On a chilly morning in Beijing earlier this month, the American fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg was getting theatrical in the conference room of an art gallery in the city’s 798 Arts District. She was dressed elegantly in a black-and-white checked top, wool riding pants and high-heeled pumps.
With a video camera recording the session, Ms. Von Furstenberg and eight associates made preparations for a coming retrospective in Beijing, “Journey of a Dress.” It chronicles her life in fashion, beginning in the 1970s, when the simple wrap dress she designed created a sensation.
Hanging on the wall behind her was a cowhide imprinted with a reverential image of Chairman Mao — a new work by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan. “So you walk in, and here you have the gates,” Ms. Von Furstenberg said as she pointed to a diagram of the exhibition space. “There are four partitions here. When you walk in — it’s fashion, fashion, fashion, fashion.”
Then she paced the room and demanded feedback. She tapped on her iPhone to retrieve notes, tossed out ideas about how the show would unfold and promised to bring “everyone” to the opening. She even mused aloud about throwing an outrageous “Red Ball” — an evening gala that would dazzle the Chinese.
Her husband, the media tycoon Barry Diller, would come, along with “lots of celebrities,” she said. Wendi Murdoch, the wife of the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, might host a private party at the Murdochs’ courtyard home in Beijing. The New York artist Chuck Close could make the trip. And getting around China won’t be a problem, she said at one point, because “we’ll have Barry’s jet.”
Someone at the conference table shouted, “Every artist in China will come!”
“Journey of a Dress” had its first showing in Moscow a year ago, at the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall in Red Square. Earlier this year, it traveled to São Paolo. The exhibition features sketches, designs and the trademark prints that Ms. Von Furstenberg produced over four decades, as well as original portraits of her created by friends and admirers like Andy Warhol, Francesco Clemente and Francesco Scavullo.
When the show comes to Beijing in April, it will open in a renovated factory that New York’s Pace Gallery created in the 798 District. To give the show a local flavor, Pace has asked some of China’s leading artists to create their own portraits of the 63-year-old fashion diva.
This is all part of what Diane Von Furstenberg acknowledges is her second act. Since 1998, when she resurrected her DVF brand and breathed new life into it, she’s been trying to reinvent herself as a designer, philanthropist and globe-trotting fashion mogul.
Today, there are roughly three dozen DVF boutiques worldwide, and she’s extending her reach into China, with shops in Beijing and Shanghai. Her 1998 autobiography, “Diane: A Signature Life,” is being translated into Chinese by her close friend Hong Huang, who’s been dubbed China’s Oprah. She’s even contemplating studying Mandarin.
“I woke up in January of this year,” she said, “and my New Year’s resolution was to get known in China.”
China is, after all, the world’s fastest-growing market for fashion and luxury goods — a nation where the Cult of Mao is quickly being supplanted by that of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Armani.
And the ruling Communist Party doesn’t seem to mind. Fendi transformed the Great Wall into a catwalk; Chanel and Dior have held fashion shows using Shanghai’s historic riverfront area as a backdrop. And next month, Prada’s owner and chief designer, Miuccia Prada, will direct her first fashion show outside Europe — here in Beijing, with designs made specifically for China on a runway built on the campus of the nation’s top arts school, the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
No wonder Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of American Vogue, made her first visit to China a few weeks ago.
“This is about business,” said Angelica Cheung, the editor in chief of Vogue China. “For a lot of big brands, China has become the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 market.”
Ms. Von Furstenberg isn’t about to miss the Next Big Thing. She graced the cover of Newsweek in the 1970s. She was part of the Studio 54 crowd when disco was in style. And she sold dresses on QVC, the home shopping network, when retailing first migrated to live television. Now, her brand is migrating to the most populous place on earth.
“First of all, I love China,” she said while nibbling on a pizza during lunch at a boutique hotel here called Yi House. “I came for the first time in 1990. And I’ve always had this fantasy. I’d like to sell every Chinese a T-shirt.”
At lunch, she was joined by Ms. Hong, Ms. Hong’s literary agent, as well as Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, and Ms. Von Furstenberg’s partners in Asia, David and Linda Ting. The talk ranged from Ms. Von Furstenberg’s nasty bout of food poisoning earlier in the week (“I was on the floor of the bathroom!”) to Ms. Hong’s late mother (who was Mao’s English teacher) and where to hold the Red Ball (“How about the Water Cube?” she laughed, referring to the aquatic center built for the 2008 Olympic games).
Von Furstenberg Takes on China
She also talked how about how “Journey of a Dress” started with the idea of holding a fashion show in Russia and evolved into an art show about her career. Her friend, the designer Bill Katz later suggested they do it in China.
“He’s the consigliere of contemporary art,” she said of Mr. Katz, picking at her pizza. “Twombly. Jasper Johns. They wouldn’t move anything without him. We did São Paolo this year, and then Bill said Pace is the best gallery.”
Mr. Glimcher said, “We’ve been friends for 40 years.”
Pace has moved aggressively into China, opening a huge space here two years ago and signing up some of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art, like Hai Bo, Li Songsong, Zhang Xiaogang and Zhang Huan, whom Mr. Glimcher said has the versatility of Rauschenberg. Several Chinese artists agreed to contribute works to Ms. Von Furstenberg’s show, and she sat for portraits and e-mailed them images from which to work.
Early that day, during what was a weeklong trip to China, she visited Mr. Li’s studio and marveled at how he transforms thick gobs of paint into imaginative art pieces. Then, after lunch, she traveled 45 minutes outside central Beijing to visit the studio of Hai Bo, whose stark photographs of peasants and rural landscapes hint at the world that just disappeared. He unwrapped the black-and-white photo he took of her earlier this year and left her almost speechless.
“I didn’t realize I’m so intense,” she said. “But I love it.” She then gave Mr. Hai’s wife a DVF scarf and a CD of music she had sponsored for a charity and invited the couple to visit her studio in New York next month, when Mr. Hai’s solo exhibition opens at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York.
“I’m going to make you a dress for the opening,” she promised his wife. “You’re going to be beautiful.”
An hour later, after fighting Beijing’s notorious traffic, she stumbled into the opening of Zhang Xiaogang’s solo exhibition at the colossal Today Art Museum. Before she could admire his works, she was cornered by a camera crew for a local show called “Vogue TV.” She fluffed her reddish-brown hair and offered a few sound bites.
A day later, she flew to China’s fashion capital, Shanghai.
She was astonished, she said, at how fashionable people were. “I come here every three months, and it’s amazing how much more sophisticated the people are looking on the streets.”
But perhaps nothing was as startling as her visit to the studio of Zhang Huan, a former performance artist who some years ago dressed himself in a suit made of slabs of carefully sculptured beef and paraded through the streets of New York City like Mr. America.
Mr. Zhang’s vast studio — a series of converted factories in the Shanghai suburbs — operates with about 100 workers who sand, carve and sculpture. They paint by sprinkling ashes onto a canvas and, following Mr. Zhang’s ideas, they stitch together giant dolls made from animal hides.
Mr. Zhang offered Ms. Von Furstenberg a tour of the construction site for his new French restaurant, which he said would be outfitted with huge tanks of seawater and live sharks.
Ms. Von Furstenberg was sold.
“I’m thinking, why not do the party here?” she said with delight. “This is going to be fabulous.”