One night this summer, a little-known 32-year-old Brooklyn artist named David Brown was lurking outside Studio 54. That evening the club was host to the Yahoo Internet Life Awards, and a middling celebrity turnout was expected. Two public- relations women in red dresses and headphones brandished clipboards and checked names. For the better part of an hour, Mr. Brown paced the club’s vestibule while, one after another, music-industry hangers-on and the occasional famous person went inside. Finally, Mr. Brown made his move.
“Excuse me,” he said. “My name is Alex Von Furstenberg.”
The woman flipped through pages of names. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’re not on here,” she said.
“The last name is Von Furstenberg,” Mr. Brown said. “I RSVP’d for this party and I’m not sure if a ticket came up. I was wondering if we could work something out.”
“I’m sure we can work something out, if you can just be patient with me,” the P.R. woman said. “I don’t see you on any list. What company are you with?”
“Well, I’m Alex Von Furstenberg. Diane Von Furstenberg’s son,” Mr. Brown said.
“I never knew she had a son,” she said.
“She has a son and a daughter,” Mr. Brown said.
“I know Tatiana. Okay. Here you go. Nice to meet you.”
He was in.
For the past year, Mr. Brown has attended more than 60 Manhattan benefits, cocktail parties, media events and political fund-raisers claiming to be the 30-year-old New York socialite Alex Von Furstenberg. Wearing a gray suit that he picked up from the Salvation Army and a $5 pair of black shoes, Mr. Brown would usually just show up at the door, tell the security that he was Alex Von Furstenberg and demand a seat. Sometimes it worked. Many times it did not. When he could, he hustled in an accomplice to take pictures of him with as many celebrities as possible. Those photos-40 of them-will form Mr. Brown’s first solo exhibition, which opens on Sept. 15 at Roebling Hall in Williamsburg.
“I think they’ll love it,” Mr. Brown said. “And I think they’ll buy it.”
What is the point of it all?
“It’s sort of like living out a fantasy,” Mr. Brown said. “People want a statement from me about what it’s about. But it’s all just questions. I’m just asking this stuff to you. My work is hilarious. The ideas are there, if you want them. But it’s funny as shit.”
Not everyone is amused. When contacted by The Observer upon his return from a two-week sailing holiday in the Mediterranean, the real Alex Von Furstenberg said he was unaware of Mr. Brown’s ruse. “You’re kidding,” he said, then promised to call back.
“It’s not really flattering,” Mr. Von Furstenberg said later. “My wife said the guy could be dangerous. I think it’s best to say, ‘No comment.’”
Mr. Von Furstenberg is the son of Diane and Prince Egon Von Furstenberg. Diane Von Furstenberg is famous for inventing the wrap dress in the 1970′s and spending a lot of time at Studio 54 (the old one). With the money from the dresses, Ms. Von Furstenberg bought an estate in Connecticut, which she named Cloudwalk Farm. She has yet to remarry and spends a lot of time with USA Networks C.E.O. Barry Diller.
Alex Von Furstenberg grew up with his mother in New York, attending Allen Stevenson and Brooks School, then Brown University, from which he graduated in 1993. He settled in an apartment in the Carlyle Hotel and went out to nightclubs. Along with Prince Pavlos of Greece, he became a partner in Griphon Capital, a hedge fund, which he has since left to become chief investment officer of Arrow Investment, Mr. Diller’s investment vehicle. In 1995 he married Alexandra Miller, youngest of the three fabled Miller sisters, the daughters of duty-free-shop baron Robert Miller.
Mr. Brown is not married to one of the Miller sisters. In fact, Mr. Brown, who does have a girlfriend, rarely leaves his ground-floor Williamsburg loft, which is filled with photographs of himself with celebrities, tidbits of Americana and half-completed sculptures. There are slogans written on the walls in black marker. “Employ ideas that break out of stupid conceptual rigidity,” it says above the kitchen sink.
Mr. Brown stands 5-foot-10. He has thinning brown hair. When he’s not pretending to be Mr. Von Furstenberg, he likes to wear a floppy white canvas cap. He looks very little like Mr. Von Furstenberg, who has dark curly hair and strong features.
“Other artists have dealt with celebrity, but my personal involvement is more complex,” Mr. Brown said one afternoon in his loft. He was wearing a T-shirt with a McDonald’s M on it and blue sweat pants. “Warhol was always fronting about his life. He created a whole world. He never gave in. People say he was a very mysterious person. A lot of people say I’m a very mysterious person as well. One critic asked me, ‘Do you think this show will shed a lot of light on who you are?’ I said it will probably shed a little light on it. Starlight, that is. Heh-heh. A little starlight on the subject.”
On his nights out as Mr. Von Furstenberg, Mr. Brown shook hands with Henry Kissinger, told Bo Derek that she looked great, posed twice with Puff Daddy, put his arm around Conan O’Brien, got Hillary Clinton to sign a photograph and even met the real Alex Von Furstenberg, though he didn’t reveal his scam.
“Of all the celebrities I’ve met, the person that was most impressed that I was Alex Von Furstenberg was Ivana Trump,” he said. “She was like, ‘Oh, hel-lo !’ I’d love to go to lunch with her, but I don’t know how to reach her.”
“When I go out, I am Alex, I act like him,” said Mr. Brown. “I’m thinking that I’m a person of privilege and I’m out to have a good time and I like to meet celebrities and politicians. I’ve met him and I gather he’s pretty low-key. He’d probably get a good laugh out of it.”
But acting like Mr. Von Furstenberg has not always worked. At a Playboy birthday party for Hugh Hefner’s twin girlfriends, Sandy and Mandy, Mr. Brown was foiled by a bouncer who knew that the real Alex Von Furstenberg was vacationing in Hawaii. Mr. Brown extricated himself by explaining that his name was Alex Von First enberg and that he and Alex Von Furstenberg often get confused.
Mr. Brown grew up in Yardley, Pa. At 13 he was kicked out of high school for trying to bust open a candy machine. “I didn’t have a model when I was young, and I think part of being an artist is creating your own alternative model,” Mr. Brown said. “Before I had my own structure, all I had was freakin’ trouble.”
It was at Blair Academy in New Jersey that Mr. Brown first heard of the family with the magic two-word last name. “My roommate, Michael Polsky, knew the Von Furstenbergs and was completely infatuated with Tatiana Von Furstenberg,” Mr. Brown said. “He would come back from New York and he would go, ‘I love Tatiana Von Furstenberg. She is so hot .’ He was hyperactive. I was really small, and he would get so worked up about Tatiana that he would go into a rage and throw me around.”
Mr. Brown attended a few East Coast colleges but never graduated. In 1991 he came to New York and got a job at Pearl Paint. He made some strange-looking sculptures, but no one bought them. Always fascinated by celebrity culture, Mr. Brown wanted a way to address it. In 1998 he created a company called Carpet Rollers, which for $99 offered to roll out a red carpet for private parties.
“We were able to get into private people’s affairs,” Mr. Brown said. “The kind of people that liked to enjoy life. We’d come up to a party with our red carpet and people would gather around us. Hundreds of people would come and watch and we would say that we didn’t know who was coming. The red carpet was a symbol. It created a discussion and people would say stuff about who they thought was coming. It was like Waiting for Godot. They were all waiting for this grand thing to happen that never happened, and the real thing was the waiting.”
Then one night, as he was driving to Manhattan to try and meet Barry White at the nightclub Chaos, Mr. Brown had his epiphany. “It had occurred to me that I needed to come up with some way to get into these parties,” Mr. Brown said. “I’m never really going to be that interesting of a fanatic until I get inside . I was like, ‘ Kling! -Alex Von Furstenberg.’ It just hit me. Just the sound of the name: ‘Von Furst -en-Berg.’ Like in English, the t, it just has such a ring to it. Also the name has the word first , which I know is spelled f-u-r-s-t, but it rhymes with first , ‘number one.’ Sometimes when I’m driving or when I’m just working at my day job-it’s always when I’m not focusing on art-that’s when problems get solved.” That night, Mr. Brown gave his new concept a dry run at Chaos.
“I came up to the door guys, and there was this guy named Chip who does parties and who’s very eager to please, a nervous sort of guy,” he said. “I went up and I said, ‘Hi, I’m just waiting for Diane Von Furstenberg. You don’t know if she showed up, do you?’ They were like, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ And the thing about Chaos is, they really wanted to attract people. So I waited there for five minutes. Then I was like, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem like my mom is going to show up. I’m Alex Von Furstenberg.’ The guy was like, ‘Oh, hi, Alex . How are you?’”
He got in. He was sitting at the bar when Michael Ault, an owner of Chaos, approached him. “He was all over me,” Mr. Brown said. “He was like a stalker. He wanted my number, everything. He ended up giving me a tour of the whole club. He’s like, ‘Do you want some free drinks?’” Mr. Brown left Chaos with one of Mr. Ault’s business cards. The back of the card was signed with a note written to John, the head bouncer at the club. It read, “Take care of Alex always.”
Follow William Berlind via RSS.