Donna Karan Dishes at the 92Y
Donna Karan kicked off the 2012 “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” series at the 92Y last Thursday, and she more than lived up to the title.
“Donna is us. Donna is every woman and that is the key to her success,” Mallis said while introducing the designer, who had just flown back from Haiti to attend the event, with its audience full of DK-clad women of all ages, including her daughter, Gabby, who was seated across the aisle from me.
“Did you ask Calvin [Klein] how old he is?” Donna replied to hoots of laughter when Fern asked her age. “I’m 12… My daughter’s older than me; I have more energy!”
Karan, who’s actually 63 but looks a decade younger, worked in retail as a teenager on Long Island and dropped out of Parsons after two years (where she studied fashion illustration) to join Anne Klein in the late 1960s. There, she rose from intern to head designer before leaving in 1985 to launch her own label. Onstage at 92Y, Donna recalled how she failed draping at Parsons (which got a big laugh) and how WWD’s John Fairchild told her she’d better become a designer because she wasn’t a good enough illustrator. “I also failed typing,” she said with a grin.
After Anne Klein was diagnosed with breast cancer, she asked Donna to take over the line. Klein died in 1974, the week after Gabby was born, and Donna (then 26) asked her Parsons classmate Louis Dell’Olio to join her as co-designer of the line so she could strike a better balance between work and family. The two designed together for the next decade, during which they introduced Anne Klein II, the world’s first bridge line, based on Karan’s own need for more casual wear. “I always work that way,” said Donna. “It’s never about me, it’s about the we.” It was also during this time that she divorced her first husband and married her soulmate Stephan Weiss, an artist she had known for 17 years.
The Donna Karan New York collection “started as a wardrobe for me and my friends,” she said. It was based on Seven Easy Pieces (including a bodysuit, wrap skirt, pants, scarf, and sweater) that could be mixed and matched for maximum versatility. The collection was an instant hit with women everywhere (yay!) but Donna’s mother died the day of the runway show (boo!). Like AKII, DKNY came about in 1989 after a teenage Gabby and her friends started raiding Donna’s closet for clothes to wear to school, and from Donna’s own need for a great-fitting pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Men’s, kids’ and even a dog collection soon followed, earning her “The Queen of Seventh Avenue” title in the press.
“New York meant the world to me,” she explained of the “NY” part of her now-famous label. She dished on meeting her BFF Barbra Streisand, who introduced her to then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary, both of whom wore Donna Karan to the inaugural ball. She discussed her first fragrance, which she instructed the scent lab should smell like “a piece of red suede, Casablanca lilies, and the back of my husband’s neck.” Said husband designed the bottle for this and all subsequent Donna Karan fragrance (and you can see an example of his sculpture in New York’s Hudson River Park).
Karan and Weiss took their company public after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. LVMH bought it in 2001, the same year Weiss died. Donna stayed on as creative director and also founded Urban Zen, which incorporates her many passions (fashion, food, yoga, meditation, philanthropy). It’s about “honoring the different cultures of the world” and aims to bring together people who want to change the world. (Keep in mind this is the woman who was instrumental to the success of 7th on Sale, Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, KIDS FOR KIDS, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and the Super Saturday sale benefiting the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.) Her current passion: the Clinton Global Initiative.
Which is how the designer came to find herself so involved in the Haiti relief effort. She’s not only active in rebuilding Haiti itself, where she visits every three to four weeks, but also finds inspiration for her collections there, collaborates with local craftsman on her accessories, and shot her new Spring/Summer 2012 ad campaign in Haiti. “My clock is ticking and I’m freaking out about it,” she said only half-jokingly. “There are a lot of problems in the world. I have a lot of work to do!”
And when Mallis closed by asking what she’s most proud of as a designer, Donna replied without hesitation. “I don’t see myself as just a designer. I don’t just dress people on the outside; I address them on the inside.”
Lauren David Peden writes for Rue La La as a Contributing Editor.