Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy interviews fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg about the designer's life and one-of-a-kind perspective. The spirited, wide-ranging conversation goes beyond the creation of the famous wrap dress and how Furstenburg built one of the world's most recognizable brands to explore how these two strong female creatives open doors for others and navigate challenges in their industries.
Recorded at the Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 18, 2024.
Watch the full session here: https://www.weforum.org/events/world-economic-forum-annual-meeting-2024/sessions/wrapped-in-leadership
This transcript has been generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the audio.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Welcome to Meet the Leader, the podcast where top leaders share how they are tackling the world's toughest challenges. In today's special episode, recorded at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy fashion designer and entrepreneur Diane von Furstenberg She'll talk more about her life and what she's learned. I'll let them get to it.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, World Economic Forum: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. Diane and I are on stage today because we've spent the last year and a half getting to know each other, rather intimately. I've just finished making a documentary film on the life of DVF, which will be out in a few months. And along the way, we have developed this very special relationship and are sharing some of the insights about our life with you here today.
Diane von Fürstenberg, Diane von Fürstenberg Studio: So, as you know, Sharmeen is a very famous, very brave and very serious documentary director. She made some extraordinary movies. At 29 years old, she did a movie on the children of the Taliban, where she herself looks like an Italian movie star. And, she got two Oscars. She got Emmys. She's everything. So, actually, I had this idea, of getting, Sharmeen to make a short documentary about all these extraordinary women who I help and who I give awards to, who need, you know, the more you can hear their story, the better it is. And, but at some point, we couldn't sell it to any network. And they kept on saying we would like a documentary about you. Me. And I said, well, that really was not what I had in mind. And then Sharmeen said, but you know what? Through you we can talk about these women because it's how you open doors to other women. She convinced me. She's been working on this movie for almost two years it is going to be distributed by Disney+ overseas and Hulu in America. I have not seen the movie. I'm only the subject of the movie. I probably will not see the movie until it's finished and out, because I kind of like going to the opening and telling people I haven't seen it.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I feel like I've learned so much from Diane and, you know, one of the things that I really learned from her is that she's always had this courage to fight and I don't know. For me as a woman and from where I've come from, being able to fight and speak up and speak out has been so important to have one's voice heard. And Diane says something which, you know, deeply resonates with me is that be always true to yourself. You know.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Well, I'm much older than Sharmeen and all of you almost together and I have had a very, very full life. I write my diary and I keep on inventing myself. The lucky thing about me is that from early, early on, I had a complicity with me. You know, I would write my diary. I would do things. I thought to myself, I -- you know, because I feel like, you know, I should trust myself first.
I also what I think is important to know is, where I came from. My mother, 18 months before I was born, my mother was liberated from Auschwitz. She was in a concentration camp for 13 months. She weighed 29 kilos. She was a cadaver, a skeleton amongst ashes. Her mother could not even believe that she came back, but she came back and her mother fed her little, little by little, like a little bird. And within six months, she gained her normal weight, which was not a lot bigger.
And then her fiancé came back from Switzerland. They got married, and the doctor said to them, you have to wait at least three years of a child because she won't make it and the child will not be normal. And nine months later, I was born, and I guess I was not normal. And so it took -- you know, so basically the other day it came to me as a flash.
I was being interviewed. I was on a panel with Vital Voices, which is this organization that I'm on the board, which is amazing about amazing women who do incredible things. And so there was the person who was interviewing, then there was Nadia Murad, who is this extraordinary girl. She's a Yazidi in her entire family was killed. She was raped. She survived. Right. And she survived. And when I met her, I gave her an award, but she barely spoke English. And she was really. Now I watch her on TV two weeks ago. She's gorgeous. She speaks perfect English. She got a Ph.D. Anyway. So, this woman who was on the panel asked her, says, what is the most audacious thing you ever did? And, of course, she had so much to say. I mean, she was raped and her parents were killed and her brothers and sisters. And I said to myself, oh my God, what am I going to say? And then it came to me like that. The most audacious thing I did was to be born and that really illustrates so much this honouring life that I carry. The flag of life. And when you are a survivor of such kind, you know, my birth was a triumph over misery. And that is a very special kind of ingredient.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: That's where I draw strength from. Because I've been thinking about the work that I've done in my life and, and sort of my work focuses on incredible men and women and even children who sort of are living out amongst communities and places, you know, facing adversity and against all odds, sort of rising through that. And, you know, we do live in dark times. These are very difficult times to find inspiration for humanity from. And, recently I was spending time with this incredible woman who has dedicated her life to ensuring that women have a voice. Her name is Tabassum Menon, and she was sitting, when I first met her, she was sitting in this room surrounded by women, okay? Sitting in the centre, holding court. And a woman was coming to her and asking her, what should I do about the property that my brother has taken away from me? What should I do about my neighbour who is fighting a domestic violence case? And she was just firing off these answers left, right and centre and just to stand back and watch this woman in an area that is essentially controlled by men. But to take power, to have the courage to fight and say, no, I am here, and I will create my space and I will make sure that the women around me also have that space is so powerful.
In my life, I have drawn courage from these people who rise from extraordinary circumstances and are able to create change. You know, Tabassum, when she gathered this group of women, she told the men in the community, we will decide our own affairs. And she started getting these threats. Letters started arriving. A bullet came in a letter and she said, none of this matters because if in every single house that we can get the message out that a woman can control her life, that will be able to start building a network. And that's what she's been able to do. So when I, when I draw inspiration from the work that I've done, I sort of go back into the communities and look at how all of these women, you know, sort of went through their lives and draw inspiration from that.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Yeah. Exactly. And did you say true to yourself before? What I discovered really is that the secret is really to be true to yourself. It's very hard to be true to yourself because it means you have to be strict to yourself. You have to own your imperfection, your vulnerability. You have to face it and deal with it. But if you are true to yourself, whether it's you as a person, you as in work, you as a business, or you as a brand, if you are true to yourself, you remain free. Even if you’re in jail, if you’re true to yourself, you're free. But if you're not true to yourself, you’re never free.
If you are true to yourself, whether it's you as a person, you as in work, you as a business, or you as a brand, if you are true to yourself, you remain free.”
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I think for me, the strength to survive has been about always asking, why not? I've had the most extraordinary sort of career, as a filmmaker, from where I came from, when I started my career, there was barely any women who were documentary filmmakers. And to be able to tell the kind of stories that I've been able to tell and win the accolades, I've always wondered how and what and next.
And some mornings I would wake up because I, for some of you know, my work, you know, challenge misogyny, challenge stereotypes, shake sort of the rule of law. And not just in my home country of Pakistan. I've made films around the world which have sort of challenged all of that. There's a lot of backlash that comes with that, right? I would wake up some mornings and I would read things about myself and I'd be like, that's me. My God, I didn't know I was saying that or doing that. And that's all part of the armour.
You sort of wear that. And even in the darkest times when, when you have threats against your life, which I've had plenty of, and a lot of people sort of raging and ranting about my work and who I am as a person, you know, and, the kind of work that I do, finding that inner voice, as Diane has said, and holding on to that inner voice and being true to yourself and saying that it doesn't matter what hate comes my way, it doesn't matter. But even in the darkest times I have to know, and I have to be able to sleep with myself and know that I am telling the truth, because I, even at the very start of my career, when I was just 17 years old, my father’s sort of mantra that was said to me that if you speak the truth, I will stand with you and so will the world. And knowing that telling the truth isn't easy. Knowing that it comes with, you know, a whole host of backlash that comes your way. I've always known that speaking the truth is important. And so having the strength to survive for me is to be able to light the path is to be able to know that in the darkness, if I take two or three steps towards light, there will be others that will follow in my footsteps.
I've always known that speaking the truth is important. And so having the strength to survive for me is to be able to light the path is to be able to know that in the darkness, if I take two or three steps towards light, there will be others that will follow in my footsteps.”
Diane von Fürstenberg: And also, you know, we are really- first of all, we do not choose who we are born into, right? You do not choose your parents. You do not choose your collective surroundings. You're really not in charge of your destiny. But what we are in charge of is navigating our destiny and doing the best we can. If it's raining, if it's beautiful, taking advantage of it and designing the navigation of our destiny. And, I keep on inventing. I keep on inventing. But again, the secret is solitude and silence are the most valuable things for me. I need solitude. I need to be alone. I need to go on a walk. That's why I like to do sports alone. I like to walk or I like to swim. I don't like social sport, because I use them to make emptiness. And when the emptiness of the corridor, then you can focus on your intention. And intention is a very important word because you focus on the intentions, the consequences of the intentions and where you want to go. My Tai Chi teacher told me he was a great Tai Chi, master and he said, if you focus on your strengths, you get hurt. If you focus on your energy, you procrastinate. I don't really understand that, but if you focus on your intention, you get the energy and the power. So intention is the word that I learned only a few years ago, but it's very important. And another word that I've never used until now is manifest because in French we don't. The word manifest is like a demonstration is not the same. But in English to manifest is to make it happen. I was talking on a panel for business women and they were all business with chin, you know, CEO – what is CEO?
You're really not in charge of your destiny. But what we are in charge of is navigating our destiny.”
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Chief Executive Officer.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Okay. And I said, well, I'm really not the CEO, but I am a chief manifester, you know, and I when I said it I surprised myself and I said yes because I focus and then I have a vision and then I manifest them. It's just a beautiful word, to manifest. But with all of that, it is most important to keep humility, you know, not to believe your own bullshit, you know, and, to be friends with yourself, to support yourself, to do all of that, but also to be able to criticize yourself.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: In the last year and a half that I've spent with Diane, sort of documenting her life.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Even when we're not together, she's editing me.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I am. I see her. I hear her voice all the time. We were talking about intention and manifestation. Diane and I come from two very different worlds. Right. and yet we don't. We have had as we began to talk about the things that we've done in our life in very different ways, we found that there was so much synergy. And one day I, after spending a lot of time with her and sort of asking her all of these questions, her deepest, darkest secrets and these intimate moments.
I'm really not the CEO, but I am a chief manifester. I focus and then I have a vision and then I manifest them.”
Diane von Fürstenberg: Trying to make me emotional. Why can't I make you emotional? I said, because I'm not.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: One of the things that I learned, was that, I'm learning so much about my own life by, but by spending time with her, and that's-
Diane von Fürstenberg: No. But you said, what you said to me on the phone is because when you when you interview people about me, that's when you --
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Yes. Because the thing is that- so, as women who are navigating this world. You know, standing up strong. There's so much about us in ourselves that we hold guarded that we don't talk about, don't share, you know, how do we navigate relationships? How do we navigate children? How do we navigate travelling around the world? How do we navigate the backlash that comes from the media? All of those kind of conversations as women, as we hold, how do I how do I navigate this brand new world that I find myself in as I take steps into, the film world and doing bigger projects and in doing the interviews — not just with Diane, but also with all the people that she has, had spent her life with — I've begun to learn about, oh, this is how I should be navigating. And so, from that has grown this idea that women learning from each other, you know, sort of learning from the experiences and being inspired by that. And there is this path that every woman has walked, okay, that we don't need to reinvent, that we learn from, that we can take from and grow from that as well.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Because in the meantime, by the way, she didn't tell you, while she's editing and interviewing, while she's doing a movie about me, which is very unusual for her, you know, she takes this big subject, and now she's doing a movie of me in them. And while that was happening, she got hired to direct the next Star Wars. Okay? So she didn't tell you that. So, all of a sudden, she is this Pakistani woman who is directing Star Wars. You can imagine what that. It's a lot of things for her to adapt to because it's fiction, because it's very male, very masculine and all of that. So why, so she's beginning, you know, while they're writing the script, thank God there was the strike because the strike gave her time to focus more on me and anyway that's why I think that's where she knew why she was doing this movie on this woman who keeps on inventing herself, who, you know, I mean, I have everything in my life, right? Everything. I'm a daughter of a survivor. I became a princess. I lived an American dream. I had cancer, everything. Give me a subject, I've had it so. So, yeah, it's a mishmash of everything. But with her sewing all of this together at the time that she was taking a new challenge, and it was a different challenge because when she does her documentary, she is in charge. Right? I mean, completely in charge. I mean, it's a subject that you choose is the way she wanted you. All of a sudden she's doing a big, huge franchise for Disney. And, you know, no matter how much she wants to be in charge, she's not.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I think it's the leadership, right? It's seeing how you open doors for others, what you learn and move on. And Diane's entire life has been about leadership to inspire. And I've been taking a page from that book, like, what is going to be the legacy. Will I be the first woman who was somewhere? Will I be the first woman from my home country who's won two Academy Awards. Would I be the first person who, as a woman who's, you know, directing, big franchise like this?
Diane von Fürstenberg: Or will you be the first director that became president?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: And it's like, how do we open doors for others? And in my own work, what I've seen is that I've set up this film fund now that is funding and mentoring young female filmmakers not only from my home country, but sort of how do we make sure that the door that we have left open has many people that are working through it? Last year we had 20 young filmmakers that we funded. They will go on to be beacons of light in the communities that they work. And they will be leaders who will inspire others to walk in their footsteps. You know, just like sort of all of the awards that, Diane, you have been giving and the connections that you have been making with people, because one of the most beautiful things, that Diane does is she connects one person every day to another person who doesn't know that person. So, it's like making connections.
Diane von Fürstenberg: And I advise you to do this. These are the steps: Every morning, you introduce one person to a person they would have never had the opportunity to meet. All of you can do that, because all of you have a magic wand. And to use your magic wand, first of all, is incredibly fulfilling. But the more you use the magic wand, the more powerful your magic wand is and even though you don't use a magic wand on yourself, by using on others, it comes back to you as a boomerang. I do that. I do more than one miracle a day, because then you get really into it, and then it's very challenging and it's very fun. And I sometimes I go out of my way and of course with the phone you could do that silently. You know, you don't have to leave a message. You don't have to speak. All you have to do is write very perfectly why you introduce. Where do you… know you make magic. And, anyway, sometimes I go out of my way to do that, and I say, why am I doing that? But it becomes like a game. And I really advise you to do that because this is really fun.
You know how we met? Okay. In America, there's a Glamour award in Glamour magazine of course the magazine doesn't exist anymore. But at the time, it was a big magazine. And, they give awards every year. And I got one award. And the year after, they asked me to present it, will you present an award to someone? And I said yes. And so, I was presenting the award to this beautiful young, Pakistani director who had just won an Academy Award for her movie Saving Face, which is a movie about a girl who was attacked with acid. Anyway, so I go to Carnegie Hall and I go on stage and blah blah blah. I do the introduction, she comes in, I give her the award, and then she invites. What's her name again?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Zakia.
Diane von Fürstenberg: Zakia. She invites Zakia, the victim of the acid thing. She invites her on stage. So, we had the three of us on stage, blah blah blah. This was at Carnegie Hall, which is of, an old theatre in New York City. And usually when you finish doing this award, you go to the you go to the press room, right? And then the presenter there. So, the three of us were supposed to go and do press and in Carnegie Hall, for the press room, you have to take the elevator. So I am, somebody who have a relationship with my mirror. So anytime I go in an elevator, I automatically prepare myself because I know I'm going to encounter a mirror. Right? But this time, I was going with the two of them, and I was going with this woman who had been attacked by acid. And I thought to myself, don't look at yourself in the mirror, me, I'm talking to myself. Don't look at yourself in the mirror, you know, for respect. We walk in the elevator. And Zakia, she and she looks: She's so proud. She owns it, you know? She walks into the elevator and stares at herself in a mirror with pride because she had been nicely made up. And yes, of course she'd been- You know, you could see that she was scarred, but her attitude and her confidence and her dignity was overwhelming. And it was such a lesson to me, you know, that she had the relationship with her and she was proud of being her. And I wrote that in my book, actually. And so that's how we met.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I think that one of the things that I'm going to sort of leave you guys with is the leadership to inspire, for me, has been about the amplification of the voices of the so many of those who are living in these communities. My last story to share is a few months ago I visited a village. Every house outside that village had this sign that said, this house is free of domestic violence. The entire village was in-
Diane von Fürstenberg: Where was that?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: This is in a small town in Punjab in Pakistan. Three women in that village got together one day and decided that we are going to take the 60 houses that we have over here today. Every single house here is going to be free of domestic violence. They would first they started counselling the women. The women said to them, without the men we can't. Then they got the men together and they started speaking to the men step by step by step, encouraging them to see the women as their partners, not someone who should be crushed, but someone that should be elevated. And these men and one by one, then the first woman put a plaque outside a house. This house is free of domestic violence. A second one, a third one.
Diane von Fürstenberg: And I think that is such a good idea.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Through the village every house has this sign.
Diane von Fürstenberg: We should do that in France. There’s a lot of domestic violence.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: And that to me is the leadership to inspire that.
Diane von Fürstenberg: That is a great concept.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: A single woman's determination has changed the life of so many in that village. And so, when we talk about leadership, there is so much leadership on so many different levels. That's the kind of leadership that inspires us to do the work that we do.
Diane von Fürstenberg: That is a fantastic idea. I'm going to steal that idea. I mean, it's so good, because women I always say women are about solution and seduction, right? Because the most submissive woman in the world, there is a fire in the house, she takes over, she takes the jewellery, she takes the children out the door, right? The people laugh that I always mentioned the jewellery before the children. But that's because the children can walk and the jewellery can’t walk, but anyway. But anyway — so, women really have always a solution and women have seduction. And seduction is not only about showing your legs, even though if you want to, you can. But seduction is about selling those solutions in a way that you incorporate, like that woman did with the violence, the solution was that, and she made the men say it. So, that's where the seduction enters, you know, you have the solution. You sell the solution. Making believe that the others it’s their idea.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: we're going to open it up for some questions, I believe.
Audience member: Could you talk about your wrap dress?
Diane von Fürstenberg: Talk about my wrap dress. Okay. So, I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be a woman in charge, which means that I wanted to be able to pay my bills. I wanted to be able to have a man's life in a woman's body. And when you start life, you don't know where, unless you have absolutely, a real, you know, you want to be surgeon, you want to be pianist or even a filmmaker. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I liked fashion. And so, my first job I was a photographer's agent’s assistant. And that — I can’t tell, we don't have enough time for the whole story. But you can read my book The Woman I Wanted to Be. You can even listen to it on Audible and it's my voice so you can get the long story. Anyway, so this dress: I ended up working in a factory in Italy. This man. He was a printer. He used to print scarves. So, I learned everything about prints. And then, miraculously, whatever he invented this jersey, the jersey became a little T-shirt. Became a dress, blah blah blah. Anyway, the wrap dress made me the success that I had. I was only 26 years old, and I moved to America. I lived an American dream. I mean, I was on the cover of every magazine. I was, you know, very first entrepreneur, blah, blah, blah.
Live and design your own life. You are in charge of yourself. You are in charge of your own destiny. Navigate it with kindness and generosity. But help yourself.”
And, so yes, I created this wrap dress which is still selling today. So, it's never happened to address ever before to sell for 50 years. This year we celebrate the 50 years. And even if you go in a vintage shop, you may find you may buy a vintage wrap dress that has already been worn by three generations. That's pretty good. And they still hold on, you know. So yes, I created this wrap dress, but truly it is the wrap dress that created me, because it's the wrap dress that gave me my confidence, my financial independence, my confidence because I became so confident and because it was a little dress, I was sharing my confidence in fitting rooms and working with women. I personally almost never- I mean, I didn't wear that much because I never thought my waist was tiny. I wore my clothes all the time, but. So that dress was a very fortunate accident that somehow became a symbol for women liberation. Because it was very- a woman once told me it is the dress that the the guys like and their mothers don't mind. So, it means that it's sexy enough and but proper enough too, you know, and it's a dress that, you know, Anne Hathaway, the actress, when she introduced me to her mother, her mother said, you know, I'm going to tell you something she doesn't know: She was conceived in the wrap dress.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I think we are done with time. Thank you so much, everyone. And, I hope you will continue and watch Diane's film and learn more about her life. Thank you.
Diane von Fürstenberg: And more important: Live and design your own life. Step after step after step. I am 77 years old. I am in the winter of my life and I keep on inventing it, and I will until the very last moment. So, you are in charge of yourself. You are in charge of your own destiny. Navigate it with kindness and generosity. But help yourself.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Thank you.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Thanks so much to Diane and Sharmeen. Find a transcript of this episode, as well as transcripts from my colleagues, episodes of Radio Davos and webcast podcasts. Me and my colleagues are covering the annual meeting all week, so make sure to follow us on social media with the hashtag #wef24. Or online weforum.org for the latest insights from the world's top leaders. This episode of Meet the Leader was produced and presented by me, with Taz Kelleher as editor and Gareth Nolan driving studio production. That's it for now. I'm Linda Lacina from the World Economic Forum reporting from beautiful Davos. Have a great day.
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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