“Everything I do is a matter of heart, body and soul,” says Donna Karan, chief designer of the international company that bears her name. “For me, designing is an expression of who I am as a woman, with all the complications, feelings and emotions.”
In fact, Karan credits her feminine instincts for the success of the company she founded in 1984 with her late husband Stephan Weiss, which went on to become a publicly–traded enterprise in 1996, and then five years later, was acquired by its present owner, the French luxury conglomerate, LVMH, Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Says Karan, “that I’m a woman makes me want to nurture others, fulfill needs and solve problems. At the same time, the artist within me strives for beauty, both sensually and visually. So design is a constant challenge to balance comfort with luxe, the practical with the desirable.”
How did you get into the fashion industry?
I was born into fashion – literally. My father was a custom tailor and my mother was a showroom model. Even my stepfather was in the business. So fashion was all around me from the day I was born. I put on my first fashion show in high school, and my first job was at a clothing boutique on Long Island called Sherrie’s. I went to Parson’s School of design, which led to a summer job at Anne Klein & Company. Anne told me not to go back to school, that I could learn more with her, and, with a lot of twists, turns and surprises, the rest is history.
How did you come up with the idea for DKNY?
DKNY came about for a number of reasons. I was already designing Donna Karan New York, a true luxury lifestyle collection. My daughter Gabby, who was a teenager at the time, was stealing my clothes and wearing them to school as sportswear. So I wanted to dress her in clothes that better suited her energy and spirit. At the same time, I wanted weekend clothes for myself – especially a pair of jeans that had a sexy woman’s fit – as opposed to a boy or ‘mom’ fit. So all roads led to DKNY – a street chic wardrobe that was multi-generational, multi-purpose.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that have contributed to DKNY's success?
There have been many, many. When we opened Donna Karan New York in 1984, we designed and offered a head-to-toe wardrobe – a new concept for its time. For DKNY, we did the same thing, seeking out partnerships that would complete our lifestyle message. We have everything from menswear and a separate and complete jeans company to accessories like hosiery, watches, swim, sleepwear, eyewear and home. Sometimes we source it ourselves, other times we partner with an expert in the field, as we did with Estee Lauder for our fragrances.
Your greatest successes and mistakes as Founder/CEO and how did you learn from them?
Every success we’ve had has come from listening to our gut. You have to believe in yourself and go for it. Who would have believed a body suit and a wrap skirt would have revolutionized the way women dressed? There was no precedent for it. I don’t consider anything a mistake. You learn from everything you do, the good and the bad. The point is to stay open and try something. When something is successful, you keep trying to bring it to the next level. Never think you’ve arrived, that you’ve done it. That’s why I always write ‘to be continued,’ on every press release.
How has your marketing strategy evolved since inception? Do you utilize social media and to what extent? How do you capitalize on the recent fashion trends?
Social media and e-commerce is everything right now. You have to be plugged in to be heard. Personally, I love it. I love the intimacy of being able to reach someone when they’re in their home or office – when they have time to truly pay attention. I don’t think e-commerce can ever replace the store experience, but it gives us all options we never had before. Fashion-wise, I’m not a trend-chaser and never have been. Yes, DKNY does fast fashion clothes, but it’s more about individuality, giving the customer great pieces she can style in her own way.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Any and everywhere. My go-to sources are the streets of New York City, my travels around the world and my love of nature. But I can be inspired by a great exhibit or something as simple as a scarf I once saw on a friend. As my mentor Anne Klein would always say “you have two eyes, use them!”
Your advice to aspiring fashion designers?
Get a job in retail. Design school is essential too, of course, but there is nothing more valuable than meeting with your consumer. What does she look for? What does she buy? The more you know on the ground level, the better a designer you’ll be.
Role Model - business and personal?
Too many people to list. I’m attracted to people who are passionate about what they do and have something new to say.
"To be continued..."
Favorite travel destination?
Bali. Africa. India. Haiti. The Far East. But most of all, any place I haven’t been. I love the discovery of landing in a new world.
What literature is on your bed stand?
You’ll find art books on my bed stand – gorgeous inspirational photos, or my journal where I draw ideas and make notes.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
A freshly blended juice and a piece of dark chocolate.
What's next for DKNY and Donna Karan personally?
I love that I don’t know. That’s where the excitement comes from.
How Karan meets that challenge can run from the simplicity of a bodysuit (where it all began) to the artisan glamour of a limited edition hand-painted DeVoré dress. Whatever form the design takes, Karan will tell you it begins and ends with the body – its sensual expression, sense of security, and freedom of movement.
A modern system of dressing, Karan’s concept is based on Seven Easy Pieces, where a handful of interchangeable items work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season. “I’m designing for an international man and woman. A creative person who never knows where a day is going to take them,” says Karan. “That’s why New York is on the label. It sets the pace, the attitude.”
Speaking in a multi-cultural language of fashion, Karan is inspired by the life and innate style of the artist. Quintessential hallmarks include black cashmere, leather, stretch and molded fabrics, often exclusively developed by Karan, as well as silhouettes that wrap and sculpt the body.
For Karan, it’s never been just about clothes; it’s about lifestyles. She sees the entire picture from head-to-toe, from function to aesthetic. Handbags and shoes are designed right alongside the clothes. “How do I dress the leg?” inspired Donna Karan Hosiery. “The right bra?” Donna Karan Intimates. “The perfect glasses?” Donna Karan Eyewear. The list goes on to include belts, accessories and, as Karan puts it, “everything you need to pull yourself together.”
Karan’s quest for the perfect jeans, as well as her desire to dress her daughter Gabby, resulted in the 1989 birth of DKNY. Fast fashion with an urban mind-set, DKNY is what Karan calls “the pizza to collection’s caviar.” DKNY grew so popular and diverse that other brands and labels spun from it, including DKNY Jeans, DKNY Active, DKNY Underwear, DKNY Jeans Juniors, and DKNY Kids. (Not surprisingly, Karan’s grandkids and friends’ kids had much to do with the latter). Like Collection, DKNY has an accessories and shoe collection to underscore its New York City street-smart style.
Karan saw the many men in her life, starting with her husband, also needed a sophisticated system of dressing. Considering that Karan’s father was a custom tailor, DKNY Men emerged a year later in answer to his casual, sport side, which went on to launch its own dress shirt and tailored clothing collections.
Determined to seduce all the senses, Karan took on the world of beauty in 1992 under the business and creative leadership of her husband, who designed the bottles and jars for the signature fragrances and their ancillary products. The beauty division went on to introduce best-selling fragrances. Completing the lifestyle approach to design, in 2001 Karan introduced a Donna Karan Home Collection “all about touch and feel,” which includes everything from luxe bedding and candles to cashmere throws, and DKNY Home, which accents interiors with fashion-forward bedding and accessories. There are also Donna Karan and DKNY Lenox Table and Giftware collections as well.
Donna Karan international has an excess of two hundred company-owned and licensed free standing Donna Karan Collection, DKNY, and DKNY Jeans stores worldwide. The first flagships opened in London – DKNY in 1994, and Collection two years later. 1999 marked the opening of the uptown New York City DKNY flagship store, located at 60th street and Madison Avenue, and two years later, came the downtown DKNY flagship on West Broadway in SoHo. Bringing it back to where it all began, in 2001 Karan opened the Donna Karan New York flagship store, the premiere collection showcase, at 819 Madison Avenue. Designed as “a serene escape from the city’s chaos,” a dramatic indoor/outdoor river rock garden runs through the townhouse’s ground floor.
For Karan, it literally and creatively began in New York. She was born into fashion on Long Island. Not only was her father Gabby Faske (who died when Karan was three) a tailor, her mother Helen was a showroom model and fashion sales rep. Even Karan’s stepfather Harold Flaxman was in the fashion business. So it was only natural that Karan, while still in high school, designed her first collection and staged her first show.
Following her second year at Parson’s School of Design, Karan was hired by Anne Klein for a summer job. After three years as an associate designer, Karan was named successor following Klein’s death in 1974. Louis Dell’olio, a Parson’s friend, joined her a year later. Together, they designed the Anne Klein Collection. In a foreshadow of DKNY, Karan created Anne Klein II in 1982, originating the concept of bridge and lifestyle dressing in fashion.
After ten years of designing Anne Klein, Karan was ready to go out on her own with the support of Weiss and partner Takiyho, Inc. The owner of Anne Klein & Co. Fall 1985 saw the first Donna Karan New York collection and the reaction from the press and retailers proved once again that Karan made fashion history.
Throughout her long career, Karan’s peers have acknowledged her achievements with numerous accolades. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has saluted her six times; and most recently in 2010 she was nominated for their Womenswear Designer of the Year Award. In 2003, Karan was the first American designer to receive Fashion Group International's "Superstar Award." A year later, Karan's alma mater Parson's gave her an honorary doctorate to commemorate her contribution to the school and fashion industry, and in 2007, Glamour magazine named Karan one of their Women of the Year.
Using her company’s visibility and resources for social causes is a heartfelt priority. A member of CFDA’s board of directors, Karan conceived and spearheaded its Seventh on Sale benefits to raise funds for AIDS awareness and education. Karan co-chairs the annual New York “Kids for Kids” events for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, as she has since its 1993 inception, as well as underwrites “Super Saturday,” an annual designer flea market/barbeque founded with the late Liz Tilberis in 1998 to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. To facilitate her many on-going philanthropic involvements, in 1999, Karan and Weiss established the Karan Weiss Foundation.
Karan's Urban Zen Initiative, founded in 2007, is the culmination of Karan's philanthropic efforts. Explains Karan, "I founded the Urban Zen Initiative to create a working structure for advancing wellness, preserving culture and empowering children. These are causes that mean the world to me." Through Urban Zen, Karan – an honorary ambassador to Haiti – works closely with the Clinton Global Initiative to support and develop Haitian artisan commerce. President Clinton asked Karan to design the prestigious Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2010, an honor he then presented her with for her work with the Urban Zen Haiti Artisan Project. Karan was also honored with a Gordon Parks Foundation Award for using creative means to change and educate the world.