LOS ANGELES — Diane von Furstenberg's wrap-dress army is a force to be reckoned with in the 20,000-square-foot gallery of the historic May Co. department store building, where her Journey of a Dress exhibition showcases vintage and contemporary interpretations of the iconic design.
There they are, 200 mannequins strong, standing in formation and looking ready to conquer the world.
Conquer the world is exactly what this dress did.
The show, put together for the 40th anniversary of Von Furstenberg's brand, celebrates her singular contribution to fashion history: the wrap dress, which is on par with the T-shirt and blue jeans when it comes to cultural impact.
The dress — which wraps in front and ties at the waist and was originally made in drip-dry, cotton jersey — became part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s, when women started to enter the work force en masse, a symbol not only of women's liberation but of sexual liberation. "A woman could be dressed in two minutes flat and be undressed in even less time," fashion historian Holly Brubach writes in the show's introduction.
It's also the piece that made Von Furstenberg's name. She designed the garment when she was 26 and recently married to Prince Egon von Furstenberg, a Switzerland-born aristocrat who worked in the fashion world. The style was inspired by the silky wrap tops and skirts that ballet dancers wear.
"It's the dress that gave me my freedom, paid all my bills, gave me my fame and allowed me to be free," Diane von Furstenberg, 67, said during a recent walk-through of the exhibit, wearing a dress from her spring collection and a tiger-tooth necklace given to her by the late prince, from whom she was divorced in the 1970s.
"And it empowered millions of women," she said. "When I heard it's studied in sociology classes, I realized this dress deserves to be honored. I had never honored it. I was grateful, but I took it for granted. Sometimes I even resented it, because I thought, 'I do other things.' But this year, when everyone was telling me to do something for the anniversary, I said, 'OK. Now is the moment to honor it.'"
The first part of the exhibition is a walk down memory lane, beginning with the first advertisement for the dress, featuring the designer herself in one of her wrap styles, sitting on a white cube on which she wrote, "Feel Like a Woman, Wear a Dress." She came up with the words off the cuff and wrote them on the cube because it looked too stark, she says, and they have since become her motto.
There are photos from her fashion shows ( including model Jerry Hall at age 17) and jet-setting social life (Von Furstenberg and her current husband, media mogul Barry Diller, at the premiere of the film Grease), advertisements (one features the designer shilling for Kool cigarettes) and celebrity shots. Images showing pop stars Madonna and Amy Winehouse, political activist Ingrid Betancourt and first lady Michelle Obama, all wearing wrap dresses, are proof of the style's range and versatility.
There also are photos of the wrap on the big screen worn by Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver and Amy Adams in the recent American Hustle. The vintage dress worn by Adams is featured in the exhibition, complete with red wine stain. (Seeing the dress in the film was a surprise, Von Furstenberg says, because costume designer Michael Wilkinson hunted down vintage clothes rather than contacting her.)
The dresses are mounted on mannequins modeled after the designer herself, high cheekbones and all.
Over the years, the wrap dress has been a spectacular canvas for black-and-white graphic prints, pop art flowers, embroidery and sequins, as the exhibition shows. The dress is also a canvas for Andy Warhol prints, just as Warhol famously used Von Furstenberg's visage on a canvas of his own. (Several styles featured are from the designer's upcoming limited-edition collection of dresses, T-shirts and accessories in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation, featuring her chain links and twig prints and his signature poppy flowers and dollar signs.)
Von Furstenberg's business is based in New York, where she is also president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and where she showed her next collection last Sunday during New York Fashion Week.
But she also has a home in Los Angeles. And she owes a lot to the City of Angels. When she first showed her line at New York Fashion Week, it was in a rented-out room at the Gotham Hotel, where all the visiting designers from California showed, because they did not have New York showrooms, she says.
L.A. was one of the first places Von Furstenberg made personal appearances, at stores such as I. Magnin, Bullocks Wilshire and the very May Co. store where the exhibition is taking place. And early on, Fred Hayman, the wizard of retail in Beverly Hills, invited her to show her dresses at his Giorgio store on Rodeo Drive, where Rita Hayworth, Ali MacGraw and other celebrities became DVF customers.
So it seems appropriate that her retrospective should be in L.A., the birthplace of casual sportswear, in the building owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that will be the future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Today, Von Furstenberg is a fixture here during awards show season, hosting an annual Oscars brunch.
One of the original celebrity designers, she has become as iconic as the wrap dress.
To that end, a second gallery space is devoted to portraits of her by Warhol, Chuck Close, Barbara Kruger, Helmut Newton and more, hanging alongside contemporary works from her personal collection. The newest piece, A Ghost May Come, is by Dustin Yellin. It's a sculpture of a wrap dress composed of tiny magazine cutouts of Von Furstenberg's face suspended in glass for all eternity.