diane" comes with the tagline: "Be the woman you want to be". Alongside Vivienne Westwood, Von Furstenberg is one of the most recognisable female faces in fashion. And what a face. Deeply olive-skinned and surgery-free at 64, Von Furstenberg exudes a healthy bohemian elegance.
Her clothes are that rare mix of glamorous but wearable, with hemlines that women can wear to work but don't need to tug down during meetings. Her most recent collection shared the same motifs as those with which she made her name in 1970s New York: big patterns, loud colours and tailored, billowing skirts. Von Furstenberg always said her signature design, the 1973 wrap dress, was made for working women at a period of time "between the Pill and Aids".
Your 1970s lady, she suggests, was busy rushing from the office to the disco and then to someone else's bedroom, and the wrap dress, with its easy-on, easy-off design and effortless chic, was the perfect outfit to service her modern needs.
Von Furstenberg believes that fashion is best viewed historically as a measure of the times, and if you apply a historian's analysis to her wrap dress, you can see how its fluid design mirrored the louche sexuality she was observing.
Married to Prince Egon of Furstenberg at 23 and a mother of two by 24, Von Furstenberg has a remarkable biography. She is of Belgian-Jewish descent; her mother was liberated from Auschwitz 18 months before Diane was born. She credits her entire work ethic to her mother, who told her: "Fear is not an option." Instead of disappearing off into the decadent halls of some Euro palace once she became engaged to Prince Egon in the late 60s, DVF ploughed her energy into forging a career. "I was working in a clothing factory in Italy when I discovered I was pregnant. I was humiliated, worried people would think I'd done it to get the 'best catch in Europe'. So I said to my boss: "I'm getting married and moving to America, but before I go, can I learn how to make clothes?' And I stayed after work with the patternmaker, and that's how I got into fashion."
But the young princess was unhappy in her marriage: though New York magazine called them "the couple that has everything", the Von Furstenbergs divorced in 1972 (though they remained close friends until Egon's death in 2004). Later, commercial over-expansion forced her to sell her business for a reported NZ$28 million.
In the late 90s the wrap dress was rediscovered by a younger generation. DVF spotted an opportunity and once again became the face of her brand.
You might balk at the suggestion that DVF shares common ground with your average working mum until you study her career trajectory: a burst of success in her 20s then disappearing to raise a family (and becoming embroiled in a love affair in France) before returning to work in her 50s. The word women often use to describe how they feel during the post-menopause years is "invisible", but DVF has been anything but.
"I call this phase three of my career," she says.
She isn't just visible, she's also vocal, commonly on the issue of women's rights. "I am against anything that objectifies women," she says. Female empowerment is a clear motif in Von Furstenberg's life; she gives face time to Vital Voices, the global initiative to empower women from developing countries, but it's something that isn't always in high stock in the fashion world.
Asked what her greatest achievement has been, Von Furstenberg answers immediately: "That I have given confidence to women [with my clothes]."
But then she tsks at the use of the past tense. "The word 'accomplished' makes you think with a full stop," she says. "I hope I am accomplishing!"
* Diane von Furstenburg is available in Auckland at Muse, Newmarket.
- OBSERVERBy Rosie Swash