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Diane von Furstenberg

As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Diane von Furstenberg was determined to lead a big, brave and meaningful life. And so far, the famed Belgian-born designer has achieved her aspirations in spades. Not only did she meet and marry royalty – Austro/German Prince Eduard Egon von Furstenberg – and raise two exceptional children, but she began an American fashion empire when she created the innovative wrap dress, empowering generations of women with her approach to chic, easy dressing. After her split from the prince, the former princess went on to partner with, and eventually marry, American media tycoon Barry Diller. Together, they continued to lead not only an extraordinarily glamorous life but also started their own philanthropic foundation, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation. Von Furstenberg recently appointed British designer Jonathan Saunders to head up design duties at her label so that she can devote more time to good causes; on May 4, she arrives in Toronto to speak at a luncheon benefiting Covenant House, hosted by Canadian philanthropist Suzanne Rogers. I spoke with Von Furstenberg from New York recently about her enduring commitment to uplifting women, and about the importance of having a good relationship with oneself.

You recently decided to step aside from the fashion arena and embrace your philanthropic work wholeheartedly. Was that a decision that was a long time in coming, or did it just feel like a natural thing to do at the time?

It's something that happens with age. When you get successful at all, two things happen: You can pay your bills and you are independent. When I first started out, I didn't know what I wanted to do but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I very much wanted to be a woman who's in charge of her destiny. And because I became that woman through a little dress, as I was getting more and more confident, I was sharing my confidence. I would go into fitting rooms and share my confidence as I was wrapping the dresses on people; I was sharing my own insecurities and my own confidence and my own everything, and so very early on, I established a dialogue with women. It was almost like I was doing social media before there was such a thing. So, it's been a very natural thing to me, and women have had a very personal relationship with me and my brand over the years.

It's heartening to know that you've found such a strong design talent in Jonathan Saunders to carry your business forward. Why Jonathan?

Jonathan is not just an extraordinarily talented designer but a wonderful leader, and he and I are very much alike in so many ways.

As he is more and more involved in the company and running the company, he's becoming my heir, creatively speaking.

Interesting that a British designer is going to be carrying on the tradition of a great American design label. …

It's also because he's so brilliant at colour and print and as we get to know each other, we realize how we are very much the same. I always admired him when he appeared on the scene, but I never thought that I would actually have him designing for me.

You've always been synonymous with strength for women and have helped empower many women simply leading by example. When was it that you realized your personal power?

I was always a feminist. I always believed in that. In the seventies, when I married Egon, I became a princess, but then when Gloria Steinem came up, I always thought that it was more glamorous to be called 'Ms.' than it was to be a princess. And so I went on like that, and then I got involved in women's issues. I got on the board of Vital Voices, which is a fantastic organization that was originally created by Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady, that's all about empowering women and women leaders. As the years went by, I got more and more involved in women's causes and it's just become very, very natural.

Obviously the fashion arena has proved to be a wonderful school of life lessons as well. What did the fashion arena teach you about true beauty?

My view of beauty is very much the same that I always thought it was. There are two things I want to tell young women, and the most important thing is that the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. Once you have that, any other relationship is a plus and not a must. And the other thing that is also very important when you are down, is to know that I have never met a woman who is not strong. All women are strong. But sometimes because of either a brother, a husband, a father, a religion or very often, themselves, women don't want to show their strength. Maybe it's because they want to make the men feel strong, whatever. But the strength is there. The proof of it is whenever there is a tragedy, it's always the woman who comes out and saves the situation. So I want women to remember that they have their strength. They don't need to necessarily show it all the time but they should remember it at all times. As Honoré de Balzac said, when you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.

But it's usually well along one's life journey before we see these things in ourselves.

But it's something we can think about everyday, because sometimes you don't [remember your strength] and sometimes you do. It's something that you have to practice, because we all feel like losers sometimes.

What do you ultimately want your legacy to be?

I want to be remembered as someone who told women they could be the woman they want to be. Through the brand, I do that by trying to make beautiful clothes and accessories that will make a woman project herself the way she wants to project. I personally want to do more speaking engagements and things like that, to tell women how to use their own strengths and how to push their own button inside so she can be the women she wants to be, even without spending anything.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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