Last fall, after the death of a model who suffered heart failure on a runway in Uruguay, designers in Spain made the bold move of imposing a minimum weight-to-height ratio on catwalkers. Milan followed suit, asking models to present a health “license” to work—but not before the death from anorexia of a Brazilian model. In advance of New York City’s fashion week, Council of Fashion Designers of America president Diane von Furstenberg led a panel on the issue. Among their guidelines are a ban on models under age 16, a requirement that those with eating disorders seek treatment, and replacing cigarettes and alcohol with healthy snacks backstage at shows. The veteran designer—who is also showing in New York—will publicly discuss the CFDA plans on Feb. 5. She spoke from Paris with PEOPLE’s Allison Adato.
When you started designing in the ’70s, what did models look like?
Skinnier. It was before my time but, Twiggy and Penelope Tree [were really skinny]. Even Jerry Hall—she did her first show for me at 17. In the ’70s we were much smaller. I look at my vintage dresses, and what used to be a 12 is now an 8.
So a size 0 is like what a 4 was?
Yes. But the truth is, in order to be a model, you have to be skinny.
What are your hopes for the CFDA guidelines?
We should be sensitive to this problem. We should promote health. But do I think girls should line up and we measure their body fat? No. I am all for empowering women, not treating them as a piece of meat—whether they have meat or not!
At the New York shows, will there be any changes?
By having talked about it, I think everybody will be sensitive. When I cast [models for my show], it’ll be in the back of my mind.
You’re famous for creating a garment—the wrap dress—that looks good on women of nearly all sizes. Why not show them on an 8 or 12?
That is life. My clothes look good on women in life. In a fashion show, it’s a whole different thing. It’s like mannequins you use in the window.
Looking at the guidelines—no champagne, no smoking—can you imagine fashion shows without those staples?
Oh, what’s bad about having a sip of champagne? Come on. The issue is not that. The issue is ‘Take charge of your life.’