Diane von Furstenberg — Vive La Liberty with a Fashionable Godmother

Episode Summary

For the Season 2 finale of the FrancoFiles Podcast, the team is joined by the “Woman in Charge” Diane von Furstenberg. This title is a self-ordained and true testament to the success she has had as a fashion designer, entrepreneur and a strong female icon. In February 2020, Diane was awarded with France’s highest honor–the Légion d'Honneur–for her life’s work in breaking the boundaries of women’s fashion to encourage self-expression and freedom through her designs like her iconic wrap dress. Her commitment to woman-celebrating ideals fueled her support for the major development in philanthropy for the Statue of Liberty Museum inaugurated in 2019 on Liberty Island. As the US prepares for the arrival of one of the eight Bartholdi Statue of Liberty originals from Paris, the team talks to Diane about the revival of this historic journey but more profoundly, what Lady Liberty, in all her shapes and sizes, means to all of us.

Episode Transcription

[00:10] Andrea Fort - From the Embassy of France in the United States, this is FrancoFiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the US. My name is Andrea and I will be your host. Joining me today is Diane Von Furstenberg, a woman in charge, a direct quote from Diane and a true testament to the success she’s had as a fashion designer, entrepreneur and a strong female icon and executive of this century. In February 2020, Diane was awarded with France’s highest honor, the “Legion d’Honneur”, given for her life’s work in enabling women’s fashion to become boundless by encouraging self expression and freedom through her designs, like her iconic wrap dress. Her commitment to these ideals fueled her support in the major development and philanthropy behind the Statue of Liberty Museum, built on Liberty Island, which was inaugurated in May 2019. As we, at the Embassy of France in Washington, DC, prepare for the arrival of one of the eight Bartholdi Statue of Liberty originals from Paris, we are excited to talk to Diane about the revival of this historic journey, but more profoundly what Lady Liberty in all of her shapes and sizes means to all of us. Diane, it’s such an honor to have you among us Francophiles today. Welcome.

[01:33] Diane Von Furstenberg - Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. As you know, in the last few years, I’ve been very involved with Lady Liberty, so I am very happy to be here today to talk about her while she’s on her way to DC.

[01:53] Andrea - Yes ! I was going to say, I assume that most people know about you and your achievements in fashion, but I’m not sure they know, you know, all of them know about your role and your special connection with the Statue of Liberty, so, I guess I wanted to ask you, you know, you’ve been honored with the title godmother of the Statue of Liberty and I want you to tell us how did you embark on this journey ?

[02:17] Diane - So, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island is a foundation. And for years, they wanted me to come on the board of the foundation. I was really not particularly interested. I never really sat down and thought about the Statue of Liberty that much, so I kept on saying no, but the man who was president was very, very, very persistent, he read my book, my memoir, and in my memoir, I talked about my mother. My mother had been a survivor of the war. She was in Auschwitz when she was 22, and I was born soon after she survived and came back. She used to tell me : “God saved me so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back, you are my torch of freedom”. So this man who is trying to convince me to come on the board of the Statue of Liberty underlined that in my book and said “You must”. Of course, by then he had convinced me. He also gave me a few books that I started to read, and that’s when I got completely involved in the Statue of Liberty. The fact that it was the people of France who had decided to make this present to the people of America, because there was so much in all of what had happened in America : the making of the Constitution, the abolishment of slavery.. and, you know, especially the intellectuals, they really, really went off of that. They wanted to make a gift to America, and it turned out to be this statue. So after I became on the board, the thing was that we needed to raise money to make a museum on the island. I am not really good at raising money at all, nor have I done it very much, but somehow, I looked at them and I said “Oh, that’s what you want from me”. Alright, I don’t want a big title. They wanted to give me a big title. I said “I’ll tell you the title I would like. I would like to be a temporary godmother of Lady Liberty”. And they said “Sure. Of course, why not”. And that’s what happened, then I got involved. I did raise $100 million for the museum, and by now, I am completely, totally, her godmother. She’s my godmother, and I go and salute her very often. Voila.

[05:23] Andrea - Yeah, that’s wonderful. It really became such a strong symbol of identity for you as well. Thank you for sharing about your mother, and that special connection, especially when you talk about the torture freedom. I have seen you comment about, you know, kind of the parallel between her liberate Lady Liberty’s torture freedom and what your mother quoted. And, you know, I have to say, I had the chance to view the HBO documentary, The Liberty Mother Exiles, and you know, you were featured as a voice of support for the Liberty museum. There’s something that I wanted to share with you that I really appreciated was that all the people that were interviewed were involved in some way towards the preservation of the monument. And every single one of them, or almost every single one of them spoke of their own story of immigration, or those of the generations before them, and I have to say, for myself, as a first generation immigrant to the United States, it really captured the essence of Lady Liberty. So, you know, I work at the French Embassy, we are at the studio in the French Embassy and “La Marianne” is a very powerful symbol for France, and I can’t help but to think about how Lady Liberty also is similar in the way that it represents so many symbols like freedom, democracy, equality, friendship between France and the US. So I ask you, what symbol would you choose that speaks the most to you?

[06:58] Diane - For me, first of all, she’s a woman, although for the inauguration, there were no women involved, there were no women invited, you know, but it doesn’t matter she’s still a woman. That arm and that torch means “yes, yes to life. Yes to the new continent. Yes to hope. Yes to the future, yes to everything. Yes, she chose life”. And that is really what she represents to me. The chains are broken. She looks into the future, and millions and millions and millions of people who have come to this country to look for another future to look for a better future, they meant so much to her. So for me, she is obviously strength, freedom, and total, total, “yes” to life.

[08:03] Andrea - Yes, yes she is. I do share your thoughts about how she was created in a time, in a man’s world, yet, she was chosen. A woman was chosen to lead the people just like “La Marianne’’, around the same time, it is truly an interesting observation. So what about the Statue of Liberty museum? You know, why is it important? Why is it here? It’s bringing a new interest in the monuments or maybe in what she signifies. Why is it important now to have that museum open to the public?

[08:38] Diane - Well, when she was restored in 1986, there was a small museum under her, and after 9/11, obviously, she’s a big target, so people had to wait in line and there was a lot of security just to get into it. That’s when they decided to make a separate museum on the island. I didn’t know the story of Lady Liberty. I did not know that Gustave Eifel had done all the inside structure. I didn’t know any stories about Laboulaye and about Bartholdi. Do you know, for example, that it all happened at a dinner ; Laboulaye who was a great intellectual, who really respected America so much, created a club : “the Franco American club”, either club or association, and they had a dinner in Versailles with a lot of intellectuals where they praised the America and so on, and it’s at that time that they decided to make a present to the people, from the people. When they decided to do that, there was their present, Bartholdi, and Bartholdi was a sculptor, who made these big sculptures for public spaces. Because, you know, when cities developed so much in France, there was a need for greenery, and therefore, they wanted to create these gardens, these public spaces, and in these public spaces, they usually put statues. So this man, Bartholdi, it was his dream to build the biggest statue in the world. Originally, she was planned to be a lighthouse in the Suez Canal, but that didn’t go through. So on that night, he was present, and he said : “I have an idea, we are going to build…” - and that’s when he talked about the woman and, and so on. That’s how I started.

[10:59] Andrea - Incredible, incredible. Yes, the whole journey actually is, from her conception, to creation, to voyage is really just something amazing to follow. I was lucky enough to actually visit the museum myself, and I absolutely enjoyed it. You know, I really felt enlightened, and that’s really the purpose of Lady Liberty, right ?

[11:24] Diane - I took Madame Macron, I took her there, we had a very nice sighting. She was very, she was very moved.

[11:32] Andrea - Oh, of course, I mean, it is very moving. Even the architectural piece of it brings in so much light and space for reflection that one can do in the same room where the original torche is displayed. You know, there’s something about that day, when I went there, something clicked for me : I saw a beautiful bronze mold of her face, and then I realized that, of course, in 1886, when people saw the Statue of Liberty, she was bronze, she was a copper, beautiful color, and you know, not the blue-green patina that we see today. So I am excited to see, when at the embassy, we will receive the Liberty, our own liberty in July and kind of you know, make that comparison.

[12:35] Andrea - So, Diane, I have made two parallels of your life’s achievements and Lady Liberty, and I’m interested in hearing your opinions about them. So my first question is, Lady Liberty, she wears his elegant draping rope that falls to her feet, we can see just above the chains that she’s broken away from. And I can’t help but to think of the similarity with the designs you’ve created, like the iconic wrap dress, with the intention to free women of those constraints. So with your eye and experience for fashion, what can you take away from this observation? And, I guess a follow up question to that, too is, does the Statue of Liberty ever cross your mind as a source of inspiration for your designs?

[13:18] Diane - Well, you know, in Dvf, it’s always the woman first. So it’s always the woman that I find inspiring. For the woman’s beauty, you have three things that are important: eye contact, a smile, and body language. Lady Liberty’s body language is extraordinary. Because it’s a body language of strengths, and going ahead, you know,, one foot is up, so she is going ahead. And of course, she has this great posture.

[13:54] Andrea - Yes. When you see her either from afar or close up, she is a source of inspiration. So, my second question is, beyond fashion, you do a lot to support women, you do so much actually, and I have noticed from reading and research, you really do take pleasure in guiding women to seek their potential. You know, you have this fearless leadership that is appreciated by many. And you’ve also been busy this year doing just that. You launched your incharge with the Dvf podcast, in which you invite guests like Anita Hill and Charlize Theron to talk about their own fearless leadership. You’ve also released a colorful manifest of Words To Live By titled ownit the secret to life. So I kind of wanted to give you a scenario : let’s imagine that Lady Liberty were to come to life. What word from your manifesto would you choose to teach her or to guide her with what would you choose? And just thinking about Lady Liberty?

[14:59] Diane - Well, I don’t know. I would teach her. I think she would teach me. But I would just tell her, go for it and enjoy the ride, which is what she’s been doing. Yeah. How many years now? 136 years, yes. So, you know, she is walking, she’s not still. She’s action. She’s all about action. And she is a woman in charge. And as you know, if you’ve read the book, to be in charge is not an aggressive statement, but it’s a commitment to ourselves, to own who we are, and go for it. She certainly owns who she is. And she is allowed to dream for every immigrant to own who they are, and have a better life.

[15:58] Andrea - Yes, absolutely. And I do want to share as well that we forget that her original name was Liberty Enlightening the World, correct ?

[16:10] Diane - It still is, actually.

[16:13] Andrea - It is, right. And, you know, I have your book with me right now. I own it, The secret to Life and I do want to read it.

[16:19] Diane - I love the way you call that ! I love that you call it the colorful Manifesto. I think that is so lovely ! I will use that ! I will quote you.

[16:33] Andrea - Thank you, thank you, it is really what it resembles. So I did want to read the word enlightenment, and what is the definition that has been given to this word : “Enlightenment is the action of bringing light individualism, freedom and openness. It is a path to truth”. So I think this is the word I would choose for Lady Liberty and what she resembles as well, and this is all in your book, Diane. Finally, you know, I also want to know, what do you think about - I mean, you’ve seen a lot of different renditions, replicas of Lady Liberty across the world in the US - what is it that you think about us, you know, at the embassy, we are receiving one of the eight originals?

[17:21] Diane - Yes, I know. It’s really nice ! When I saw that at the museum “Art Des Metiers”. Actually, I even went to the warehouse where they were. And it’s very, very nice that you’re going to have it at the embassy and completely, totally relevant. Where will you put it?

[17:45] Andrea - We will actually have it in the front gardens at The Residence. And yes, and I mean, I hope that you can join us one day in Washington, DC.

[17:54] Diane - I am, for sure I will, and I will come say hello.

[17:57] Andrea - Yes. Yes. She’ll be inaugurated on July 14 on Bastille Day. So, I know that’s going to be a hit for our neighbors and our FrancoFiles. And Francophiles, you are listening, you can also join us and you can follow her journey, which we are doing currently as well on So with that, are you ready, Diane?

[18:25] Diane - Yes, I am.

[18:27] Andrea - Okay, I’m going to count to three. Okay. 1, 2, 3.. “Vive La Liberty !” That’s right !

[18:37] Diane - Well, we can never say that enough for sure.

[18:40] Andrea - Exactly. Thank you, Diane.

And now Francophiles, a surprise guest for our season finale.

[18:47] Ambassador Philippe Etienne - Bonjour, Francophiles. This is Phillipe Etienne, the ambassador of France to the United States, joining you from the Embassy in Washington DC. On the occasion of the season two finale of The FrancoFiles podcast, I wish to say thank you for listening to this collection of testimonies that emulate our diplomatic mission to curate and to celebrate transatlantic creativity and innovation. Operations like Liberty 2021, discussed by Diane and Andrea, recall our founding values of freedom and hospitality that inspire the modern Franco-American friendship and properly towards the future. The first Lady Liberty was not given by the French government to the American government, but by the French people to the American people. And this statue will arrive in the same manner, thanks to historians, artists and engineers, civil society, cultural institutions and companies from both countries. As Bartholdi said : “The statue’s part is not to appear extraordinary in itself, but to connect itself intimately with an extraordinary hall”. When we began discussions on this project in 2019, we had no idea what a shining light this statue would be after a year of pandemic and uncertainty. I am so glad that we get to tell this chapter of our Franco-American story now, when our two nations see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you to Andrea, thank you to the podcast team and thank you Francophiles for listening. Until next season. A bientot !

[20:42] Andrea - As always, thank you for listening to FrancoFiles. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @FrancoFilesPod, and visit our website for more information. To indulge in more stories about French American culture, check out our partner France-Amerique magazine. Stay tuned Francophiles, and until next time.