Diane von Furstenberg once said her wrap dress was successful because it worked for women who loved clothes but still wanted to get stuff done. In a scrapbook, she has a page of newspaper clippings of famous women wearing the wrap dress in one year, 1976: it includes Gloria Steinem, Betty Ford, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the actress Dina Merrill and Maureen Dean, the Watergate lawyer.
Today Von Furstenberg is wearing one of her own wrap dresses, with her glasses tucked into the V-neck. And she certainly has plenty of stuff to get done. There is one week to go until her catwalk show in New York, but she is in Paris in her role as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, for what she calls a "summit" with Hilary Riva of the British Fashion Council and representatives of the French and Italian fashion governing bodies, to discuss the issue of too-thin models. With the fashion show season about to begin again amid widespread unease about designers' use of skinny models, Von Furstenberg — who once commented wryly that "it will probably be on my tombstone: Here Lies the Woman Who Designed the Wrap Dress" — has what could be her best chance to alter that destiny. Being comfortable in the spotlight, she is a natural choice for an industry spokesperson. Today, in the elegant Left Bank apartment that she bought while living in the city in the 1980s, the sofas to which she guides us for our chat are situated directly beneath two large Andy Warhol portraits of the designer as a young woman.
It is already clear none of the Big Four fashion cities represented at her "summit" — New York, Paris, London or Milan — intend to follow the lead set by Madrid last season and ban skinny models from Manhattan. The Madrid ruling forbade the use of models with a body mass index of less than 18, meaning a 1.71m model would have to weigh a minimum of 54kgs to be allowed on a catwalk. Von Furstenberg is adamant that "what we need are guidelines, not rules. We need to encourage designers and agencies to be responsible. We need to make sure everyone is sensitive to the issues. But to calculate the girls' body mass — I personally think it is demeaning. I'm all about empowering women. And by lining them up against the wall and weighing them, surely you are making them feel more like meat than ever — even if it's little meat, if you know what I mean."
There is, she says, "total agreement" between the US, British, French and Italian industries that the issue is best addressed without legislation. On Monday, the day after her show, Von Furstenberg will host a discussion panel in New York on thin models, health and body image. A nutritionist, a trainer, a model's agent and a specialist on eating disorders will speak. "As the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, I represent the designers. And while we can by no means take the blame for eating disorders, we can play our part in addressing this important issue." The one point on which she does intend to lay down rules is age: 14 year-olds and 15 year-olds are not uncommon on the catwalk and many feel these are often the girls most vulnerable to eating disorders. She intends to stipulate that none under 16 should appear in New York.
Von Furstenberg believes things are already improving. "I think it's great this issue has been raised. Fantastic, in fact. It's pushed a lot of people into becoming more sensitive to it. And just by being sensitive, we can improve a lot."