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Wrapped Up

Chicago author Gioia Diliberto publishes the life story of an iconic fashion designer.  

FROCK STAR
Gioia Diliberto, here in DVF, captures the drama of the designer’s life.

“There have been very few items of clothing that define an era,” says Gioia Diliberto, Chicago-based author of the just-released Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped ($29, HarperCollins). “The wrap dress was for the career woman who also wanted to be sexy—it represented a kind of life that a lot of women had or wanted to have.” Indeed, if you were a woman of style in the 1970s, there was almost certainly a DVF jersey printed wrap dress hanging in your closet. The slinky frock, with its tastefully plunging neckline and waist-hugging silhouette, was the uniform for a new kind of empowered, liberated woman—the kind who wore lipstick, sipped gin and asked for a raise. “Feel like a woman, wear a dress,” von Furstenberg famously advised, and women across the globe enthusiastically took heed; by 1976, more than a million of the iconic dresses had flown off the racks. As a young newspaper reporter, Diliberto herself once traipsed the streets of New York City in a leopard-print version. But the new book’s inspiration came more recently. “I had just finished writing a novel about Coco Chanel [2008’s The Collection: A Novel], so I was hunting around for my next subject,” she says. “I was at a vintage store in SoHo when I came upon this wrap dress. Just like that, it hit me: Diane von Furstenberg.” Profiling intriguing women was familiar territory—Diliberto has previously penned biographies of Chicago reformer Jane Addams; the first “celebutante,” Brenda Frazier; and Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife—and von Furstenberg’s sometimes-shocking story as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who grows up to found a fashion empire proved a fitting subject. The countless hours Diliberto spent with the designer have yielded not just the revealing story of the grande dame of style, but a compelling history of the intersection of fashion, popular culture and, most prominently, feminism. “[DVF] was ‘leaning in’ long before that was a phrase,” Diliberto says. “I think her life epitomizes the trajectory of women’s role in society. She’s a pioneer.”