BEIJING - When Diane von Furstenberg was 22 years old and just starting out in the fashion business, she dreamed that one day she would sell a dress to every woman in China. As a child, she had read about the country in Tintin's "Blue Lotus" adventure book. She imagined it to be luxurious and enigmatic. In 1990, she became one of the first American fashion designers to visit, at a time when bicycles filled dirt roads.
Today, with five stores doing brisk business (and plans for four more this year) and more than 300,000 followers on China's Sina Weibo, she is becoming a household name here, a realisation of her 2010 resolution to be widely known in a country that has become more than a business destination.
"For me, it's not just 'Go there and sell,'" she says. "I have really good friends there, artists and writers and journalists. I've absorbed myself into the culture and have given it a lot of my time. I have real connections there."
Over the past four years, she has visited up to three times a year, she says. In 2011, she hosted the Red Ball, a glamorous black-tie party at a converted studio factory outside Shanghai owned by artist Zhang Huan. The fete was in celebration of the opening of Diane Von Furstenberg: Journey of a Dress, an exhibition spotlighting her career as both icon and fashion designer. The show featured newly commissioned works by Chinese artists Li Songsong, Zhang Huan, Hai Bo and Yi Zhou.
Then, in late 2011, Citic Press of China released Von Furstenberg's autobiography A Signature Life, translated into Chinese by TV personality and author Huang Hung.
"I am inspired by the whole country," Von Furstenberg says. "I identify very much with Chinese people. And if you are into textiles and silk well - people say the Chinese steal everything, but originally we stole it from them, didn't we? It's the crib of civilization."
She chose Zhang's factory as the location of her party because of its blend of gritty and modern aesthetics, she says.
"Instead of doing it in a ballroom or a hotel, I wanted to do it in the factory, because that represents China - and it represents me too," she says.
The fashion icon's interest in China stems from an innate curiosity, Huang Hung says. Since the two worked together on the translation of Von Furstenberg's autobiography, they have become close friends.
"She was so curious about China, about Chinese women, about us," Huang says. "Most of the time people ask questions about their business or things relevant to their business, but Diane was very different. Her interest in China was broader; it was a genuine intellectual interest in the place, its people and its culture."
She recalls their first meeting, during which several Chinese colleagues pronounced Diane's name wrong (the correct pronunciation is "Dee-an"). Her husband, the media mogul Barry Diller, whispered to her, asking whether she would like to correct them.
"Diane simply said, 'It's OK.' This made a great impression on me," Huang says. "It showed that she is very kind and sensitive to other people's feelings. It spoke volumes about who she is."
Over the course of her career, Von Furstenberg has made women's issues a priority; her DVF Awards disperse money each year to various women's causes. In China, she has gravitated toward strong women, she says. "But over time I realised that even though they seem like they can conquer the world, they are also vulnerable."
Huang recalls Von Furstenberg's advice to a successful young designer in China. "She was pining for a boyfriend, and Diane told her 'Never tell people you cannot find a man.' She stopped, and transformed herself from dressing for men to dressing for herself."
Von Furstenberg's story is inspiring to many young Chinese women, Huang says. "I personally think Chinese women are not so keen to take successful business women as role models. They have a suspicion that such women have sacrificed too much of their family life for a career. Of course, having both is the true dream. That's why Diane is so admired by Chinese women. She has both a beautiful family and an amazing career."