Up till about a year ago, few would have expected Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne to be named the successors of Donna Karan’s iconic women’s diffusion line DKNY. After all, these guys are better known as the founders of Public School, the red-hot emerging label that started out with – and remains strongest in – menswear, winning over critics and accolades with their edgy, sportswear-infused tailoring. (Already in the bag: multiple Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, and last year’s International Woolmark Prize – all for their urban-inflected, high-on-’tude men’s clothing.)
Yet that was exactly what happened. Last April, Chow, 41, and Osborne, 33, both still widely considered by industry insiders as upstarts, were named the brand’s creative directors. Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and chief executive of parent company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), explains the choice of hire: “I like people who have persistence because it’s not an easy transition. You have to be ambitious, but humble.”
Both alumni of P. Diddy’s streetwear label Sean John (where they had met), the duo’s story is a 101 on making it in fashion. Debuted in 2008, Public School had, in fact, shuttered once due to quality control issues that cost it half its sales. It was only three years ago that it made a comeback, this time with its raved-about elevated take on men’s streetwear. The women’s line was introduced in Fall/Winter 2014.
A mix of daring and resilience is exactly what the job at DKNY calls for. Shortly after their appointment, it was announced that Karan, who started her revolutionary womenswear empire 32 years ago, was stepping down as chief designer of all her brands to focus on her own wellness company Urban Zen. She would instead play an advisory role. For fashion followers and Gen X’s modern women, it marked the end of an era.
Under her eponymous main line, which has now been put on hiatus, Karan redefined the way women dressed. Her landmark “seven easy pieces” – a pared-down bodysuit, plain tights, white shirt, cashmere sweater, tailored jacket, loose pants and a versatile skirt – helped popularise the concept of a capsule wardrobe. More than two decades before Phoebe Philo came along, it was she who showed women on the go that everyday dressing could be simple, sensual yet powerful.
To add to the pressure, DKNY – launched in 1988, four years after she started her company, as a more casual and affordable extension of her main line – reportedly makes up 80 per cent of the business at Donna Karan International. While its sexy, sporty yet timeless aesthetic set off major ’90s trends like the crop top, jumpsuit and logo tee in its early days, it’s lost steam in recent years.
Donna Karan chief executive Caroline Brown points out that new blood like Chow and Osborne was needed to “re-energise and redefine what authentic New York means for DKNY right now, given today’s world of fast living, extreme innovation and global competition at the highest level.” For the duo, the brand’s consistent parade of athletic-tinged American sportswear staples simply risked getting too youthful.
“The trajectory for the DKNY girl was that she had been getting younger and younger and younger,” Chow says in an interview with fashion trade publication Women’s Wear Daily. “But it didn’t feel authentic to what the brand was… The modern woman we envision has just started getting into her own in terms of career and starting a family. Her life is multi-layered with different dimensions. When you’re young, it’s not as complex. For us, those complexities and dimensions are the interesting (elements that determine) what she wants to wear.”
So for their debut collection this season, they drew on Karan’s signatures and mixed it with their own men’s-inspired street aesthetic. The result: tailored yet easy-to-wear jackets, jumpsuits, pleated wrap skirts and dresses, shorts and high-waisted pants – all cool, clean and crisp in monochrome and pinstripes. Even the more casual pieces exude the same slick sophistication – from cotton crepe jersey rompers that look like a modern update on classic men’s undergarments, to the languid silk shirt dress emblazoned with a campaign photo Peter Lindberg shot for the brand back in 1994.
Overall, the look is stylish yet pragmatic, smart and modern – bringing the brand back to its roots as the New York working girl’s reliable yet definitive wardrobe. Think the new power dressing, if you will – one that’ll appeal as much to Karan’s original fans as it would to a new generation. The fashion doyenne, who attended the show, summed it up best: “They are taking the past, the present and the future, and it was Donna Karan and DKNY. (There is) a different kind of energy.”
Like this? Watch DKNY’s Spring Summer 2016 show here.