DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: WOMAN IN CHARGE (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Valerie Kallfrin

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Fashion and feminist icon Diane von Furstenberg applies makeup sitting on the bathroom counter with her feet in the sink in the new documentary Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge. It’s a welcome grounding detail in a film where, within the first five minutes, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Gloria Steinem sing her praises. Yet it also fits with the designer’s frank and pragmatic demeanor.

Opening the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival, Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge hits the major points of her life and work. While not as revealing in some aspects, with brief comments or observations regarding certain events, the film also avoids hagiography, crafting a fuller portrait between the lines. It airs on Hulu later this month.

A jet-setter married to a German prince when she showed her first designs to Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, von Furstenberg became fashion royalty, with a design label known worldwide. Largely known for designing the wrap dress, with bold patterns and chic lines that still look as polished and elegant as they did in the 1970s, von Furstenberg notably was an independent businesswoman at a time when women couldn’t own credit cards without their husbands’ permission. Winfrey adds that context, noting how she saved up to buy one of those dresses as a young professional, a status symbol that also evoked the sassy freedom of the feminist zeitgeist.

Von Furstenberg served as head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for more than a decade and now directs a foundation that supports nonprofit organizations dealing with human rights, education, arts, health, community building, and the environment. While she’s candid about her good fortune, she’s also humbled, viewing her life through the lens of her late mother, Lily Halfin.

“Eighteen months before I was born, my mother was in Auschwitz,” she says, her dark eyes as open and intense as in archive footage and old photos. It’s a statement that took her years to say comfortably, bearing the weight of responsibility.

Directors Trish Dalton (Student Athlete) and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (TV’s Ms. Marvel), also among the producers here, intersperse von Furstenberg’s interview with others from her children, grandchildren, second husband Barry Diller, and friends such as author Fran Lebowitz.

Von Furstenberg recounts how her mother instilled in her independence and fearlessness, a reaction to her own trauma from World War II that robbed young Diana of a childhood. Nevertheless, it led to a bold and colorful life, with teen Diana kicked out of boarding school in Switzerland in the 1960s for falling in love with a boy and then another girl.

She was eighteen when she met her future first husband, Egon von Furstenberg, and married at twenty-two. Although New York magazine and other press soaked up the couple’s exploits around town and at Studio 54, Diane didn’t want to be what she called a “Park Avenue princess.”

“I had a vocation to be a woman in charge,” she explains. “Fashion became a way to do it.”

Briskly paced at one hour and 37 minutes, Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge touches lightly on some moments where viewers might wish it would linger, such as her bout with tongue cancer in the 1990s. Archive footage shows male talk show hosts like Regis Philbin questioning the designer’s fishnet stockings while present-day Diana carps about the things men can get away with that a woman can’t. Her love life, where she breezily recounts being with actors Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty in one weekend and turning down a threesome with rockers Mick Jagger and David Bowie, seems to merit more attention than reflections of personal growth (though it does make the inclusion of She’s a Rainbow by the Rolling Stones amusing).

Not realizing her daughter had a neuromuscular disease until a diagnosis in her daughter’s early twenties is one of her few mentioned regrets. Yet in capturing her expressive face, sharp wit, and silences, Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge offers a peek behind her impressive confidence.

She takes responsibility for herself and her life, regardless of what she reveals, she says: “The only place to find your strength is by being true to yourself.”

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.