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Growing up, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be: someone who could decide her own destiny and pay her own bills. My opportunity was in meeting Italian textile manufacturer Angelo Ferretti. He asked me to intern for him. Around that time, I became pregnant and was quickly engaged to my boyfriend, Egon von Furstenberg, who was working in New York. It was 1969, and suddenly I was rushing into marriage when what I wanted to do was work. So I went to Angelo and asked if I could make samples to sell in America.
I started with T-shirt dresses and wrap tops. Then I turned the top into a wrap dress. The extraordinary jersey fabric made it close to the body and sexy, and the prints made women feel very feline. The dress was quite popular, and soon I had salesmen and manufacturers pushing me to do the same thing over and over. A man in a suit was always controlling things, and we saturated the market. By 1983, I had sold or licensed everything. I moved to Paris in 1985 and thought my fashion career was over.
When I came back to New York, years later, my brand had lost its identity. But I kept seeing girls buying my old dresses at vintage shops, so I decided to get the rights back to my name and relaunch my business. I didn't know how to do it, and I was afraid of failure. But at the urging of [then-Saks (SKS) Chairman] Rose Marie Bravo, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford, I worked up the courage to redo my wrap dress.
At first, I thought it would be easiest to become a private label for a retailer. I started negotiating with Federated Department Stores [now Macy's (M)], saying I would design the line if they sourced the material and owned the inventory. Then one Friday, Federated called off the deal. I was disappointed, but by Sunday I decided to do it myself—starting with that one dress. This time I hired a woman president. It made all the difference. After all, we are the consumers. The same dress that I wore in 1973, Michelle Obama wore on her Christmas card last year.