Atop a sweepting staircase - its handrails shimmering with 3000 Swarovski crystals - Diane von Furstenberg is perched in her pink-walled private studio in New York City, describing the "miracle" of her life.
"So my mother, she was in her early 20s; she was arrested and went to a concentration camp - she went to Auschwitz and other ones for 14 months. And when she came back, she weighed 49 pounds," says the fashion designer, dressed simply in a black sweater and short checked skirt, with no apparent makeup, on a weekday afternoon. "Then six months later, she had gotten much better, and my father married her. But the doctor said, 'You cannot have children.' Nine months later, I was born."
Von Furstenberg, who grew up in Belgium and later married European aristocrat Egon von Furstenberg, was 35 when she first spoke publicly of her mother's past - and it became a defining moment. "I was accepting an award, and then I heard myself saying something I'd never said, and everybody started to cry," she says. "I realized that my life is just a miracle, and therefore, it's my duty to share it."
Since then, von Furstenberg has made it her mission to empower women. She's actively involved with Vital Voices, a nonprofit group that has trained 5000 emerging women leaders and entrepreneurs in 150 countries, and these women in turn have mentored 100,000 more. As a board member, von Furstenberg finds imaginative ways to raise funds and awareness. Take her most recent endeavor: a Wonder Woman - inspired comic book she wrote for DC Comics called Be the Wonder Woman You Can Be, with proceeds going to Vital Voices. Another project: a play called Seven that she has sponsored at events in Europe and the U.S., telling the stories of seven women helped by Vital Voices, such as Mukhtar Mai, a rural Pakistani woman who boldly spoke up about being gang-raped, got the guys put in jail, then started a school for girls. Each year in March, von Furstenberg throws a benefit that brings together women from far-flung places for International Women's Day.
"All women are strong," she says, leaning back in a zebra-print chair, surrounded by eclectic treasures, like a wooden Chinese chest and a statue of Buddha. "It's just that sometimes, because of a father or brother, or religion or an environment, they're afraid to bring it out."
Von Furstenberg, the wrap-dress visionary who is now married to media mogul Barry Diller and runs a multimillion-dollar fashion empire, says her strength comes from her mother. "She never talked about the bad things, but about life and camaraderie," she says, standing up to join a meeting with her stiletto-heeled staff. "Her most important gift to me: She never allowed me to be afraid."