14 Life Lessons From Fashion Icon and Philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg

As an iconic fashion designer, entrepreneur, author, philanthropist, awards founder, mother, grandmother, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, former princess, and wife of a billionaire media mogul, Diane von Furstenberg proves that women can (and should) succeed when they live boldly and with intention. After shooting to fame at age 24 with the invention of her eponymous wrap dress, von Furstenberg made empowering other women a core tenet of her work and life.

At age 72, von Furstenberg still radiates confidence, power, femininity, determination, and joy of life. She’s putting greater effort into empowering other women than ever too. This recently brought her to The Executives’ Club of Chicago for the sold-out “In Charge With Diane von Furstenberg,” moderated by Kristina O’Neill, editor in chief of WSJ Magazine. Her comments there and elsewhere provide outstanding advice and example for all women.

These tips from von Furstenberg have been condensed from her talk and her #InCharge platform:

1. Own who you are.

Von Furstenberg’s mother weighed only 49 pounds when she returned to her Belgium home from the Auschwitz concentration camp and was reunited with her fiancé. Her mother’s doctor advised, “You can get married, but you must not get pregnant. If you do, you will not survive and your child will not be normal.”

Marry she did, and nine months later, Diane Simone Michelle Halfin was born. “Sure enough, I was not normal!” von Furstenberg declares with a broad grin. Her mother lived long and raised her to be a strong, independent woman.

2. Feel powerful like a man, but confident about being a woman.

Von Furstenberg was married to Prince Egon Von Furstenberg from 1969-1972 and had two children with him. She was determined to have her own career and prove that she was not just “a plain little girl who got married beyond her desserts.”

She found her way to fashion and into the good graces of legendary Vogue Editor in Chief Diana Vreeland, then launched the wrap dress and shot to stratospheric fame in 1974. She still reminds herself to feel powerful like a man, but also confident in her femininity to carry her forward in life.

3. Don’t doubt your power.

“If you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt,” von Furstenberg quotes often.

She admits to not always feeling powerful. “At least twice a week I still wake up feeling like a loser,” she shares. So, she stands up straighter and reminds herself to find that powerful and confidant attitude again.

4. Own your imperfections; they become your assets.

Understand why someone says no to you, so that it won’t happen again.

“When a door closes, another one opens,” von Furstenberg says.

5. Own your everything — your character, your relationship with yourself, what is core to being you. 

Understand your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Find and follow your passions and creativity.

Von Furstenberg uses her age as an example. At 72, she’s decided that she’s in the early stage of the autumn, or third act, of her life. God willing she has a lot more to do.

She’s not worried about getting older. She’s owning it gleefully. She decided to share the wisdom that will transform her reputation from icon to oracle. (And it’s working.)

6. Be curious. 

Von Furstenberg keeps expanding her world through her curiosity. This energizes her too.

7. Listen to everyone, and then do what you want. 

People often ask von Furstenberg whose advice she takes. “I listen to everyone,” she says, “then do what I want!”

It never hurts to become better informed before making important decisions, but trusting your own intuition is the wisest way forward.

8. Throw fear in the wastebasket.

Von Furstenberg’s mother wasn’t afraid to get pregnant, despite the doctor’s warning. She raised her daughter to confront and get around fears too. To this day, when von Furstenberg identifies a fear, she visualizes throwing that fear into a wastebasket and shares this technique with others.

9. Serve as a mentor. 

Helping others is a good way to stay relevant. It feels good too.

10. Expand your universe; meet someone new every week. 

Von Furstenberg has long enjoyed an incredible Rolodex, but she still schedules at least one meeting a week with someone she wouldn’t know otherwise, who can expand her knowledge, network, and experience.

11. Connect to help others daily.

Every morning, von Furstenberg sends at least two emails that will be helpful to others before doing anything to benefit herself or her business.

“We all have this ‘magic wand’ — this ability to be helpful to others by simply making an introduction. Use it.”

It’s a great way to start the day.

12. Inspire others by sharing your story, including your vulnerabilities.

Share your experience, vulnerability, and strength through storytelling. Your story will inspire others too.

13. Advocate on behalf of a cause that matters to you. 

Take action on causes that matter to you. Rally, speak up, organize, make an impact. Taking a stand on something that will make the world better for others helps you feel better about yourself too.

14. Don’t be intimidated by philanthropy.

The Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation led the creation of New York City’s High Line and the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. The foundation is also behind the ongoing Pier 55 and Diller Island project. In other words, von Furstenberg is not afraid of major philanthropy. But the creation of her annual DVF Awards, which recognize five women making incredible impact in the world and awarding their nonprofits a $50,000 prize, best illustrates her values.

This year’s winners — Anita Hill, Katy Perry, Nadia Murad, Hadeel Mustafa Anabtawi, and Susan Burton — demonstrate courage and are creating impact around the world.

Anyone can be a philanthropist — by giving time, talents, and a little of their treasure — just as they can generate success by following von Furstenberg’s lead.

Susan B. Noyes is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, which includes Better.

A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry Foundation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red Cross, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Annenberg Challenge, Chicago Public Education Fund, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.

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