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February 10, 2009

Diane's Double Life

Diane von Furstenberg doesn't just run a fabulous fashion empire. She's helping train 100,000 female moguls-in-the-making.

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diane von furstenburg comic book

Diane Von Furstenburg's zany comic book.

Photo Credit: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

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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."

To donate time or money to Vital Voices go to VitalVoices.com.
To buy von Furstenburg's comic book, which benefits Vital Voices, go to dvf.com


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