An Invitation to Revel in Their Claim to History

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

“We were talking about getting older,” Diane von Furstenberg said not long ago as she reminisced about a conversation she had shared over lunch with Anna Wintour. What are a few furrows and frown lines? Wintour said blithely. “We’re legends, you know.”

Clearly, von Furstenberg was aiming to cement that status when she planned a bicoastal celebration of the 40th birthday of her much-mythologized wrap dress with an exhibition and party in Los Angeles last month, followed by a runway show in New York City on Feb. 9. Both events resurrected, in a wealth of variations, the respectably clingy frock von Furstenberg recently characterized — referring only partly to her long-planned IPO — as “the dress that closes the deal.”

Donna Karan made a similar move last week, releasing a runway parade of skin-baring gowns, bold-shouldered jackets and thigh-high boots to signify the 30th anniversary of the label she started in 1984. It wasn’t by chance that her show, too, brimmed with references to her storied past, among them the Seven Easy Pieces capsule collection she conceived in the ’80s to help women sartorially navigate the hours from dawn till dusk with no more than a change of earrings and pumps.

By updating those contributions, Karan and von Furstenberg each seemed to lay claim to her seminal invention, a strategy that could not have been more astutely timed. Fashion, as style world insiders like to say, is reveling these days in DVF and Karan moments.

Only last fall, a procession of Karan-inflected draped jersey dresses in the designer’s signature earth tones made its way onto the Givenchy runway in Paris. And this month, Jason Wu unveiled a fall lineup heavily influenced by Karanesque power jackets. The original wrap dress has been reinterpreted at every level of the market, from MaxMara to Old Navy.

The two anniversary shows were tepidly received by some. Posting on The Cut, the critic Robin Givhan chided Karan, “Why cede ground you worked so hard to sow?” But the collections were embraced by others with a keener understanding of the designers’ signal contributions. Suzy Menkes, in her review in The New York Times, praised Karan’s “feminine-but-utilitarian style,” adding that she has greatly influenced women “across the universe of style.”

Reviews be damned: As much as the clothes, it’s the legend that counts — the personal saga that both designers have learned to flaunt like coronets.

“If you pay attention, everyone is a novel,” von Furstenberg told David O. Russell, the director of “American Hustle,” in a conversation published in The Times this month. She was doubtless referring in part to her own effusively documented back story. As familiar to consumers as her slinky jerseys is the tale of the Belgian-born daughter of a Holocaust survivor who married a prince, lived the louche life at Studio 54, boasted of bedding Mick Jagger, and introduced the wisp of a dress that would become a staple in the wardrobes of would-be glamazons everywhere.

Devotees of Karan’s strategically revealing “cold shoulder” dress, leggings and bodysuits relate at least as warmly to the scrappy personal narrative in which Karan is fired by no less imposing a figure than Anne Klein, the American sportswear doyenne, returns battle-scarred to the house that dropped her and, finally, spins on her shapely heel to inaugurate a label of her own.

As compelling to her fans is the story of her marriage and creative partnership with the sculptor Stephan Weiss, who died in 2001, and her adventures in the worlds of alternative medicine and Eastern-influenced spirituality.

An anniversary, as has surely occurred to both women, can be both a potent reminder of those narratives and a canny marketing device. More than that, it can be a clever way of reasserting one’s identity. In marking the occasion, “you are making a statement about your place in the cultural landscape,” said Caroline Weber, a fashion historian and professor of French literature at Barnard College. “You are enshrining the originality of your achievement.”

“In an age where copycat fashions are rampant,” Weber said, “that’s a very savvy move.”