Just days before Diane von Furstenberg was scheduled to have a warts-and-all photo taken by renowned artist Chuck Close, she suffered a skiing accident that left her with a broken nose and dark bruises suffusing her trademark cheekbones.
But six weeks later, despite some residual swelling, von Furstenberg strode into the photography studio for her proverbial close-up. The clock was ticking, as the photograph was the last to be taken for “Diane von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress,” her upcoming exhibition at the Pace Gallery’s Beijing outpost. “I was a little bit intimidated because if Chuck photographs you, it’s very much like an X-ray, in the sense that there’s nothing to hide behind,” says the designer.
Indeed, Close’s photographic depictions of people possess a soothsaying realism that’s become unusual in a world consumed by airbrushing and Photoshop. He’s stripped the likes of Kate Moss and Brad Pitt down to their raw selves but somehow made their beauty even more transcendent in its verisimilitude. Every line, crease, furrow, flaw, and pore is exposed. Yet his photos possess a deftness and ultimately reveal something true.
Not one to shy away from anything, von Furstenberg took a cursory glance in the mirror before she sat for Close and proclaimed, “I gave up on my looks a long time ago.” She gazed directly into the lens as Close took several jumbo Polaroids. "Beauty is perfect in its imperfections, so you just have to go with the imperfections," says von Furstenberg, clad in black leggings and a very Flashdance off-the-shoulder sweatshirt.
As the pair reviewed the various shots moments later (the pictures are developed in minutes), she surveyed her visage, pointing out her wrinkles and embracing her face in its wounded glory.
“When the accident happened, I said, ‘Oh no, my cheekbones! They’re my best asset,’” she says. “But you know, everybody thinks you’ve just been beaten up. I went to the ER and I said, ‘Ski accident,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”
Casting all vanity aside, von Furstenberg eventually laments, “I should have come here when my face was blue. There was a time when there was a lot of blue but no swelling."
This sort of statement is perfectly in keeping with the designer, who at 64 has never had any plastic surgery, has no plans to, and if anything takes pride in her lines. “I’ve always liked wrinkles,” she says. “When I was a young girl, I used to make lines on my face with my nails because I loved Jeanne Moreau. I always wanted to be older; I always added years to my life. For the longest time, if people thought I was older I would take it as a compliment.”
And now that von Furstenberg is in what she calls the “early fall” of her life, it’s time to celebrate Diane, and why not? This is the woman who married a prince in 1969, designed the still-iconic wrap dress in 1974, and has been hobnobbing with the glitterati ever since. During this time, she has been captured artistically by more heavy-hitting photographers and artists than virtually any other designer. With this weighty resume, it’s no wonder that von Furstenberg, along with Pace, has the materials with which to mount a major exhibition. The show, which just opened in Beijing, chronicles von Furstenberg pictorially over the last four decades, featuring portraits of her by such venerable artists as Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente, and Helmut Newton along with newly commissioned pieces by Chinese artists Zhang Huan, Li Songsong, Yi Zhou, and Hai Bo.
Warhol painted von Furstenberg in both the ’70s and the ’80s, the designer recalls. “Warhol just took a picture of me at one in the morning in my kitchen. I love that picture. But the one he did of me in the ’80s is plastic,” she says of the more commercial image. The Clemente portrait has a very personal significance for her, however: “Francesco painted it the day I first became a grandmother,” she says.
“The show is called ‘Journey of a Dress’ because it turns out I have one dress that has lived for almost 40 years, and that’s pretty amazing,” says von Furstenberg. “So it’s four decades of my work, my life, and the people who photographed me and painted me and this and that. You see the decades, and you understand that they happened in a world that was so entirely different than China, so that’s why it’s interesting.”
China is a country that has long fascinated von Furstenberg and been a source of inspiration. “As a European, I had a very romantic idea about China,” she says, referring to the exotic culture and the revolution. “When I was a little girl, if I didn’t eat my soup, my mother would say, ‘You have to think of all the Chinese children who have nothing to eat.’ But now, for my children, Chinese people make everything, and for my grandchildren, they buy everything.”
Although von Furstenberg is perfectly comfortable in front of the camera these days, she wasn’t always a natural. “You have to get used to it,” she says. “The first time I took a picture with Avedon, it was a nightmare. The editor, who will remain nameless, was showing me pictures of Lauren Hutton in bikinis that she had done the day before, and I thought I was going to die. And then you realize, clearly, that the best way is just to be you.”
In the years since, she’s picked up a few tricks. Mario Testino told her to always smile big so she looks joyful in virtually every paparazzi shot. Her unwavering confidence and sense of self, however, are what truly pervade her pictures. “I look like a woman who has lived a very intense life.”
Chuck Close and DVF in Conversation
The legendary duo talk photography, plastic surgery and getting real.
CHUCK CLOSE: For me, imperfections and wrinkles give you character. They’re the road map of your life. If you’ve laughed your whole life, you have laugh lines. If you’ve frowned your whole life, you have furrows on your brow. All the stuff that people want to hide is exactly what needs to be there for a portrait, as far as I’m concerned. I love the stuff that people hate, all stuff that people airbrush out or Photoshop out.
DIANE VON FURSTENBERG: I agree, I agree.
CC: Otherwise, you end up with a bunch of very plastic looking people, and all you see is the work that they’ve had done.
DVF: I realize that very often what you hate is what makes you special, but it takes awhile to actually accept it. I personally am attracted by wrinkles because it is the map of your life.
CC: It helps if you’re very beautiful.
DVF: Well … [laughs] if you have good bones and good legs, you can get away with a lot. But nevertheless some people who are not good looking when they are young become better looking with age. You become what you are inside.
CC: Well, you know the conventional wisdom is that women look worse the older they get and men look better the older they get. I don’t believe it’s true, but there is one reason why that cliché has some truth to it. Until recently, men didn’t go after plastic surgery and they were a little more comfortable with aging, whereas women were really trying to move back the clock, erase all that stuff.
DVF: To erase is the horrible thing, because if you erase things in your face, you basically erase souvenirs, you basically erase memory, you basically erase pieces of you that made you. And it’s the layers of your life that give you character.
CC: In the ’70s, when the women’s movement came along, I thought, Oh, women will not be truly liberated until they don’t care about how they look in the same way that men tend not to care how they look. Instead of women moving to be more like men, men have moved to be more like women.
DVF: It’s all about acceptance.
CC: Well, the reason I like Polaroid is the subject gets to see the images. If I were just snapping shots, you’d have no idea what I’d taken.
DVF: But now you have digital.
CC: But even then you just look at the camera. It’s not like having something bigger than life on the wall that I can look at, you can look at, you can respond to, have very strong feelings about what images you like, which ones you don’t — and that makes it a dialogue instead of a monologue.
DVF: And that’s essential.
CC: It’s really a collaboration. Some African cultures think that photographs steal your soul. In a way, if you steal someone’s image without their involvement, you’re really taking something from them. And I have to say that the sitters from my work, in an act of tremendous generosity, have lent me their image with very little control over how it’s going to be used, and that’s a brave and generous act.
DVF: That’s very nice of you to say. But it is true. I take a lot of photographs, I always have a camera with me, and sometimes, often, I do feel like a thief. Today we are in a world where everybody’s a thief. They all want your pictures, and it does take a little moment of your life.
CC: On the other hand, some people cannot be taken. You try to photograph them and you can’t get it; it’s like they disappear. Cindy Sherman is someone who cannot be taken. She very carefully controls how she looks in her own work, but when she shows up to be photographed, there’s no one there because she’s not anybody yet...I don’t think having someone taking your image or painting you is immortalizing. All we have are memories of people who actually knew us. So as long as there are people alive who remember you, then you live on. But once there’s no one alive who knew you, then there’s this evidence that you were there, this evidence that you were stomping on this sphere, a kind of immortality, but it’s not the same as real memories by real people. I love leaving back evidence that I was here. I do that in my work.
DVF: This was a very nice encounter, and now we know each other more and we’re less intimidated around each other.
CC: We’ll see how intimidated I am the next time.
DVF: Why were you intimidated?
CC: My greatest fear is women of a certain age who are not comfortable with what happened to them and want me to lie. To make it not what it is. And it can be a nightmare. Christopher Plummer, the vainest man I’ve ever met, and Carly Simon. She must have written “You’re So Vain” about herself. It’s the degree of comfort that people have with who they are that makes it all happen, makes it easy.
DVF: You can’t pretend to be something you’re not, so you have to do the best you can.