Diane von Furstenberg: When you are successful, use your 'magic wand' to help others

Designer Diane von Furstenberg in front of her collection of wrap dresses during the press conference for the Journey of a Dress Exhibition at LACMA West on January 10, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Buckner | Getty Images

Fashion icon and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg, 72, has led a successful career for 40 years. Von Furstenberg made the inaugural Forbes list of the richest self-made women in America; as of 2017, she was worth an estimated $300 million.

Her company DVF has had a major influence on women's fashion. Created in 1974, Von Furstenberg's signature wrap dress made history and became a wardrobe staple. Designed to be both easy to wear and flattering, the dress became associated with the feminist movement in the '70s because of its work-to-play versatility.

By 1976, over a million wrap dresses had been sold. Today, the iconic DVF design is still worn by trendsetters and fashion icons like Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton.

For von Furstenberg, sustaining a brand for over four decades means simultaneously working on herself and her business. Here are three lessons she has learned along the way.

Use your 'magic wand' to help others

Von Furstenberg believes that we all have the capacity to help others. She calls this unique ability her magic wand, and says that others can discover their own magic wand by paying attention.

"When you have a voice, when you are successful, when you have a lot of knowledge, you do have a magic wand," she told Vogue. "You can make so much difference with so little." One way von Furstenberg tries to make that difference is by sending out two emails each morning with the intention of helping others, or she may introduce two people who could work together in the future.

"That's the magic of connecting and paying attention," she told Entrepreneur. "You know, we all do the same thing — we work, we sleep, we this, we that, we eat," she says. "What makes a difference is how you do it."

Don't be too easy on yourself

Learning how to criticize herself changed how von Furstenberg approached her mistakes. "If you have a good relationship with yourself, you have to be critical, and you have to be both hard and reassuring at the same time," she told Entrepreneur magazine.

Despite Von Furstenberg's early success, the wrap dress had saturated the market by the 1980s. She sold the company and "lost it all." By the 2000s, though, her career had bounced back.

Having learned key lessons by experiencing both highs and lows, business-wise, the designer makes it a point to share her struggles and doubts with others.

"It's important to make fun of yourself publicly, and to not be condescending," she says. "Because then people relate to you more. I mean, if I say to people that I feel like a loser twice a week, that is an inspiring thing, because the next time they feel like a loser, they'll say, 'You know what? She does, too.'"

Pay attention

"Unless there's already a clear path for your profession, stay open to different ideas," she said at an event at the Stanford School of Business earlier this year.

Von Furstenberg credits her early success to her time as an intern with colorist Angelo Ferretti in an Italian textile factory. That's where she was working, making T-shirts, when a brief visit to New York City inspired her with prints and patterns that would eventually became designs for her iconic wrap dress.

Within four years, the factory was producing 25,000 dresses a week. By paying attention to the world around her, in other words, the designer was able to connect different experiences in her life and help create something new in the fashion industry.

"It's very important to be open, and to be curious and to pay attention to what the universe sends you," she says. "That man in the factory [Ferretti] would end up being the most important thing in my life."

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