Diane von Furstenberg and the Tale of the Empress's New Clothes

Image of Diane von Furstenberg and the Tale of the Empress's New Clothes
Release Date: 
November 12, 2012
It Books
Reviewed by: 

There’s irony running riot in the pages of Diane von Furstenberg and the Tale of the Empress’s New Clothes: A Fashion Fairy Tale Memoir as written by Camilla Morton, who has already foisted on us Christian Lacroix and the Tale of Sleeping Beauty and Manolo Blahnik and the Tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker.

As Jack Paar used to say, I kid you not.

Disguised as a commentary on modern fashion culture embedded within a supposedly chic retelling of the classic children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” DVFATTOTENCAFFTM, weighing in at a mere 112 pages (if you count the reprinting of the letter of support that Diana Vreeland wrote to DVF on April 9, 1970, and the full-throated Acknowledgements section (“To Diane, thank you for embracing this fairy tale with such generous enthusiasm and passion . . .”), has attained the peculiar achievement of being the shortest book on record that, to this reader, seems too long by half.

But that is not ironic. It is merely sad.

What is ironic is the subject matter itself, and more on that in a moment—but first, what of the homage-y aspect, the fawning tribute to Ms. Diane that has been surgically attached to what passes for the book’s plot? That is merely irritating.

It also suggests that perhaps the wrong fairytale was selected for this occasion. Perhaps better “Snow White,” as it seems that staring at oneself adoringly in magical mirrors would be a better trope than invisible clothing.

But I digress.

DVFATTOTENCAFFTM, you see, runs on parallel tracks. On one, a young, starry-eyed Diane von Furstenberg grows up yearning:

“This was a child who was very impatient to grow up, and to see and experience all the wonders life had to offer firsthand.”

Never mind the structural errors, or better still, get used to them, as the text is rife with statements that suggest subjects are objects and whatnot and modifiers exist only to modify whatever word is closest.

No, just try to grasp the nub of truth in the word-strings that pass as sentences: This was a girl seeking better things than Brussels had to offer.

Luckily, the girl moves to rural England and then goes to college in Madrid:

“During her first Christmas break there she traveled to Gstaad. Here, at last, she found all the glamour and excitement she had spent her whole life seeking.

“The Jet Set.”

Ah, the Jet Set. Finding it, naughty Diane then feigns appendicitis and flies to Geneva, which at first seems like it might figure into the plot, but then, after she decides that “‘fun’ was one word that happily was definitely key in Diane’s job description,” she zooms on to Paris where big doings await:

“She had met him as the snow fell and another year ended. They had celebrated her twentieth birthday together, but since then they hadn’t seen each other once. It was as if he had simply vanished.

“A real-life Prince.

“The thought of it seemed too much like a fairy tale. Diane tried to put him out of her mind, until one evening there he was at a dinner party. And she just knew . . .”

Prince Egon von Furstenberg, for those just catching up on the official DVF biography. But enough of this. Time to jump tracks.

Running parallel to the very pretty and just-a-tad embellished retelling of the life and accomplishments of Diane von Furstenberg, you see, is the story of a mythical young empress who is as different from Diane as different can be:

“Unlike Diane, the young Empress was very skeptical about romance, but for fashion she was anyone’s fool. She would try the wildest of styles just to make her father smile. Every crazy fad, every new designer name and accessory seemed irresistible to her; the more outlandish the outfit, the more liberated she felt in it. Fashion empowered her far more than even the heaviest of crowns. She was a leader in every sense, and the higher her heels, the more she felt people looking up to her. If only her parents could see her now . . .”

The young empress, you see, has a recently deceased mother and deep, deep daddy issues. I think we all know where this is going. . . .

“Then, one day two curious-looking gentlemen were presented to her at court.”

And our young empress (Can she actually be called an “empress” if her father, the emperor, is still alive and well and on the throne?) is, as they say, easy pickings for the two designers (Badgley Mischka?), who empty her treasury as they “toil” to “create” something “new” something “magical:”

“The Empress practically slid off her silken seat in rapt anticipation. Magical? This was the answer to all her worries—would she look thinner? Taller? Bolder? Braver? It was too magically perfect to be true.

“’This cloth is so special that only the wise, the beautiful, and the inherently chic can see it.”

Thus the intelligence that in the original fairytale was supposedly needed in order to see the cloth has been replaced with an inherently chic sensibility—which says a lot, especially for a young empress with a “silken seat,” but never mind.

Meanwhile, DVF is in New York, and has invented the wrap dress and has taken it to the “fashion Maharani” herself, Diana Vreeland over at Vogue:

“Two pencil-thin girls nervously slipped the dress on, one by one, never one daring to take their eyes from their brooding monarch.

“They were all waiting. Hoping. Praying for approval.

“’Terrific!’ the Voice of Fashion suddenly boomed, her rolling Rrrr’s fizzing like a pinball hitting the jackpot. ‘Terrific! I say, how clever of you!’”

Forgetting those fizzing pinballs for a moment, the incident is illustrated with the best thing in the whole book, a line drawing of Ms. Vreeland backed up against a wall of her signature red, red nails and scowl blazing.

From here, things look even better for the glittery DVF, who dumps the prince for Hollywood royalty and tells the world, “Be a woman, wear a dress.”

The empress, however, is still wrestling with the issue presented by those nasty designers (Proenza Schouler?) and their invisible clothes. In the end, their two paths will intertwine, if briefly, and the words of DVF’s mother will echo in her mind:

“We all do the same things; what makes us different is how we do them.”

Which is a bit dumb, as wise words go, a bit facile, but not ironic.

What is ironic is that our author has chosen to rewrite and represent the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” of all things, which itself hinges on the notion of people being hoodwinked into all going along with the crowd when everyone is pretending that something nonexistent is something wonderful and wise, all because pride dictates the pretense.

In the same way, our “author” seems bent on getting her “readers” to go along with the idea that this accumulation of words ungrammatically arranged truly comprises a coherent story, an actual book.

She seems to want us to all point at the cover in libraries and bookstores all over the land and say, “Look! A book!” when what is right there in front of our eyes is anything but. When it is an ego-salve, a meandering mess, a humorless tract, a clumsy folly—anything but the book it pretends to be.

Now that’s ironic.