Before yoga, capsule collections and fashion philanthropy became trendy, Donna Karan was already making them part of her vision. Three decades after founding her namesake label, she tells us what keeps her going.
The problem with interviewing a fashion stalwart like Donna Karan is that we feel we already know everything there is to know about her. As it turns out, that’s something the American designer takes issue with too. As a rule of thumb, I find that the more seasoned an interviewee is, the tougher it is to connect with the person over a phone interview, to uncover anything that hasn’t been said before. However, Karan is refreshingly candid – she speaks in a stream of consciousness, telling you exactly what she thinks as the thoughts come to her.
What’s the toughest thing about being Donna Karan, I ask? “In the beginning I just did what I wanted to and people loved it, and now they have expectations,” she says. “Why isn’t it what it was, as opposed to what it should be? It’s like, how do you get put into a box and be out of the box? A lot of my dreams are still my dreams because they haven’t manifested. It keeps me going.”
It’s not a statement one expects to hear from a woman popularly nicknamed “Queen of Seventh Avenue”, a reference to New York’s main fashion stretch where her headquarters are located. A decade ago, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. This year, her eponymous luxury label turns 30.
It may come as a surprise – especially at a time when more fashion labels are going into athletic wear – but yoga has always been a cornerstone of her business. Karan has been practising it since she chanced upon a yoga studio at the age of 18 during the ’60s, well before Madonna, Gwyneth, or even Sting and Trudie made it trendy. “My passion for yoga was the reason I created the bodysuit and from there, I just wanted to build a wardrobe for myself,” she says. “I wasn’t really looking for this. All I wanted was a small little company for me and my friends, and then I found out I had more friends than I thought.”
Today, that small little company is a fully fledged lifestyle empire carrying everything from red carpet limited edition devore gowns to jeans, fragrances and home furnishing. Yet, Donna Karan was a name that carried weight well before she even founded her namesake – and first – label (since then, she’s added diffusion line DKNY, the denim-oriented DKNY Jeans and DKNY menswear to her stable). At age 26, the Parsons graduate was appointed head designer at Anne Klein and oversaw the house for six years. “By the time I started Donna Karan New York, I had done Anne Klein and been part of a very large organisation, so I just wanted to keep things simple and easy,” she says.
She kicked off her own brand by distilling the art of dressing into what she dubbed “seven easy pieces”. A groundbreaking concept that popularised capsule collections, it gave the modern woman a handful of interchangeable items that worked together to create an entire wardrobe to take her from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season. It’s a design approach that an increasing number of brands are catching on to, with hot names like Agnona’s creative director Stefano Pilati describing his designs as “season-less”, fur coats appearing in Spring/Summer collections, and tank dresses in Fall/Winter. Karan thought of all this – in the ’80s: “The Donna Karan collection was never about selling things in seasons. When it is season-less, it is timeless. With collections debuting six months ahead of time, it’s not about delivering fall clothes in the summer.”
What marks her as a visionary is that she thinks and speaks in movements, not trends. I enter our conversation expecting to speak to Karan about her career in fashion. And while the designer is happy to discuss her much vaunted dexterity in draping or fervour for fabrics (“The fabric really talks to me; it’s sort of like a sculpture.”), she tells me what matters most to her is conscious consumerism: “It’s about dressing and addressing issues.”
Labels like Toms Shoes and Suno have made it hip to buy into ethical fashion. For Karan, however, it is simply who she has always been. “I told people I was into philanthropy and they were like, ‘Oh, but you’re a fashion designer.’ I said, ‘Yes, but I’m into philanthropy and fashion.’ It’s like Barbra Streisand singing People yet one more time. It’s hard for people to see you on a larger scope.”
Karan was one of the first designers to give back through her work. “When the Aids epidemic broke out, we did Seventh On Sale to raise funds for Aids awareness and education. Then, when Elizabeth Glaser contacted HIV during a blood transfusion after giving birth in 1981, we started Kids For Kids, and following that, Super Saturday, an annual designer flea market to benefit ovarian cancer research,” she says.
She also collaborates with artisans from all over the world under the umbrella of her Urban Zen line. Started in 2007, it produces anything from handcrafted Balinese furniture to wrap dresses featuring intricate Vietnamese handiwork, and dyed and toasted horn neckpieces by Haitian craftsmen. “I want to inspire and show others what people in different countries can do,” she explains. “It is not a high volume business, but it is very artisanal.”
A designer, philanthropist, businesswoman and mother – the Donna Karan brand is a reflection of the multi-faceted woman behind it. Her 30th anniversary collection revisits the signatures that are all about giving a woman balance. Clothes that bring together Karan’s love for fashion and yoga, they’re designed to make a woman feel confident inside and out. At the show during New York Fashion Week in February, top models from Karlie Kloss to Malaika Firth paraded down the runway in adaptations of looks that the first generation of supermodels – Christy, Naomi, Linda – debuted over three decades ago. And it highlighted just how relevant her pieces – from luxurious yet utilitarian scarf dresses to effortlessly elegant silk chiffon gowns – still are.
For Karan, however, this latest collection is far from a retrospective. She says: “Thirty years ago, I set out to design clothes for the woman who lives in motion. Over the years, we have journeyed with her and she is constantly moving forward. She has become more powerful, more sensitive, more artistic, and more expressive in how she approaches her life. I wanted to visually capture that essence and evolution. This is the culmination of everything I stand for.”
This article was originally published in Female October 2014.