Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton reflect on DIANE VON FURSTENBERG (Tribeca 2024) – Valerie Kalfrin interviews

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Diane von Furstenberg’s outlook is as lively as her eye-catching designs. The fashion and feminist icon is a quote machine of practical wisdom. Watch her Tribeca 2024 documentary Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge, attend a Q&A with her, or visit with her, and you’ll be tempted to take notes, even if you’re not a journalist or a film critic.

Her “isms,” as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton, the directors behind Woman in Charge call them, touch on everything from taking responsibility for yourself to equality to thoughts on aging. Age means living, as von Furstenberg, now seventy-seven, says in the film, so you should say how long you’ve lived, not how old you are.

“If you take all your wrinkles away, the map of your life is different,” the designer muses in the film as the camera watches her apply makeup while sitting on the bathroom counter with her feet in the sink.

“She’s an oracle,” said Obaid-Chinoy (Ms. Marvel). “She says some profoundly radical things in the film that shouldn’t be radical in 2024, but are when it comes to age, when it comes to leading a life, a man’s life in a woman’s body, and living life on our own terms.”

The directors recently talked with AWFJ about designing this project and what they absorbed from the experience.

“She lives by what she says,” Dalton (Student Athlete) said. “You just want to write down everything that she’s telling you because you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a great one. I’m going to use that’ or ‘Let me remember that.’ … After people see the film, even after the Q&A’s, they come back to us, quoting her, because she’s so full of stories and advice.”

Revolutionizing Fashion

Largely known for designing the wrap dress, which symbolized the feminist zeitgeist of the 1970s and came back into fashion in the 1990s, von Furstenberg is both a trendsetter and a groundbreaker: She was an independent businesswoman at a time when women couldn’t own credit cards without their spouses’ permission.

Since then, she’s served as head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for more than a decade and, with the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, created the DVF Awards, granting $100,000 each to five honorees in nonprofit work who demonstrate leadership and courage. This year’s winners include Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina J. Mohammad; human rights lawyer Amal Clooney; actor, producer, author, and advocate Lilly Singh; MIT researcher and author Dr. Joy Buolamwini; and Helena Gualinga, who advocates for Indigenous people’s rights and the protection of the Amazon Rainforest.

Obaid-Chinoy has known von Furstenberg for more than a decade, since the designer presented her with a Glamour Woman of the Year Award in 2012 for the short film Saving Face. About the Pakistani women who survived disfiguring attacks where men threw acid in their faces, Saving Face won an Oscar (Pakistan’s first) for Best Documentary Short.

Fast forward a few years later, when Von Furstenberg asked Obaid-Chinoy to craft another film about DVF Award recipients. Although glad to help, Obaid-Chinoy noted, “Diane, people want to listen to your story. And when you’re ready to tell that story, we should talk.”

About five years ago, producer Fabiola Beckman (credited here as Fabiola Beracasa) reached out to say that von Furstenberg was ready. Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge came together over about two years. Loosely structured around the designer prepping for a retrospective of her work, the film is largely a biography with glimpses of her creative process over a brisk hour and thirty-seven minutes.

Von Furstenberg “did revolutionize fashion in a lot of ways,” Dalton said. “With the resurgence in the nineties, she wanted to continue to make clothes for modern women who are on the go. She lives by that. Her fashion is the type of thing where you put it on, you do your makeup in five minutes, and you go. You have other things to do than think about fashion.”

A “Torch of Freedom”

Yet while they wanted to show the impetus behind the wrap dress, which catapulted her success and made her fashion shows a phenomenon, they decided to focus more on “DVF the person,” Obaid-Chinoy said. Before she became fashion royalty, she was born Diane Simone Michele Halfin in Brussels, Belgium. Her mother survived Auschwitz.

“[Diane] was born out of the ashes of World War II. Her birth in itself was a miracle,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “She has been always purpose driven. And she has used her life, first to establish herself, and then to open doors for other women, and to get them into places and rooms that were previously closed to them. I think that she’s really taken it very seriously, that thing that her mother had said to her: that she was her ‘torch of freedom.’ And she’s really lived up to that.”

Given its focus on von Furstenberg behind the scenes, the film doesn’t dive deep into some areas, such as the designer’s bout with tongue cancer in the 1990s. But she told the filmmakers nothing was off-limits. She even allowed them to watch her prep for the day, perched on the bathroom counter close to the mirror.

“She absolutely loves to do that,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “She’s like a feline thing. She sort of lays in places; she climbs into things. She sort of glides … That’s just the way she is. You know, we start the film with her sort of bare, without any makeup, just getting ready for the day. And you juxtapose that against the DVF Awards, where she’s getting makeup done, and she’s going out to present herself, and the public and the private persona is very, very similar. Who she is in private is as she is in public.”

Lingering Lessons

Any woman whose fans include Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Rodham Clinton can’t help but have star quality. But the filmmakers found her delightfully down to earth.

“She’s very humble. She was very open. And she’s very real. And to me, it was inspiring that she was just like … a regular person. But she’s interested in people. She’s usually the one asking the questions when we’re with her,” Dalton said.

“Her curiosity is incredible,” Obaid-Chinoy added. “She’ll ask a question of almost everyone that she encounters, and that makes her very accessible. I think that is a beautiful quality. We loved that when we were filming with her.”

Learning so much about their subject also helped them learn more about themselves.

“Her voice comes to my mind probably regularly now, in a good way,” Dalton said with a laugh. “You can’t spend time with Diane and not think about ways that you can empower yourself more. … How she lives her life is that she’s like, ‘Be in charge of yourself. You’re in charge of your decisions and your life.’”

“I have two children,” like von Furstenberg, Obaid-Chinoy added. “And I think that in hearing Diane’s story, and spending time with her, and watching her relationship with her children—what it was and what it has grown to be—as a working woman who travels a lot and is not home, it has reinforced this idea in me that you should follow your dreams, and your children will come along for the ride. That as long as they know that their mother has lived a life where she has been true to herself … the children will find their way. I think that is such a powerful message.”

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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.