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Bridget Foley’s Diary: Fashion’s Yogi Bares It

Donna Karan sits down for a Q&A in advance of her show on Monday night, which marks her brand’s 30th anniversary.

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Thirty — recognized universally as a milestone birthday. It certainly is for Donna Karan, whose show tonight marks her brand’s 30th anniversary, an anniversary she never intended to have.

When Donna went to her bosses at Anne Klein three decades ago with a modest idea for a seven-easy-pieces line that would appeal to her and her friends, she intended it as a little spin-off under the auspices of Anne Klein. Instead the suits offered — make that insisted upon — a total break and the establishment of a separate company.

After her blockbuster, bodysuited launch in black and gold for fall 1985, Donna was off and running — and not just sartorially speaking. Anyone who knows her knows that her fashion is linked inextricably with her world view, which integrates business and philanthropy with a particular focus on the development of artisanal crafts around the world. Those who know Donna (or who have ever seen or read an interview with her) also know that her conversation is circuitous, often covering runway, yoga studio, Haiti and the lost joy of HotPants in short order.

RELATED STORY: 30 Years of Fashion From Donna Karan >>

The big 3-0 approaching, WWD wanted Donna to riff and reminiscence. And so she did, over a healthy, beautifully presented don’t-ask-for-Diet-Coke lunch at her Central Park West apartment. In the space of a few sentences (albeit many long, run-on sentences), she offered a string of pearls: “Our industry is on narcotics with the Internet.” “The sky is going to look different today than it did yesterday.” “Doing is much more exciting [than thinking] — doing and being involved.” Perhaps not surprisingly, she called herself “probably the biggest yogi in fashion design.”

We talked at length and if in editing the transcript I noted a dearth of what one might call hard-core (or even superficial) business analysis, it was still two hours of unbridled Donna — which is to say heady, a little wacky and wonderful.

WWD: Thirty years. Do you think in terms of milestones?

Donna Karan: This is the first time. In doing the show, I’ve been reflecting a little bit. I don’t think I’ve ever changed — that bores me. I look at the journey of a woman; I’m exactly the same person I was in 1974. When I started this company in 1984 — I look at my book here and think that I’m the same person. I haven’t changed.

WWD: Describe that person.

D.K.: Sensual. The body. It always starts with the body, the body meaning yoga. Clothes that move. A woman on the go. Traveling constantly, back and forth. Cold shoulder.…I think I’m a little bit of a hippie. I think I respect the working woman and understand her, but I see her more as her body and that whole concept of “I want to make it easy for her in seven easy pieces.” What are the must-haves? With me, it always starts with a bodysuit. Always. I wear a bodysuit every single day of my life. Some people get it, some people don’t. I think I was a little bit ahead of my time because I’ve been doing yoga since I was 18.

WWD: When you said, “I’m the same woman I always was,” I didn’t expect you to go right to the clothes.

D.K.: Obviously I’m talking to Women’s Wear Daily and we’re talking clothes. Weirdly enough, if I look holistically at myself — yes, I’ve done yoga all my life. I haven’t changed. I bore me. I travel. East-meets-West has always been the most important thing for me.

You know, putting the world together as one.…If there is a problem, I believe there is a solution, whatever level that may be. Commerce and philanthropy. I think if somebody were to say, “Who is Donna Karan?” That would be sort of the totality of who I am as a person because it’s never about what you’re wearing on the outside, it’s what you’re wearing on the inside. The whole you.…I don’t want to be negative; let’s be positive.

WWD: Do you feel the world is heading toward the positive?

D.K.: One never knows. What was the movie? With the trees? With the crystal tree? “Avatar.” “Avatar” said it all. There is a masculine and a feminine, two different entities. We are going into a feminine age. I think the Age of Aquarius is not something unusual. I think the feminine is coming into being, and I don’t mean feminine as in male and female. I mean a feminine energy, which is about caring and sharing, and being outside of yourself. Yet, on the other side, I see the dichotomy of the “me,” not the “we.” There are these two opposing worlds that we’re living in right now and it’s frustrating. We’re all trying to find the solution because at the end of the day, all you want is happiness. Joy and happiness. Where are the joy and happiness? Do I feel it when I put something on? When I see something beautiful? I know that when I’m creating, I feel joy and happiness.…I think all artists — it’s a blessing that you’re given that you can get out of your head and into your heart.

WWD: Are you an artist, and is fashion art?

D.K.: Yes.

WWD: You’ve changed your position on that. In something I read last night you said Stephan [Weiss, Karan’s late husband] taught you that what you’re doing is not art.

D.K.: [Fashion] is a creative expression. Is it an art piece? No. It’s a creative expression. That’s where I would process it differently. Is this an art piece? [She handles the bold beaded Hatian necklace she wears.] You see, Haiti for me is a model for the rest of the world.

WWD: What do you mean “a model of the world”?

D.K.: Of the developing world. Listen, there are problems all over the world. How do we help make a difference? The difference is not only for them, but also for me. There’s a little selfishness here. I get tremendous joy out of it — to be able to help somebody. Now, my dream? Haiti in Harlem. It’s not just Haiti. It’s a model.

WWD: You have a lot on your mind.

D.K.: What do I want to accomplish? There are certain things where I say, “No, not in this lifetime.” Maybe in my next one. But, there are more things that I would like to accomplish that I have time for. This is the first time I’ve started to think about it. I never have before.

WWD: About?

D.K.: Time.

WWD: You’ve never thought about mortality before?

D.K.: It’s not mortality as much as age. I’m not getting as far as mortality. There’s a difference between mortality and age. Before, I could have done something more slowly because I had so much time to do it and now, what I want to get done I need to get done faster. The same 10 years that I would have used for a development process, now I want to do it in two to three. Before, it would never even conjure a thought. Time? I never even thought of it.

WWD: When you launched Donna Karan, you told WWD that you got 50 percent of the brand for — your word — a “token” financial investment. Talk about financial versus human investment.

D.K.: I don’t think you can compare the two. Human investment — that’s what makes the company. That is the brand. But it’s not either or. If I was just investing myself, that’s not enough. I need the financial investment in order to manifest.

WWD: Could you imagine an investor being so generous with a young designer today?

D.K.: If the designer had already proved himself [like] I had. There’s a very big difference. I had built two brands — Anne Klein and Anne Klein II. So, you don’t look at me as you would a young kid starting out who has never proved himself yet.

WWD: Would you advise younger designers to work for someone else first?

D.K.: Yes. But whether it’s your own brand [or not] own it. I have a young designer at Urban Zen — a kid out of a school, Bessie. She’s a little me…it’s kind of weird. She owns it as if it’s hers. The same with Jane Chung. Jane Chung owns DKNY. She owns it. I gave it to her. She came to me saying she would like to do it and she got it.

WWD: DKNY was Jane’s idea?

D.K.: Yes, DKNY was her idea. What had happened was that my daughter and all of her friends were stealing all of my clothes, and it really pissed me off. I realized that I had a bigger audience than I thought I had. I wanted a lifestyle for myself and for my husband. He needed more clothes than I was doing at Donna Karan. Jane was working for me and she says, “I’ll do DKNY.”

WWD: You saw DKNY as lifestyle brand from the start.

D.K.: I never felt that any of these companies were about clothes. For me, it was always about life. It was more important that I had the cafe, the umbrellas, the flowers.…To me, DKNY was that for the streets of New York. When you walk into Urban Zen, it’s life. It’s not about clothes. That has always been who I am. Yes, I love to do clothes but I was never just a designer. Anne Klein taught me this very early on: Designing a toothbrush is as important as designing clothes. A designer is a seer, a visionary, a creator— creating a house, creating whatever.

WWD: What were the lessons that you took from Anne Klein — consciously and unconsciously — on which you started your own company?

D.K.: The passion for design. The passion for the creative aspect of design. The fit; I saw how concentrated she was on the fit of clothes.

WWD: She was passionate about fit?

D.K.: Yes. Then I changed it to my fit, a different one. She had a belly and the pants fit this way, and I had a butt and no belly so the pants fit that way. So, when I changed the balance of the pants, the company went, “Oh my God!”

WWD: Were you each your own muse?

D.K.: To a certain extent. It was the way she saw the body. Her little miniskirts…she was more tailored and more preppy. I’m a little more hippie. I was all about HotPants, wrap-around sandals. It bores me that I’m still that person. I still like Roman sandals; big, full skirts, bodysuits; skinny T-shirts HotPants — if I could still wear HotPants…

WWD: Do you think even in this age of hyper-fitness, that fashionwise, the ship still sails on certain things?

D.K.: Oh, God yes. Respectfully speaking, bless me for that. That’s my gift to women — I know how to accent the positive and delete the negative. If there’s anything that I brought to fashion, it’s making a woman feel like a woman — whether she’s a size 4 or a size 16.

WWD: Do you think that with your philanthropy, your travels and your cultural scope, you’ve taken your eye off the fashion ball?

D.K.: Not at all. What I can do in a minute, most people take a week to do. I just do it faster and quicker. I see it very quickly and you don’t want me around because then I can labor over it. You can overanalyze something or you can move through it. I come in and in five minutes, I can analyze it.

WWD: How do you make sure that you’re evolving as a designer?

D.K.: The biggest lesson came from doing men’s wear because your eye looks at the miniscule details…it’s fabric, it’s color, it’s how you take a smorgasbord and put it together and proportion it. I always know that I want to evolve. I know what I get bored wearing. I know I get bored not showing. I know when I want to explore something new that I haven’t done, I’m inspired. Thank God for inspiration. Inspiration has always been my lead. Vision and inspiration. I saw something my friend [photographer and filmmaker] Steven Sebring did at the Armory. We talked about a collaboration. He came up with an idea, this film concept that I went, “Oh my God, that is me!” We’re filming it tomorrow.

WWD: Is this for the anniversary?

D.K.: I thought, “Oh my God. If this isn’t me, I don’t know what is.” It was a woman in motion. It showed the body, motion, and emotion. It was large, big.…I said, “Why don’t we do it for our show?”

WWD: So what are the plans for anniversary?

D.K.: You know what? I never know what’s going down the runway until the night before the show.

WWD: But there will be a video. Are there other components?

D.K.: No. It’s going to be a real fashion show.

WWD: What are you most proud of? Is it what you said that most women can feel wonderful in your clothes?

D.K.: I like my clothes. I have something to wear.

WWD: You don’t wear other people’s clothes, do you?

D.K.: I love other fashion.

WWD: Who?

D.K.: Whose clothes? Rick Owens. I went to Rick once and I asked him to do Donna Karan. It was kind of weird. I walked in and thought that it looked more like me than me.

WWD: Who else?

D.K.: Hedi Slimane. Yohji. Comme. Dover Street is brilliant. It’s everything I believe in. My dream store is multiple designers and art.

WWD: Do you like what Hedi is doing at Saint Laurent?

D.K.: Some. I respect his gumption. I respect the fact that he wants to take this brand and do it. I think some of it is really good and his tailoring is excellent. He does excellent tailoring.

WWD: In terms of your work, what’s most important to you right now?

D.K.: [The idea of] bringing a soulful economy to the consumer as a movement. It’s like, what is the next step after organic? It’s putting the artist back into the product and being able to say that there is an artisan hand that went into it. There’s a soul that thought about it, and it’s not just a machine. Now, the machine can be soulful, too, if the surroundings are soulful.

WWD: Is it risky projecting human qualities into clothes, soulfulness, for instance?

D.K.: It’s that you have compassion and you care about it. What Toms Shoes has done. What Maiyet has explored. We all know there is a developing world. There is a problematic world out there. A solution to [poverty] is giving these people jobs. By nature, they are creative because there is nothing else. They are naturally creative. I look at Bally — Bally is my inspiration. Bally has bamboo schools and it’s got the Hilton Hotel. My biggest fear is losing our cultures. It’s not either/or for me, it’s “and.” I’ve been touched by culture. I’ve been inspired by it my whole life. Whether it’s the sky, the water, or the lights — it’s bigger than fashion.

WWD: How did the Donna Karan brand happen?

D.K.: Well, I had this little idea. I had this idea of what I wanted to do and what was missing in fashion. I bore me. This is going to be the most boring article.

WWD: But you wanted to do it within with Anne Klein and were told no?

D.K.: Yes, they threw me out of the Anne Klein Co.

WWD: But they backed you.

D.K.: They said, “Would you rather go with us or go on your own?” I was traumatized. I said, “But I’m Anne Klein — I designed Anne Klein longer than Anne Klein.” That was weird. It’s like today; they still think Calvin is Calvin.

WWD: Who are “they”?

D.K.: The consumer. My yoga teacher, she didn’t know Calvin wasn’t designing.

WWD: Despite the endless media coverage, not everyone lives and dies over the comings and goings of fashion.

D.K.: I know that. This industry needs to learn a little something. The industry can be so powerful. You want to know what excites me? The potential that this industry hasn’t even touched upon — what its opportunity is. There are problems in this industry that can be fixed just like that. It’s not nuclear science.

WWD: What can be fixed just like that?

D.K.: Really simple. Do not deliver fall until September.

WWD: It can be fixed “like that” only if everyone shifts to your point of view.

D.K.: Helmut [Lang] switches the calendar. I almost died. Today, I could almost kill him for it.

WWD: That was a particular moment in time. Given his “outsider” status, Helmut was probably the only person who could have made that change alone. Everyone else followed because it felt right.

D.K.: Personally, I didn’t want to do it. Forget the business side. I know the difficulty that we have as American designers. To get what we need is literally almost impossible. We’re shortchanged; there is no question about it. In the long run, we can’t get the fabrics, the shoes, etc. We can’t get what we need because of the Christmas holiday. Let’s get clear on the availability, what there is to do and the time there is to do it. I think that American designers accomplish brilliance relative to what their time scope is. We’re using European fabrics and European manufacturers — they don’t go back to work until January. It’s a bitch.

WWD: But you make it work.

D.K.: I’m telling you that it could work for a 35-piece collection. If it was like the old days, where we had to do these larger collections —

WWD: You do the pre-seasons.

D.K.: That’s a bitch, too. You think it’s easy to do these little collections? The fabrics aren’t ready…

WWD: I don’t think it’s easy.

D.K.: What I’m saying is that we’re not showing you the latest fabrics. You’re not seeing the newest fabrics and you’re not seeing the new anything. That’s why Europeans wait; they wait until they get their fabrics. It all starts with yarn and fabrication. I can sit until I’m deathly blue in my face, but if the fabric is not available, I’m not going to get it.

WWD: LVMH bought your company for $600 million. Did the money change you?

D.K.: No. That’s the weird part of it. People say to me, “You’re Donna Karan?” If people are really surprised that I am who I am, I have never been affected. I appreciate it. Do not [misunderstand]; the things I have been able to create — could I have done it without that money? No. There is no way. Could I have done Urban Zen? No. Would I have appreciated if it was part of Donna Karan? Absolutely.

WWD: You would prefer Urban Zen to be part of the Donna Karan company?

D.K.: I would prefer it to be together. [The money] allowed me to do it, to build a dream. But, would I prefer it to be a part of Donna Karan? Absolutely.

WWD: Why?

D.K.: I find it very bifurcating. I’d like us all to be on the same page. I’m one person. I like the totality of who I am. I don’t want to have to talk to you about Urban Zen and Donna Karan. To me, I’m all one person; it’s very hard for me to talk about me as two people. I find that very complicated.

WWD: You talked about the time you have to do things. What else do you want to do?

D.K.: My dream is to build a center of change, a community of change. Where people come together who want to create change à la a soulful economy, à la, “we have a problem with health care right now” — I want to solve that problem. On a philanthropic base, I want to build yoga. I feel strongly about it. That’s really something that I can do with my eyes closed. I have a dream. I do have a dream.

WWD: Tell me more.

D.K.: It’s a dream where life does not separate itself from fashion, from living, or from anything else like that, but to realize it in a holistic way. It’s really the final connection of the dots. I want to build a hotel condominium. I want to build a spa. I want to build a center of change. At Urban Zen, downtown. I need more buildings, but I have a whole dream.

WWD: Are you looking for investors?

D.K.: I’m looking for partners in crime — people of like mind who want to join this movement. It’s a movement to say, “OK, philanthropy and commerce, a soulful economy…” It’s people who really eat it, sleep it, breathe it and drink it, like what Carla Sozzani is doing now in Africa. It’s people who are engaged. In Haiti, there’s a community of people who cared. Now, I have West Elm coming down to Haiti, which is really amazing. They’ve made a huge commitment. Toms Shoes is building a factory.…The reason that I keep saying it’s Haiti is because it’s only three hours away and it’s easy to get to. Yes, I want to go to Africa. Yes, I want to go to India. I went to India and I went, “Oh my God.” My soul was in the block printing, the hand-printing and seeing as a designer the endless possibilities of what I haven’t even begun to touch.

WWD: Does Donna the philanthropist ever trump Donna the designer?

D.K.: No. Never. The designer helps the philanthropist because a designer is able to give that into philanthropy. It’s not either/or for me. It never has been. Look what happened with Seventh on Sale. It was, “here’s a problem, and here’s a solution.” Super Saturday. Ovarian cancer — no one knew about it. Let’s take fashion and philanthropy and put it together. I haven’t thought about this today. This is not a new idea. This is who I am.

WWD: Do you have favorite collections?

D.K.: There are bits and pieces of each one that I really love, and you’ll see it.

WWD: So is this show a retrospective?

D.K.: No, but it will take into [consideration] the point that [some things] are as good today as back then. I’m not doing it as a retrospective. This time I’m starting backwards, with the evening.

WWD: Why?

D.K.: Because of the shoot we’re doing tomorrow.

WWD: Is the shoot evening-centric?

D.K.: It’s movement-centric. Volume-centric. It’s fabrics. It’s going to be about really celebrating New York.

WWD: Why do you always end your show notes with “to be continued…”?

D.K.: I always put “the end” on it, and [Patti Cohen] keeps putting “to be continued.” It’s never-ending.

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