“It doesn’t matter how many times you see her. It’s always special,” says Diane von Furstenberg. She’s not talking about a supermodel or a socialite, but a very different kind of muse: the Statue of Liberty, which has been an object of fascination for the designer since she first glimpsed it upon her arrival in the United States from Europe on the SS Raffaello in 1969. She chaired the fundraising drive for the Statue of Liberty Museum, which opened in May. Now Von Furstenberg’s ardent support for the icon extends to a documentary, Liberty: Mother of Exiles, coming to HBO on October 17, which she appears in and co–executive produced. In a time when the statue’s message of inclusion feels more potent than ever—our acting immigration director’s recent revisionist take on the Emma Lazarus poem on her pedestal underscoring how essential it is—the film features people as varied as Statue of Liberty memorabilia collectors, including one woman who legally changed her surname to Liberty; descendants of Gustave Eiffel, who designed the statue’s interior; and construction workers involved with renovating Lady Liberty. (Almost all the onscreen figures are identified by tags listing their country of origin.) And when Von Furstenberg visits Statue of Liberty designer Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s namesake museum in France, the influence of American fashion around the globe is clear: The museum director has bought a DVF wrapdress just for the occasion.
Another American icon gets his due in a small-screen documentary, out this month. Susan Lacy’s Very Ralph, also on HBO, tackles the half-century-plus reign of Ralph Lauren. The designer and his family, friends, and fans (including Kanye West, Calvin Klein, Martha Stewart, and Hillary Clinton) tell the story of his rise from Bronx-born tie designer to lifestyle emperor and exporter of the American Dream. Whether drawing his inspiration from western attire or Old Hollywood, the designer helped make our nation’s fashion aspirational and cool around the world.
In an era of excess, he pushed for the casual, undone, no-makeup look that is now de rigueur. He emphasized diversity in his ads early on, was ahead of the athleisure curve (for proof, there’s fun footage of a 1995 Polo Sport show with models Rollerblading down the runway), and pioneered the concept of a lifestyle brand. With his Rhinelander mansion flagship, which opened in New York City in 1986, he presented retail as theater and shopping as entertainment in a way that feels canny even by 2019 standards: At one point in the documentary, New Yorker writer Judith Thurman calls the store “a stage set in which everything is for sale.”
Particularly resonant was the portion of the film that follows the Lo Lifes, a group of young men of color in New York who obsessively collected Lauren’s Polo wares, and for whom the clothes signified an entire world of aspiration. In the same way it did for the young Lauren, fashion became a way for them to dream. As fashion critic Robin Givhan puts it in the film, “He represents something that is more than just a bunch of clothes.”
This article originally appears in the November 2019 issue of ELLE, on newsstands October 22.