Diane von Furstenberg has spent her career helping to make women look and feel their best. As one of the most influential women in the world, the famed fashion designer and philanthropist has devoted much of her career in recent years to lift up and recognize other women.
“When you are successful two things happen,” von Furstenberg said today at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. “First, you can pay your bills, which is nice. And the second thing is you have a voice, and when you have a voice, it is your duty but it’s also a privilege to use your voice for people who have no voice, or to expose people for the work that they do.”
On Thursday night, von Furstenberg gave a platform to five influential women and the work they’re doing around the world to help others at her seventh annual DVF Awards at the United Nations. In conversation with the New York Times’ Meredith Kopit Levien today, von Furstenberg praised the recipients of this year’s awards: Dr. Martine Rothblatt, an inventor and activist on behalf of transgender women, Agnes Igoye, a survivor of Uganda’s civil war who is now an anti-trafficking advocate, Sarah Jones, a Tony award-winning playwright, Maria Pacheco, entrepreneur and founder of a business collective that helps rural Guatemalan women earn incomes, and Emily Greener, the founder of an online community called I Am That Girl, who won the People’s Voice Award.
Von Furstenberg singled out Rothblatt for her remarkable career, during which she helped invent satellite radio, created and ran Sirius XM, founded a biotechnology company when her daughter became sick with a rare fatal illness, received FDA approval for the first-ever treatment for neuroblastoma, and created a technology to make unused donated organs healthy and transplantable once again.
“(She is) probably the most incredible person I’ve ever ever met,” von Furstenberg said of Rothblatt. “So Google her, please, if you don’t know who she is.”
If that were not enough, Rothblatt has been a fierce advocate for transgender rights for more than two decades, including a successful effort to have the United Nations endorse a non-discrimination treaty.
“She was very moved last night, she said ‘I cannot believe I’m getting this award as a woman,’” von Furstenberg said. “It was incredibly moving, she is extraordinary, the fact that she was transgender is a detail to the magnitude of everything she has done, so it is pretty amazing.”
Von Furstenberg has also devoted much of her career to working as a patron of the arts and culture, a legacy she plans to continue with the opening of The Shed, a downtown culture space, this year. The Shed will open alongside New York City’s The Highline, the park built atop old railroad tracks along Manhattan’s west side that von Furstenberg helped create.
Von Furstenberg described moving to the Meatpacking District in New York at age 50, when she “decided I was too old to live uptown,” and bought a carriage house in the neighborhood. There, her new neighbors told her about a dream to turn the old railroad into a park. She joined them in bringing the dream to reality.
“We really had no chance to make this happen at all, but we did, and it is now an amazing park,” she said today.
She and her husband Barry Diller also plan to transform a pier in the Hudson River into a park with performance spaces later this year, and von Furstenberg has recently joined the board overseeing the Statue of Liberty, which has plans to open a new museum.
“They asked me to come on the board of the Statue of Liberty, and I said I can’t accept another board, my husband will kill me, but then they sent me this great book about the Statue of Liberty and I read it, and I realized that this wonderful woman that welcomes us in New York City has had such a life, so I accepted to be on the board,” she said.
“I want to be called the godmother,” she added. “So I am the temporary godmother of the Statue of Liberty.”
Von Furstenberg spoke at length about the thread that connects her fashion, philanthropy, and cultural patronage, and the legacy she hopes to leave behind. Growing up, she said, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew the kind of woman she wanted to be. And when she found success becoming that kind of woman, she wanted to help others do the same.
“If I wanted to be remembered as anything, I want to know that through my work, through mentoring, and through philanthropy, I have tried to do everything I can to make women be the woman they want to be,” she said.
When asked her advice for the young women in the room, the fashion icon said that all too often, women hide their strengths and only realize how strong they are in the face of adversity or tragedy.
“I’ve never met a woman who is not strong,” she said. “My advice is don’t be afraid to let your strength come out before tragedy.”