NEW YORK — Donna Karan will take a big step toward building a full-fledged beauty company when she launches her first treatment line in July.

Although few designers have dared stray from the fragrance category, which Karan entered in 1992, she said she is ready to take the chance because she recognizes the difference between scents and skin care.

“It was one thing to be a designer who does fragrance,” Karan said. “It’s another thing to be in the beauty business. There’s a major difference between hooking a fragrance and hooking a product.”

With that in mind, Karan said she took a serious, almost clinical, approach to treatment for the new line, Donna Karan New York Formula. She also noted she already has made a credible foray into the category with her bath and body products, launched last fall.

“I do believe we’ve already entered the treatment business,” Karan said. “We weren’t selling fragrance; we were selling product,” she added, referring to the bath collection’s treatment claims.

Rather than containing the juice of Donna Karan New York, the designer’s fragrance, the bath products have their own lighter scent and are designed to moisturize the skin for 12 hours.

While a typical bath line comprises 15 to 20 percent of a fragrance’s sales, Karan’s bath and body products are doing almost 50 percent, according to Jane Terker, president of the Donna Karan Beauty Co.

Terker declined to discuss dollar figures, but industry sources estimated the fragrance’s retail sales were almost $20 million in 1993 and are on track to hit $30 million this year.

The new skin care products should contribute an additional volume equal to 30 to 40 percent of the projected volume for the fragrance, Terker said. That plan would mean $9 million to $12 million in retail sales for Formula this year, according to sources.

Terker noted that Formula will be in far fewer doors than the fragrance. On a door-for-door basis, Terker said, Formula should account for 50 to 60 percent of sales. Ultimately, she added, skin care should surpass the fragrance business.

The beauty company will launch Formula in select doors of Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Dayton’s, Hudson’s & Marshall Field’s and will roll it out to Dillard’s in the fall.

Terker said the company is limiting the line’s distribution to about 120 doors this year.

The fragrance is now in about 250 doors and will be in 320 by yearend, Terker said.

In developing the new line, Karan said she drew inspiration from the environmental hazards of living in New York.

“New York to me immediately says I need skin protection,” she said. “For some reason here in New York, you always feel that you look so dead.”

Karan said the only way to make customers as passionate about Formula as they are about her pantyhose is to create new products rather than copy ones already on the market.

With the help of dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler, a consultant, Karan settled on “three must-haves” for the initial treatment collection: a cleanser for both face and eyes, an exfoliator without alpha-hydroxy acid and a moisturizer with environmental protection.

Formula for Clean Skin, a water-rinsable cleanser that the company says is gentle enough to remove eye makeup, will retail for $25 for a 5-oz. tube.

“You could pour it in your eyes,” Karan said.

Formula for Renewed Skin is an exfoliating mask containing a natural aloe enzyme. The company claims that clinical tests prove the product reduces the skin’s roughness by up to 75 percent and the skin’s flakiness by up to 77 percent after one application, as well as cleaning inside hair follicles and removing blackheads.

Recommended for use once a week, the 1-oz. tube is packaged with a 1-oz. tube of After Mask Skin Conditioner, which is designed to soothe the exfoliated skin. The set will retail for $55.

The third product, Formula for Facial Moisture, is a moisturizer intended for day and night use. Although it contains SPF 20, the company claims it is effective even for sensitive skin and can be used in the eye area.

The company also says the moisturizer contains an anti-oxidant complex, helps to reduce lines and wrinkles by 25 percent after three weeks and produces an improvement in moisturization, softness and smoothness of about 80 percent after three weeks.

The moisturizer will retail for $45 for a 1.5-oz. tube.

The skin care line’s launch will be non-promotional. Although the products will be priced in the upper-mid tier of the prestige market, Terker said they are accessible, noting that the $55 exfoliator, for example, is a four-month supply.

Terker said the products, while fitting into an easy three-step regimen, also will be merchandised as stand-alone products.

“It’s not being sold as a system,” she said. “If you only want a cleanser, here’s a cleanser.”

These first three Formula products represent “the common denominator” of the skin care collection for women and men of all skin types and ages, Terker said. Future products will be more specific, such as an eyelift and a self-tanner.

“We’ll do a sunless tanner because Donna loves looking tan and Pat [Wexler] says the only good tan is a sunless one,” Terker said.

Formula is packaged in white tubes with black caps and printing, giving the line a more clinical feel than the bath and body collection, with its black matte and lacquer sculpted jars and bottles.

Karan called the tubes “pure” and “sort of medical” and said they are convenient for travel. Terker noted that the tubes also protect the products, which contain low levels of preservatives.

The company will back the launch with an advertising budget similar to that of the scent, Terker said, noting that “we’re treating this as importantly as the launch of the fragrance.”

She would not reveal specific figures, but sources estimated the company will spend $4 million on the campaign.

Photographed by Peter Arnell, the insert print ad shows a face wearing a gas mask, under the headline Skin Protection. The following page shows a woman’s face under a magnifying glass and the headline Skin Perfection.

The campaign will break in July issues of major fashion and beauty magazines, Terker said, and will continue through September. Later in the fall, advertising will concentrate on the fragrance, she said.

Terker said the company will sample Formula with more than 1 million brochures containing packets of the products. The brochures will be mailed and handed out in stores.

Acknowledging that treatment requires more explanation than fragrance, Terker noted that the Beauty Co. already has its own sales associates and that Formula will have space in the treatment area of stores.

John Stabenau, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics at Neiman’s, said he is working on finding the appropriate space and location for the line. He described Formula as uncomplicated and said he is confident it will sell.

“About 50 percent of our business in Donna Karan fragrance is currently with the body products, which are absolutely superb,” Stabenau said. “I expect the same from the new line.”

Although Karan and Terker say they are building the business slowly, it has taken only two years to make the transition from fragrance to treatment, and a men’s scent is planned for an October launch.

Stephan Weiss, Karan’s husband and business partner, said, “It begins to complete the dream we had of launching a beauty business and not just a fragrance.”