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Walking into Diane von Furstenberg’s office is an intimidating thing for a woman. In lieu of a desk, she works on a long wooden table that could easily seat 20. There is a large patio and a Pilates reformer tucked in the corner. On one wall, Von Furstenberg has pinned at least 100 photographs of her friends and family. There are trinkets everywhere from her travels, crystals, a small container of essential oil, papers piled high and wide, copies of her book The Woman I Wanted to Be, and one gold pig statue that, as her longtime secretary explains, was accidentally shipped to her from a gallery in France.
This office is the kind of office that little girls, particularly those who want to work in fashion, dream of. It’s the office of a madame president, a female head of the board, an editor in chief. The first time that designer and activist Ariela Suster officially met Von Furstenberg, it was in this space on the top floor of the DVF headquarters in New York, and she felt nervous. But then they began to chat. Suster talked about growing up in El Salvador and the excruciating year that she and her family spent looking for her brother after he was kidnapped by local gang members and held underground. They eventually found and freed him, but the heart-wrenching experience compelled her to leave her editorial job in fashion and give back. In 2011, she founded Sequence, an accessories business entirely based in El Salvador that employs local young men who are at risk for gang recruitment.
As a philanthropist who is involved in a wide range of causes including human rights, community building, and environmentalism, Von Furstenberg wanted to help. She partnered with Suster on a capsule collection of DVF bags, jewelry, belts, and keychains featuring Sequence’s signature hand-woven braids. Many of the pieces sold out almost immediately, and in April, Suster received the DVF Award and a $50,000 grant to continue her work. Beyond the financial support and visibility she’s received from Von Furstenberg, Suster connected with Von Furstenberg on a personal level and, during their first conversation in particular, she realized that she had found not only a business partner in the famous designer, but also a friend and a mentor.
Recently, Suster found herself back in Von Furstenberg’s power center. The two met for tea ahead of the CFDA Awards, where Von Furstenberg will receive the Swarovski Award for Positive Change. Back in that expansive room filled with a lifetime of treasures and triumphs, not to mention an original Andy Warhol, two powerful women talked honestly about their positions in the world, their duty to inspire progress, and what it’s like to walk into a great big office and feel nothing but confidence.
Diane von Furstenberg: These are the new bags from the store downstairs . . .
Ariela Suster: Oh my god, those are sick! I feel like before I met you we were not doing anything remotely like this. I think it’s been really amazing to see the reaction from the guys back home in El Salvador. They can’t believe that they helped to make these beautiful things and they think, “Wow, we’re really valued on this big level.
Von Furstenberg: The wonderful thing about your business and about you, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of people who are working with artisans, is that you’ve had the fashion training and therefore you know how to turn it into a real business.
Suster: But the first time we met we didn’t even really talk about business all that much! I felt like I got to know you personally. Then we actually traveled together to that Google pop-up event in San Francisco and I was so impressed to see you with all of your customers—getting in the fitting room with them and helping them try things on, recommending pieces for them. The business partnership with you has obviously been so helpful, but there’s also the mentorship and the guidance you’ve given me, whether it’s about Sequence or my green card or . . .
Von Furstenberg: Boyfriends . . .
Suster: Yes, boyfriends! I get really good advice in that department. But seriously, the mentorship has been amazing. You deserve this CFDA Award more than anyone else.
Von Furstenberg: I was completely taken by surprise when they announced that I was being honored. I was kind of embarrassed because I’m a chairperson and I’m giving myself an award.
Suster: You don’t realize the impact that you have on so many different people’s lives and women’s lives in particular.
Von Furstenberg: You know, I always say that philanthropy is like landscaping, at first you are completely intimidated because you don’t know how to plant and you need an expert. Then, gradually you plant and you see it grow and you say, “Oh, I can do this,” and then before you turn around you’ve done all of these amazing things like created the High Line or built a medical center in India and it builds up as this body of work. The most wonderful thing is that when you become successful and if like me you’re lucky to become successful early on, you can pay your bills and you have a voice. When you have a voice, it’s not just a duty, but it’s also a real privilege to be able to have a voice and little by little, you realize that you have a magic wand. Nothing is more precious than using your magic wand.
Suster: That’s why we’re going to continue to use my wand and do more together, right? We’re talking about the idea of replicating the Sequence business model here in the U.S. for men and women who are just coming out of prison without job opportunities. Mass incarceration is a huge issue here and something that I’m certainly very passionate about and now that I have the experience of building a business, I can apply my skills to this country.
Von Furstenberg: Yes, we have a lot coming up together and I am really happy to be able to give you a platform and voice, just like we were talking about at the International Women’s Day event I held recently.
Suster: That amplified the voices of so many women like the artist Prune Nourry or model Paloma Elsesser and many others . . .
Von Furstenberg: I’ve been empowering women forever, I think, but without realizing it. I first did it for myself because I wanted to be independent, and then as I became independent, I gained confidence. So I’ve been doing this for 40 years, way before it was used as a marketing tool or anything like that.
Suster: Or way before it was trendy to say that you are empowering women . . .
Von Furstenberg: Yes, but I am so happy about what’s happening right now with the #MeToo movement and the fight for women’s rights. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the DVF Awards and we are going to publish a book featuring all of the women who have been honored before—you will be in it! It’s great because the mission of the DVF Awards is to celebrate and give exposure to women who have the courage to fight, the strength to survive, and the leadership to inspire. You really represent those three steps because you had the courage to live one year with knowing that your little brother was kidnapped and the strength to survive that. Then you started your business and put yourself in a leadership role, which is now inspiring women around the world.
Suster: And you experienced those steps, too, with your life and your mother in particular—talking about your mom when she came out of the concentration camps and she wasn’t a victim . . .
Von Furstenberg: No, she refused to be a victim and I think that’s what is happening with all of the women speaking out right now against sexual harassment and fighting for equality, they just refused to be the victims. You see, you can lose everything, your health, your wealth, your family, but you never lose your character. But you have to build your character so that you don’t lose it. The most important piece of advice that anyone can give is that the most important relationship you have in your life is the one you have with yourself, because once you have that, you learn how to build your strength. Especially for someone like you who has worked in fashion, any cattiness or moments of rejection and humiliation, moments where you feel like a loser or another woman was bitchy to you, those moments light a fire. Thankfully, I never dealt with a lot of cattiness or a tough boss in fashion . . .
Suster: You were always your own boss! I had a lot of female bosses in fashion, but I think it was different for me because I needed to find something that had a bigger purpose. When I worked in the fashion magazine world I had a hard time finding my place, even when I was in university—I didn’t speak English well; I had gone through the kidnapping of my brother. It was hard for me to adapt for many, many years and I feel like it’s taken time for me to become what I was always meant to become. Because of these challenges, I’m much stronger than I used to be.
Von Furstenberg: Well, and the fashion industry, like all other industries, is being completely disrupted, too, so everyone has to change their business model. As a result of this a lot of people are losing their jobs and so mentoring has become more important than ever. It’s about telling these young women the truth and to stand on their own. Explaining to them that they can find a way to create something new.
Suster: Yes, things were very different when I worked in fashion. But I promise you that if we’d met at that point, we probably never would have connected in the way that we have today. Because now I’ve found what I’m meant to do and I am truly myself. And I did have a hard time with the role of women and how they treated one another and I didn’t know that there were women like you and those I’ve met through Vital Voices who can uplift you and invest in what you’re doing. But I think in general now, across all industries, there is a much more heightened awareness of women respecting other women.
Von Furstenberg: Gabriela Hearst is a woman in fashion who is very good not only at designing beautiful clothes but empowering women, too. There are many like her, actually, and I think, in fact, everywhere, not only in fashion, we’re only getting more powerful.