The Enduring Design Legend Reveals Why The Feminine Form Is Her Ultimate Inspiration.
Has there been a designer more attuned to what women really want–not what brands want to sell them–than Donna Karan? Focused on creating the perfect cut, the designer is a driving force in how the career woman can work her own aesthetic into the everyday, presenting style as an essential, rather than a nice to have, and worshipping the feminine shape instead of flattening curves into submission. Her name is synonymous with chic, cleverly cut pieces, and no modern capsule wardrobe is complete without the inclusion of a Donna Karan wrap skirt. With a New Yorker power stride, she’s left her fingerprints all over consumer fashion history, from surviving and thriving under the notoriously watchful eye of the late Anne Klein, to launching her own namesake line without a safety net, let alone any semblance of a budget. In this extract from our extended interview in Author, she reflects with Pauline Brown, former LVMH exec-turned-Harvard professor, on her childhood and early inspiration.
Pauline: How would you describe your childhood?
Donna – I was a young girl who was probably a little different than the rest. My mom was in fashion, my father was in fashion. In those days it was kind of unusual for your mother to be working, so it felt a little strange living in a community where all the other families were together with the mother staying at home during the day. I loved school, but art really was my passion.
Pauline: Your mom was a model and your father was a tailor. Did their respective careers have an effect on your decision to go into fashion?
Donna – It was the one thing I didn’t want to do. You know, you never want to do for a career what your parents are doing, so the last thing I wanted to do was to be in fashion. I wanted to sing like Barbara Streisand, dance like Martha Graham, and maybe be an illustrator. But fashion designer? Not at all.
Pauline: You failed draping class, which is so funny because to anyone who studies your designs, you are the queen of drapery.
Donna – Yes, I burnt a hole in my dress with an iron just before presenting to Rudy Gernright, and had to go to summer school for draping. And yet, I passionately adore the body and fabric. It talks to me. Draping for me is more artistic, while at school it is more about flat-patterns and creating the garment.
Pauline: You graduate from Parsons and shortly thereafter, you work for the very formidable designer Anne Klein.
Donna – I got a job with Anne when I went for a summer job. I was feeling really nervous, and she says to me, ‘Take a walk’. She thought that I was there for a modelling job, and says that my hips are a little too wide. I showed her my portfolio, and I was hired. My first big job was getting her coffee, pencil sharpening, and everything like that. I was the bottom of the totem pole, and I would sneak around with my head down, so embarrassed. The fashion world was something I was familiar with, but working with Anne Klein was rather difficult. She convinced me not to go back to college at Parsons, so I never graduated. And after nine months of working there, she fired me.
Pauline: Then what happened?
Donna – The next day, I became an associate designer to Patty Cavalli on Broadway, and Patty immediately took me to Paris. I was 19 years old and a Jewish girl, living on the train tracks in Long Island, and there I am in Paris and Saint-Tropez, my first time in Europe. I was Patty’s only design associate, so I really learned a lot and tried my hand at everything. But still, I wanted to be back on 7th Avenue. It’s hard for people to discuss it, but 7th Avenue is fashion, and Broadway is more mass market. Once I realized this, I called Anne for my job back.
Pauline: Was the interest in going back to Anne because you believed in her vision, or was it just because she was the one person you knew who was still on 7th Avenue?
Donna – My ego was, of course, involved, what with being fired, wanting to prove myself on 7th Avenue, the luxury of the fabrics and all of that. Anne Klein understood women both mentally and physically, which is something I found myself drawn to. Anne was designing for Anne, but she was also designing for her customers. I’ll never forget the one thing that she did when hemlines dropped from one season to another, she kept the exact fabrics of the last season and just made longer skirts to match the jackets her clients already had. I thought, how brilliant it was that she wasn’t just coming up with the next collection, but also really catering to the consumer’s needs. She was an artist and also a consumer.
Pauline: So, in 1984, you decide with Steven, your late husband, to launch your own brand.
Donna – I felt a desperate need for my own clothes. Personally, I needed a bodysuit, a wrap-tie skirt, little 70s pieces, and I really wanted to do it as a bitty collection for me and my friends. I told my bosses at Anna Klein how I felt, that I wanted to have a go at this little thing, and they basically said to me, ‘you’re fired’. They said, go into your own business and you’ll no longer do Anne Klein. That was really a kind of death for me because I had designed for Anne Klein longer than Anne Klein did. It was really a shock to my system.
“I loved school, but art really was my passion.” – Donna Karen
Pauline: What were the biggest challenges in the beginning?
Donna – We worked in my apartment, and I had all the fabrics delivered there. I didn’t have a sample room or even a design room–we didn’t have anything. I had one girl working with me, and we were just doing sketches, but we were on such a tight budget, and I was not used to being on budgets this tight. So I was counting every single cent that I was spending to create these 70s pieces.
Pauline: What was the thinking behind your own label’s pieces?
Donna – I thought of the woman who was on-the-go, constantly travelling, who was going from day to night and who never has time to go home. I wanted a wardrobe that would take you from day to evening. From relaxation, which is how I start my day with yoga, so that’s how the bodysuit and leggings came into work, and then the wrap-tie skirt. Then it was a blazer, a scarf because I thought scarves were the accent to everything, an evening piece which was the sequinned skirt versus the jersey wrap-tie skirt, and a coat.
Pauline: What’s your style advice for prominent women?
Donna – To not to be afraid to show off your own form and body. Why can’t we feel like women without being sexual, but by being sensual and comfortable, and really understanding your own body? What I call accenting the positive, deleting the negative. I don’t think a lot of people realize what accents them, what complements them, and how draping hides a multitude of sins.
Interview by PAULINE BROWN